Sunday, April 12, 2015

Open and Affirming at The Dover Church

Open and Affirming at The Dover Church

We are here this morning to talk about what kind of church we have been, what kind of church we are, and what kind of church we are going to be
The words we are using are Open and Affirming
why we're having this conversation grew out of two impeti
the words welcoming community in our church catch phrase - welcoming community of faith and service since 1762 - do we really mean everyone?
our parent denomination United Church of Christ - since 1985 - extravagant, all inclusive without exception welcome - UUA welcoming congregations - means the same thing - about gay, lesbian, etc., because traditionally ostracized and demonized by churches and church folks
Motion raised at Annual Meeting in January to clear this up after 10 years of tabling it
Want to do several things in this sermon
Open and Affirming is our DNA
Open and Affirming has been your experience
Open and Affirming is our deepest held communal conviction and aspiration
What's going to happen?
What will it mean?
How will it live out? What will change?
What's in it for us? Or, and here comes my enthusiasm for this - how much more awesome this is going to make our life together in this church
Open is our congregational heritage on both sides - our DNA
non creedal - no set of beliefs we have to agree to
covenant - agree to promises - to God, to each other
everyone who can make these promises is welcome
truth be told - don't even have to make the promises, just can't try to keep the promise keepers from trying to live into their promises
The Dover Church - 1938 merger of Unitarians and Trinitarians - name has neither taking precedence - openness to others and affirming of difference
covenant makes us Christian, not necessarily Trinitarian - certainly far from Unitarianism now
community church - Walter Kraft - different forms of Protestant worship every week so that everyone would feel welcome
UCC - denomination we are member of - UUA - denomination who helped shape us
both seeking to hear how God is speaking in new ways to the ever evolving context of each new generation
treasure tradition, but not bound by it
both forefront of welcome
first in ordaining people who were not white, heterosexual men: women, African Americans, other ethnicities who left ethnic churches to be with us, gays, lesbians, firsts on all counts
all who feel called by God to Christian ministry who are affirmed by local churches and associations as possessing the gifts necessary for such ministry
Welcoming Community
Deacons discussion and survey - this is both who we are, who we want to be, and who we are trying to be
this is most important to most people
what drew you here, what you found here, what you treasure about here
prioritize warm welcome, acceptance and inclusion over any faith stance
this is our faith stance - the affirming part - spiritual DNA
God of love - big embrace - inclusive embrace
this is the God we worship - this is our theologyzA
with this initiative - we are adopting the position denominational rubric - that is recognized by insiders and outsiders as a church of extravagant welcome to everyone and treasuring everyone, without exception, just as we are
what's going to happen?
conversation opportunities
Council form a writing team - statement - words for what our form of ONA will live and look like - volunteers?
review and ultimately approve by Deacons and Council
present to congregation for discussion, possible revision, ultimate approval
then we will be ONA and it will be in our documents, website, and I'll come back to the rainbow out front in a  moment
What will it mean?
Isn't this who we already are?
If it is, then why can't we just say so? I think so, but we have to agree and then we will say so emphatically so people outside these walls can hear it - maybe in our secret hearts, but there's always talk about "some people who might object"
why emphatic?
Community Christian Church - says everything without saying anything
plenty of Christian Community Churches who are leading the persecution, demeaning and exclusion of non-heterosexual people
the flag or something on our sign, website, publications
not us. not here. no way - We are the YES church
go by Eliot church in South Natick coming from Wellesley - very decorous rainbow
Will we become the gay church?
will people move from Ptown, Northampton, San Francisco to be with us
ONA churches already in Natick, Needham, Wellesley, Holliston, Norwood, Milton, Newton
might come from Medfield or sherborn where no ONA churches
story of Tivin
what church wouldn't want new members who just love the church what welcomed their family and affirmed their kids? Those people are going to make this church fly
Will we start teaching homosexuality?
keep trying to teach Jesus, who never said a word about homosexuality or gender identity, except to lift up outsiders and teach love
Next minister gay or lesbian? Not that I plan to go anywhere soon,  but the odds are yes if you want the best candidate, best preacher, most caring, lot of my most gifted colleagues have different kinds of families from mine
what's going to change in how we do church?
we're going to have be more overtly welcoming of absolutely everyone
good for us reserved, uptight Yankees
traditional model - newbies get with our program - shoe horn them in where needed - see what gifts they bring and watch what new thing God is doing in our midst through them
perfect spiritual remedy for the perfectionism of our community
success to afford a house here
beauty and charisma to be popular here
wealth and connection to join clubs
intelligence and hard work for kids at school
athleticism to make the A team
we can loosen our ties and bodices and just try to breath and be who we really are - no judgments - long way to go on this one, but this will make this agenda item 1
might save some teenagers life and his or her relationship with parents - big cause of suicide, self destructive behavior, alienation, homelessness, broken families
In the end, it all comes down to real people, just like us - trying to live into Jesus' commandment that we love one another without distinction
go out on a limb
who knows someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered?
please rise if you love this person
say his or her name

