Sermon: “Diamonds in the Rough”

Round brilliant polished diamonds.

Round brilliant polished diamonds.

Earlier this week, I came across a story about Swiss company that has pioneered a process resulting in a very particular kind of product.

It seems that, for a fairly significant sum, you can release the physical remains of a loved one, and have the body flown to Switzerland, where over a six month process, involving dignity and decorum at every stage, that body will be slowly transformed into an actual diamond.

They’ve been at it for a few years now and can report that there is most certainly a market for what they offer. People all over the world send inquiries, and they are currently looking to expand their facilities due to demand.

I learned also that many people go on to incorporate the diamond into a ring or some other piece of jewelry, which they genuinely prize as a treasure and a testament.

But you know, there are hiccups.

It turns out that whatever it is inside us that becomes a diamond has its own color, its own hue, and so there are times when the family receives their new diamond with great excitement, and they open the tasteful box, only to be immediately crushed by what they see.

Because instead of something the color of sunlight through water, sometimes the diamond is yellow or purple or smoky, and they take it hard.

They don’t see it as a revelation of what was in someone’s bones. They take it as a commentary on what was in her soul.

It is also hard to predict the size of the diamond, and when the diamond turns out to be quite small, some seem to feel that this is also an form of unkind spiritual commentary.

Happily, though, most are delighted, and those who are not seem to come around, eventually.

So…I’ve been thinking about this.

I will admit that it does not particularly speak to me.

But I do think that it speaks to something that most of us do feel.

I think it speaks to our hope that something of our goodness, something of our hopes and out benevolent intentions will shine throughout our lives.

We hope that the diamond that is inside us somewhere will be visible, at least to some.

And I think when you put it that way, the idea that when we die, someone will step forward with that diamond and hand it to our loved ones for their safekeeping, suddenly doesn’t seem quite so crazy.

It makes me think, also, about the rich young man in Mark’s gospel this morning.

He approaches Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, as Jesus and the disciples are slowly working their way toward Jesus’ own final confrontation with the powers of his world.

Nobody knows that, of course, except for Jesus, but I wonder if he doesn’t have it very much in mind.

There they are: the disciples and Jesus, walking along in their dusty jeans and t-shirts, engaging the people they’ve encountered in this whistle-stop of a place.  Then it all seems to freeze when the young man in the Bitter End Yacht Club cap and the fresh polo shirt expertly works his way to the front of the crowd to ask his question–his question about eternal life and what it takes to get one.

And there are some who say that what Jesus is doing is trying to take this preppy kid down a peg or two, but I’m not so sure.

I think part of it might just be that Jesus is thinking about eternal life a fair bit himself, just then, and so, truth be told, the question is a particularly good one.

Also hovering over their encounter is the young man’s hope–his utterly earnest hope–that somehow this rabbi in the dusty t-shirt will see the diamond that shines within him, and let him go forth from this encounter, not just a little bit more sure about his place in Heaven, but more sure of the person he is inside. More sure that his goodness, his hopes, his benevolent intentions are shining through.

We don’t know why he is worried that they might not be. The line between genuine humility and nagging insecurity is not always plain to the naked eye.

I mean, let’s be honest: isn’t there a part of you that so wants to meet this guy’s dad?

It is so hard to read this young man. And not just for us. I think it’s hard for the young man, himself, which is so much of the issue here.

Maybe that’s why he has come out on the road to find Jesus–Jesus, who seems to see below the surface, and into the very heart of things.

But he comes to ask his question at a strange and unsettled time.

Because what Jesus knows, what he really knows for sure just then, with Jerusalem ahead of him…what he knows for sure just then is that faith is not just a matter of claiming something, but a matter of letting go, too.

And the young man just isn’t ready to hear that.

Sometimes. we have to let things go in order to claim new and better things.

Sometimes, we hold onto the wrong things for all the right reasons, or the right things for all the wrong reasons, and it is only in learning to let go that what needs to happen or the good that might happen can finally happen.

The Apostle Paul speaks the truth when he says that the word of God is like a double edged sword that cleaves the joints from the marrow.

Letting go can sometimes feel that way, as if you’re being split in two.

And the more used to being in charge we are, the harder it can be to let go.

I have a dear friend who’s father was an 80s Wall Street guy, and he recently came across a box of old papers, and in the box was a folder of all the agendas that his father had prepared for their family vacations.

And what he found amazing was not only that his father had prepared agendas for their family vacations, but also, that he, as a young boy, had seen fit to file them in some kind of appropriate place.

Come to think of it, it would be interesting to get his take on the story of the rich young man, right?

But the more immediate question is, how is it that we can learn to let go in the moments when we need to?

How do we respond when God challenges us with the truth that letting go is the only way forward into the abundant life he promises we will find in him?

If you ask me, the hard thing about this story isn’t what it says about wealth. The hard thing is what it says about control.

And what it says is that if the brilliant diamond that is in us is truly going to shine at last, if we’re going to take on that new life that Jesus promises, then we will surely have to give up some things that are hard to give up–and by this, I don’t think he means merely giving up all of our possessions. He means something much harder: he means giving up some of our most cherished ways of being.

Do you remember that awful old t.v. show “Gilligan’s Island”?

Some of us do.

There was the millionaire. Thurston Howell III, who it seems wouldn’t even go on a three hour boat tour without carrying suitcases full of money just in case, but who now found himself just one of a group of castaways on a deserted island, and in fact, in that context, he had relatively little to offer.

If you watched the show regularly, you’ll remember that no matter how dire the circumstances, Mr. Howell found it hard enough to give up the money in those suitcases. But the real point, which was the ongoing joke about his character in the show, was that he couldn’t give up his old identity. He couldn’t give up his cherished ways of being.

And in this morning’s gospel, neither can the rich young man.

Giving up our control, our cherished ways of being, and seeing into the superficialities we cling to, is what Jesus is inviting the young man to do.  And it’s what he invites us to do.

That said, if we take its message to heart, it doesn’t take long to notice that while Jesus tells us what to do, he doesn’t tell us how.

Maybe this brief roadside encounter came too early.

After all, it came as Jesus was still wrestling, too…wrestling with how even he would find a way to honor God’s control above his own.

We know that later in the story, Jesus wrestled even in the Garden of Gethsemane itself, with the sound of Roman marching getting louder and louder every second.

Wrestling is an important part of faith. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

So in our story today, if there is no guidance as to the “how,” perhaps the point is that there is nothing as simple as one sure fire way to do it.

God is not looking for one kind of life, one kind of service, one kind of response to his Word.

Each of us has to seek God’s help to find our own way, our own life, our own understanding of how we are called to respond.

Each of us has to wrestle with our cherished ways of being and ask what use God wants to make of them.

We need to ask who it is that God is inviting us to be now…today.

For all the rich young man’s insecurities, that kind of wrestling is not his thing.

When push comes to shove, he is comfortable just where he is and just how he is, and what he’s come for, what he’s pushed his way forward to receive, is certainty. He wants a measure of