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Easter and Failure


Easter Sermon

1.       Traditional Christianity as practiced in the US would have fascinated Jesus
2.     misses 90% of the goodness of the Good News
3.     spend a lot of our time confessing our failures and shortcomings
1.       didn't do this
2.     hadn't done that
3.     don't think this
4.     not loving them
5.     sorry, sorry, sorry - feel like we'll never live up - God's hope for us unattainable - God's love, experience of God's love unattainable
4.     that all may be true, but that's not even close to half the truth
1.       not what we really think and feel
2.     at least it's not what I think and feel
5.     We certainly fall short at our end of the bargain, but it sure looks like God fails too
1.       all the sickness and violence, accidents and tragedy, broken relations and betrayed love, oppression and addiction, falsehood and futility, death
2.     Hitler and the Holocaust, ISIS, Boko Haram
3.     why don't you do something, God? Almighty, my eye!
1.       funny how we want an almighty God for the bad stuff, but not to keep us from doing what we want, thinking what we want
4.     Are you even there?
5.     Big loser
6.     Big faker
7.      all your big promises and this is what we get?
8.     what's good about that? I mean, taken on average?
6.     Easter begins with the truth - mutual failure - humanity failed God and God failed humanity - it didn't seem like it. It was it. we both failed
1.       humanity killed the Messiah - the whole "died for our sins" thing - we probably would have done the same thing in their shoes
2.     the Messiah ...died
7.      Easter started off not going to see the Resurrection - going to see a dead body - failure and futility
1.       who will roll the huge stone away for us? failure - obstacle
2.     just another this is how it always ends...except it wasn't supposed to this time
3.     except it did, again, big faker
8.     If they had found a body there, Jesus' body in the tomb where they saw them place it. Jesus' crucified body - if no Resurrection - total failure and futility, no point to Jesus - plenty of compassionate,moral and ethical teachers in the world
1.       the body in the tomb would have been proof of human and divine failure. would have been conviction of human and divine failure
9.     James Carrol's Christ Actually: The Son of God for a Secular Age
1.       The solidarity of the commonwealth of God is the mutuality of failure forgiven
2.     Easter is mutuality of failure forgiven
3.     no resurrection - no forgiveness - God hadn't forgiven us our failures and we wouldn't forgive God God's failures
10.  In spite of everything - God believes in us. God not staying dead is God's vote of confidence in us  don't stay dead or dying - get up
1.       power of the resurrection which we see all around us
2.     in spite of everything, let's go
3.     in spite of everything, people living in the love of God, living the love of God, loving the love God
11.    In spite of everything, we believe in God
1.       approached, stumbled into, awoken to, just noticed the presence
2.     felt the power, seen the power in others, heard about the power in others
3.     followed the compass
4.     bathed in the comfort
5.     looked to the hope
6.     the very fact that we want to believe is the power of the Resurrection
12.  here is where the truest part of Mark's Resurrectuon story comes
1.       what do the women do when they realize what has happened?
2.     they are terrified and run away
3.     we would have done the same thing
4.     we do the same thing
5.     the question is which way do you run
13.  This all sounds nice, hypothetical, yet another Easter sermon, we don't have run away, we can sort of just move on
14.  Except it's not hypothetical - can't run away, not really
15.  My baby sister died yesterday morning. Turned 45 on March 25. Got a new knee last Wednesday and something went wrong - aneurism maybe
16.  Kirsten's death at 45 looks like a failure, for her, for God
17.   Her life an incredible story of failure and resurrection, over and over life knocked her down and tried to bury her, she got up, she believed
18.  So, every Easter, we ask ourselves hypothetcially, rhetorically, boastfully becasue we're all alive here, "Where, O death is they sting?"
19.  Oh, it's still there. The sting still stings. My heart is broken. I spent yesterday afternoon visiting with my parents to tell them their baby had died.
20. Those of you who have been where I am know - life can feel unreal. The most real times feel the most unreal - like the Easter story
21.  But I know this is not the end. Because Jesus is risen, Kirsten got up all the days of her life. Because Jeu is risen I can get up. Because he got up, we can get up.
the question is which way do we run, away from death and futility, or towards life in the Gallilees of our lives. The Resurrection makes

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dover Sherborn Baccalaureate Message

Believe it or not, I can still remember clearly what it was like being me thirty three years ago when I was who you are right now.
I remember, for example, that I had three very clear goals for college in the fall. What I didn't realize at the time was that my three goals were mutually exclusive - if I really succeeded at any one of them, I would probably be unable to succeed at the other two.
My first goal, and I say first because it was the clearest, it was the one I thought I knew most exactly how to achieve, my first goal was to make the rowing team, win the national championship, and maybe make the Olympic Team. Like I said, having rowed in high school I thought I knew what it would take to achieve this goal.
My second goal was to do well in school. This came second because I knew I didn't really know what I was in for with college studies, or even to be honest why I wanted to do well. My motivation started out as external, to please my parents or to keep them off my back, depending on how rebellious I felt on any given day, but it became more personal as I went along, when I found a subject I loved and wanted do well badly enough so that I would to be able to keep doing it in graduate school and beyond.
So, #1  being a rowing superhero. #2 be a good student. You can probably guess what #3 was. My #3 was #3 because I couldn't actually say it aloud in front of my parents. They only knew about #s 1 and 2, and not in that order. Goal #3 - I wanted to go to college and have a blast, go to every party I could find on campus. To quote Rob Gronkowski, "Yo soy fiesta" was going to be my motto. I was a very busy bee who wanted to suck every last drop of nectar out of life.
Like I said, mutually exclusive goals - success at one would seem to exclude success at the others. Academic excellence is hard to achieve when you have exercised strenuously for 4 hours, starting at 5 in the morning, and vice versa. And, of course, partying promotes neither physical fitness nor academic achievement.
In the end, I made the team but didn't win the championship and was smoked at the national tryouts. It wasn't the subject I majored in as a freshman, but I fell in love with a subject which took me on a knowledge adventure for the next two decades and lead into the one that continues to this day as I thrill at learning more and more about new things. And the parties, well...yes...yo fui fiesta, and it was fun.
But this isn't about me. It's about you. And this is what I think you can put in the backpacks of your mind and bring with you on your journey. All the things I thought my goals were about weren't actually what they were about. What I thought were the ends were actually only the means to much bigger ends. The rowing was actually about the value and joy of teamwork, hard work, exploring limits, delighting in the physicality of life, never quitting, and finding some of my best friends for life. The studies became my way of life. A day without some new knowledge feels desolate and I try to learn something new and big every year. And the parties were about friendships, relationships, enjoying life, particularly the present moment. But I didn't realize any of this while I was living it because I wasn't paying attention because I was running so hard to the goals I set out before me on the horizon. But most importantly, I now know I didn't see because I was trying to go it alone, the rugged individualist. I didn't have anyone, a mentor, to show me as you can see now that my goals weren't mutually exclusive. They were all parts of who my soul longed to become.
  Live your lives. Don't let them live you. You are setting out on a grand adventure and there will be many forks in the road. Don't take anything for granted or see anything as meaningless. Whatever or whoever it is may well be the moment of a new beginning or a the turn down a new path. Your life has meaning and purpose. Right now, each and every one of you has someone waiting for you out there, a mentor who is going to show you how to be you, your Obi-Wan, your Yoda, your Merlin or Gandalf, your special person who is going to introduce you to the meaning and purpose of your life, the same way your parents and coaches, your teachers and spiritual leaders, your scout and youth leaders have up to this point. It may be a professor or a priest, an advisor or a coach, a rabbi or an older student, a boss or someone you meet along the way, but she or he is waiting for you. Don't sweat it if she or he doesn't materialize at orientation. He or she will when the time is right. And in the meantime, all of us here at home will be wishing you well, praying for you, and being ready to celebrate and welcome you when you return.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Futility of Idolatry

Acts 17

So a Jews for Jesus evangelist walks into a bar full of Greeks. Of course, you already know that the Jews for Jesus evangelist was the Apostle Paul and that the bar full of Greeks wasn't even a taverna in Athens, but the place for public debate, the Areopagus. But it was too good an opening to pass up.
The Greeks gathered at the Areopagus were a highly educated bunch who loved to discuss and argue theology, philosophy, and politics, which, in their understanding of these terms, was largely one and the same thing. From that perspective, the Athenians were very religious folks,  just like most of the folks here in Dover.
"Wait a second! How can he think that people here in Dover are very religious when such a small percentage come to church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, even on high holidays?" you may be asking yourselves.
Well, Paul said so himself in this morning's lesson, and I agree for the simple reason that both he and I think of religiosity as the behavior of people who believe strongly in something, people who are passionate about what they believe and pour themselves into it, body, mind and soul, people who want to believe strongly in something and therefore ask a lot of critical questions as they seek to find their way into a sustainable and defensible belief system. Seen in that light, you can see how very religious our neighbors truly are. Even the ones who profess a total disbelief in religion of any kind, do so very religiously. They may not be churchy or Christian by any stretch of the imagination, but their religiosity often exceeds that of many who profess an organized religion.
Anyway, in walks Paul and starts talking theology with Nick the Epicurean, Pete the Stoic, George the Platonist, and John the Academic. Epicureans like Nick were materialists who believed that the gods were distant, unintelligible, unreacheable, and that life was about finding pleasure in a modest life through wisdom and curtailing desires. Stoics like Pete believed that the gods were all around us and within us and life was about controlling emotions and developing virtue to guard against destructive behavior and errors in judgment. Platonists and Academics like George and John believed in bits and pieces of what Nick and Pete believed, but they were generally skeptical that there was enough evidence for us to tell whether gods even exist or not, and, if they do, what, if anything, they want from us.
Sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it? The sort of thoughts that pass through our minds from time to time, the very things our non churchy neighbors will say about why they don't like organized religion. On top of this, however, these Greeks mostly fell into one of two categories, what a scholar named N.T. Wright has called "closed agnostics" and "open agnostics." Agnostic means "not knowing" and it most commonly applies to not knowing God, but a person can be agnostic about just about anything. Closed agnostics admitted they didn't know about God, but they brought sacrificial offerings and did their ritual praying anyways, just in case, to cover their bases. Open agnostics also admitted their lack of knowing, but they were open to finding out, open to connecting, hoping to find out and connect, even when nothing seems to be happening. They were, and are, open to the possibility. You can decide which approach you find more rational or irrational.
Still very familiar and plausible, isn't it? This could be us. This is us. Into this taverna walks Paul with his "new teaching," a new teaching being a bad thing in a place that honored tradition, this new teaching about Christ and the Resurrection. Even though they admitted they didn't know about their gods and practices, they still liked what they knew. And Paul cuts right to the quick, then and now, for I would argue that Christ and the Resurrection are as new teachings today in our town full of religious idolatry as Athens was 2000 years ago. Paul wades in on this "unknown god" people worshipped and the ignorance around the religiosity of Athens. By ignorance, he was not being condescending or insulting, merely pointing out the fact that these folks didn't know. They were groping in the dark and they knew they were.
which is the same today with all of us with all our idols. We worship them religiously, as in passionately, as in body and soul, as in devoting our critical intelligence to them, even though we don't know. Actually, that's not true. We do know that our idols cannot deliver what we hope they can, that they are all futile. We it because our gods make us anxious and fearful...why don't they deliver?
Take Aphrodite: youth, sexuality, eros, a common idol throughout human history. She is alive and well in our culture, but we know we're all going to get old and disinterested and ultimately die at some point. And yet, our worship of youth, sexuality and eros is huge. Or how about Fortuna, the god of wealth, success and achievement? Isn't that "the" religion of our culture? We strive, work longer hours, study and network, achieve much, earn more, but we all know that we'll never know when it's enough, let alone that we can't take it with us. Or how about Mars, the god of power and and militarism? Our leaders talk about our country becoming impregnable, totally unassailable, the dominating leader, and that finally, we will be safe. They just have to spy on us and torture and assassinate people. We spend a huge proportion of our nation's wealth on this religion. We get angry when anyone questions this religion. And yet, we know that every war has lead to the next, that power begets rivalry, that nothing can subdue the will of the individual. Just ask the British, the French, the Spanish, the Arabs, the Romans, the Greeks, the Macedonians, the Persians, Medes, Babylonians, Egyptians, or any other society that worshipped this god and now is either very diminished or is a pile of fallen down temples of power.
So a Jews for Jesus evangelist walks into a bar full of Greeks and says, "The joke's on you. All this energy and enthusiasm and devotion is misspent. You say you don't know about God, but I say you can, that God has revealed himself to us in the person in Jesus. We can know what God is like, what God desires from us, and where God is headed with the whole shebang. And what's more, with Jesus' Resurrection, God has set us free from fear of death because we will not end in futility as our devotion our idols does, but also because Jesus' Resurrection is God's first move in the judgment of all creation, the process in which God sets right everything that has gone wrong.
This is why it's called the Good News of Jesus Christ. My friends, just like the Athenians of old, we are  deeply religious and passionately devoted to our gods. The first step towards salvation is recognizing our delusion and the ultimate futility of our ways, and then start allowing God in Jesus Christ to redirect all of our passion towards the very foundation of our being.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Boko Haram and Mother's Day

Mother’s Day Sermon

The Acts of the Apostles is one of our primary windows on the first generation church, the church even before they were calling themselves Christians. The apostles referred to themselves as “the Way,” the way of following Jesus and being like Jesus, which is at the center of our covenant still today.
Both the Dover Church and the United Church of Christ, the denomination we are part of, fall into what is known as the Reformed Protestant branch of the Christian tree. Reformed Protestantism is one of the traditions that broke with the papal hierarchy in Rome in the 16th century over questions of theology, church practice and governance, and scriptural interpretation. That's the Protestant part. We also believe that every generation is a reformation generation, that each generation has something new to learn in God's word, a new way of being as the social and cultural settings in which we find ourselves evolve. That's the reformed part. We are the reformed church that is always reforming. While we value tradition, continuity, and sound teaching like other Christian traditions, we seek to see those things with fresh eyes and reinterpret them in live giving ways in the paths of life in which we find ourselves.
To some people, this might sound like a recipe for chaos, heresy and schismatic idiosyncrasy. Done according to the original intent however, we always and only move forward by looking back, back to the Bible and our beginnings. We don't make things up out of thin air or from something we saw on TV. We turn to sources like The Acts of the Apostles, for example, for guidance about how to be church. The circumstances are quite different, but the emphases, the important main points, are universal and eternally relevant.
In this morning’s lesson, Luke, who wrote both the gospel bearing his name and Acts, gives us what have come to be known as the four marks of the church – the four things that church if it is truly being church – does. As Reformed Protestants, we believe that God invites to think about these four marks and figure out how we are going to do them as the church in this time, in this place, with this gathering of saints. The marks, as you just heard are 1) diligent attention and study of the apostle’s teaching; 2) fellowship; 3) breaking of the bread – observation of the sacrament of communion; and 4) prayer. As you also heard in our reading, out of this way of being church flowed an outpouring of loving service to neighbors and an energy which drew outsiders to want to join.
Sometimes the obvious needs to be pointed out or we miss seeing the forest for the trees as the saying goes. Well, the name of the book about the first generation church, the name of the book we Reformed Protestants take most seriously as our inspiration and guide for being the church in this place at this time, was called the Acts of the Apostles. Luke didn't call it the Meetinghouse of the Apostles, the Order of Worship of the Apostles, or anything else of the Apostles. This book about being the church is a story of what the church did, specifically "the wonders and signs" the apostles were doing that amazed their neighbors, as a result of the Bible Study and prayer, the fellowship and life sharing, the worship and inspiration. If we, Reformed Protestants that we are, seek to be the church according to the original apostles' intent, and we worship here, learn about God in Jesus here, become good friends here, draw close to God and each other here, and that's it, we are missing the point. The church came together to serve the world.
A case in point. Hundreds of girls were kidnapped by religiously motivated extremists in northern Nigeria, who later this week shot and burned up another neighboring village, killing hundreds more people. I refuse to call Boko Haram Islamist militants, because no mainstream Muslim would call their violence religious at all. Even Al Qaeda distances itself from Boko Haram. Their religion is bad religion, about death and violence rather than life and love.
The truth which many of you may already know is that women and girls live in situations ranging from extreme peril in many developing countries to relatively limited opportunity compared with boys in countries like ours. I’m not going to go into statistics about rape, sex trafficking, honor killings, infanticide, exclusion from education. Nor am I going to point out how women here in the US do not earn equal wages, do not have equal political access or power, are excluded from religious leadership in many traditions, and live in a culture of sexual harassment, assault and rape on our college campuses and in the mlitary. The hard truth is much of the violence, discrimination and devaluation of women and girls in our world is religiously motivated. People misreading or selectively reading their sacred texts and then believing that God created women less than men and to be abused.
"that's not us," you might say. If it's not us, we need to say so, loudly, and explain why it's not us, why our faith abhors these things, and then do things to promote our faith based view of women and girls. If we do nothing and say nothing, not only do we allow the lunatic religious folks to hold the floor, but we also encourage people to think that maybe we think the same things, but are only too polite to say so publicly.
Our Bible lesson tells us that the apostles did amazing things because of their prayer and worship, their bible study and fellowship. Reformed Protestant churches like ours helped stopped slavery, worked to emancipate women, stood up with minorities for civil rights, and every cause that is consonant with a diligent study of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. I strongly encourage you to dig into women and girls issues, read a book called Half the Sky which Marie-Laure presented to you a couple of years ago. Half the Sky describes both the problems and the transformative work being done around the world. I have 20 copies with me this morning if you want to start today. Go to the Half the Sky web site, the address is in the announcements, and find organizations that are working against sex trafficking, forced prostitution, sweatshop labor, promoting education, violence against women and girls in the US, and support them. That would be something worth doing this Mother’s day.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Opening Our Eyes - The road to Emmaus

Opening Our Eyes

Many years ago now, I was a chaplain intern at the Brigham and Women's hospital. There were several of us in the program: myself, a Unitarian, a reformed Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest from West Africa, and a Pentecostal minister from Ghana. Talk about theological and temperamental diversity. I really enjoyed our conversations in which we shared our faith and compared our differences.
I particularly remember one conversation I had with Abraham, the Pentecostal minister from Ghana. In case you don't know what Pentecostalism is, it's about the Holy Spirit, praying in tongues, worship that is very enthusiastic and demonstrative and can go on for hours, "as long as the Spirit moves them" as we say. I was serving a Congregational church in Quincy at the time and I was curious how other people lead worship, so I asked Abraham, "how do you preach?"
Abraham smiled at me, thumped the table with his hand as he said, "I always rebuke them, Max. Before we get to salvation and the hope, I must rebuke them." Abraham thumped his hand on the table with every main point: rebuke, salvation, hope, rebuke, them.
"Really," I said. "And your people like being rebuked?"
"Of course they don't like it, Max." Thump, thump, big smile. "But they know it's true. I am responsible for their souls and I rebuke them because I love them." Thump.
"I'd be interested to see how that would over at my church sometime. My folks might enjoy the novelty, but as a strategy for long term success in a New England Congregational church...well, that would be a novelty. Rebuke usually works the other way round in the Congregational church."
We both laughed and as we were both too busy to ever come to each others' churches, I never found out how a Pentecostal rebuke would have gone over a Houghs Neck Congregational church. And yet, there are times when our Sunday lesson can only be rebuke, not all that sharp or even disapproving, but a criticism nonetheless of how far we are from where we are called to be.
This morning's lesson is a perfect example. It is perhaps my favorite Easter story because it so rich in detail and earthy in feel. Think about Easter for a moment, just three weeks ago many of us were on a spiritual high. On successive Sundays, we had the Faure Requiem, the Easter Pageant on Palm Sunday, and the Easter services, with the very moving Mandy Thursday and Good Friday services in between. If you participated in those worship services, you might have felt like Cleopas and the unnamed companion, that something new was happening, that new spiritual fulfillment was at hand, and then our hopes were dashed. The week of school vacation might have sustained the Easter buzz, but then came the grind of reality: work, school, sports, bills, competing priorities, conflict, and all the rest.
All of us fall off the edge of Easter every year. This morning, Luke gives us a recipe, a method, to keep living Easter, the Resurrection, except it doesn't sound like good news at all in the middle of our hectic, over scheduled, high expectation lives. It's really many of our ideas of a bad dream. A rebuke. Imagine going for a walk with a friend, which we can imagine, and you're talking about faith, which might be harder to imagine for many of us, and some stranger shows up and starts answering all your faith questions, leads you through a Bible Study. Twilight zone, right? And then, rather than brushing him off and walking away, you take the time while walking to talk about your faith. You stop for a meal together, a meal which has the feel of communion, enough so that we say it is a special meal of spiritual significance - our eyes are opened to Jesus with us.
And that is our challenge. Like the disciples, our eyes don't see. Why? Well, when you have exactly 4 hours and 23 minutes of unscheduled free time in a good week to recover and get ready for the next week, it's hard enough to get to church let alone fit in a small group. When you jump out of a plane, you know you're going to fall, really fast, and when you land and roll up your chute, you know you are going to have had an experience. The same is true about taking a nap in a hammock. Getting together with a faith group to read the bible and pray! well who knows what will happen? And if something does happen, it's going to take time, like longer than it takes to skydive from 6,000 feet, or to fall asleep in a hammock. And since we have never done faith groups before, the whole thing strikes us as slightly to very preposterous.
And yet, many of you here have had your hearts warmed by God in Jesus Christ at one time or another. Many of you here have told me of your desire to grow closer to God, to strengthen your spirits, to grow in love, to live a more balanced life, to find answers to your questions. The good news is that it's all possible. Jesus is just waiting for you to invite Him to join you. The bad news is you have to walk the walk down the path of faith for a while and you have to spend time opening your mind to God's word in scripture, spend time talking about and discussing the thorny questions with friends whom you can trust to share this intimacy, you have to have spiritual friends, this has never been done alone, you have to spend time together breaking bread in Jesus' name and spirit. You have to welcome him, invite him, run after him. In our survey, one of the main points which came up was a widespread desire for spiritual growth. Nothing could have warmed this pastor's heart more, but will you come out for the walk? Will you keep walking or break off for something else?
there you have it. Perhaps not a stinging rebuke, but a rebuke nonetheless. The good news is God in Jesus Christ invites us to grow in faith and relationship. The bad news is that the only thing standing between us and Christ is us! each of individually and all of us as we encourage each other to run here and there doing everything possible except feeding our souls and renewing our minds.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Faith and Doubt

I Doubt It The Dover Church
April 27, 2014 – Second Sunday of Easter Scripture: John 20:19-31

For about 1,500 years, from the time the Emperor Constantine became a Christian in 313 until quite recently, the way of Thomas, of doubt being a pathway to faith, has been peripheral in the church. Which is odd, considering how many Biblical stories are propelled by doubt, even on the Sunday after Easter where doubt is central to encountering God.
For 1,500 years, the church walked hand in glove with political power. The church was at the center of society and pillars of society were active in churches. You can see it right here in Dover, the church, the town hall, the bank, and commerce. Church leaders were the leaders in politics, business, education, art, music, literature, science, in every field of human endeavor. Christ was victorious. When we sang Easter hymns, we weren’t talking so much about victory over death as our institution having heavy influence in the course of events. We had won. That was taken for granted, not something you doubted.
In recent times, we have seen the rise of fundamentalism and biblical literalism, which, I think, is a response to the disestablishment of the church, the presence of other faith alternatives, the rise of modern critical thinking, and the possibility of living without a religious faith. When people could no longer take the church and Christianity for granted, then some people got scared, dug in deeper, and insisted that doubt was the enemy of faith.
And then there is the unique situation churches like ours. We are unique in that we do not teach our members a list of things we have to believe to be a member here. In days gone by at least, members of all the other churches around us could tell us exactly what they believed about just about everything. But not us. We have always been a non-credal church, which means we don't have one list of beliefs which everyone has to agree to believe in to be a member. Rather than have an authority telling us what to believe, we prefer to find our way in each generation as hear anew God's word and explore tradition. Unfortunately, what once was a finding our way has become a losing our way in many churches. Nowadays when you ask someone in a church like ours what she or he believes about this or that, the answer is usually preceded by a smile, and then, "oh, we're not like that here. You can believe whatever you want."
We like to think of ourselves as being in the intellectual branch of Christianity. John Douglas Hall, McGill professor of theology and UC-Canada and one of my favorite theologians, has called us a “thought-ful” tradition of Christianity. But can we honestly say that it doesn't matter what we believe is thoughtful or intellectually rigorous? I think we've gotten lazy or become fundamentalists about other things for fear of the church going away as so many have all around us, fundamentalist about the by laws and budget, about who's running which committee, about the color for the carpet, about the hymnal, or whether or not the church should take a stand on some important social issue irregardless of what Jesus had to say about it. But have the minister preach a sermon on the virgin birth, salvation by faith or works, prayer, damnation, the meaning of communion, or anything else that people used to and still are killing each other about in God's name, well, "what's the big deal? He can believe what he believe and I'll believe what I believe."
And yet, while we profess that, we still have a lot of verbiage going around which we honestly do doubt or disagree with, things we don't honestly understand or rub us the wrong way. We sing “Faith of our Fathers living still”, “God of our Fathers whose almighty hand”, the “King of Kings” in the Handel’s Messiah, the language of militant conquerors and kings. We talk about things like sin, redemption, confession, evangelism. And we don't give it another thought because it's tradition. But newcomers and outsiders don't know what we're talking about and when they do figure out what our words mean, they don't quite know what to make of us saying one thing and living another.
One of the reasons I became a minister was my desire to help people find a thoughtful, intellectually challenging and defensible, a living faith for the twenty-first century. I wanted to help bring the old New England churches I grew up in and love back to relevancy, to help communicate our take on the good news of Jesus Christ to a new generation of people who can't hear the good news through all the noise we babble that we don't believe ourselves, or what they hear in other churches which is not what we believe.
Before you get incensed that I am suggesting we throw out Christianity, I think you all know me to be a serious Christian practitioner and seeker. What I am saying is I think an exciting and vibrant way forward for us as a church is to become the "I doubt it" church, the church where people feel free to say "I don't know what that means but I don't like the sound of it." And we agree to dig into it, find our way forward, discover what truth is hidden there that tradition sought to hand on to us.
in my work with the confirmation class, we talk about what we believe and what we doubt. Often I find myself saying to a young person who says, "I don't believe this or that," "well neither do I." To which they'll often say, "but what about that song we sing all the time where it says "God is all powerful." Or "what about that story we hear every Christmas?" And then we dig in.
I would like us grown ups to start digging in to our doubts. I think doubt is actually the doorway to new insight and possibility. Thomas put his fingers right into his doubt and found substance. You might think that we cannot emulate Thomas because we live at a 2,000 year historical remove. I would disagree. I have spent the last quarter century figuring out exactly what it is I do doubt, because we didn't talk about doubts in church growing up. I usually knew I hit one when the easy faith answers didn't stack up, like God answers prayers but didn't the one time you really wanted him to for example. And when I can say what I doubt, then I begin putting my intellectual and spiritual fingers into it until I hit bone. Faith in our tradition is not primarily about “knowing the facts.” Rather, our faith is more of a challenge, an inherent challenge “to seek understanding,” as Anselm said. Our faith should give us the tools to grow in understanding. Not to arrive at full certainty, but to grow in understanding and love.
I have repeatedly invited you to share your doubts with me so that I might begin preaching them. Think about it and let me know. I'm sure many other share your doubts: original sin, the miracles, prayer, the truth of the bible, science and faith, by which we probably mean science and the stories of the bible, what Jesus really said about social and political issues whether we want to hear it or not, heaven and hell, is Christianity the only way, and so on. This is following the path of Thomas and living into the great gift of being a church that doesn't insist on a list of beliefs to belong.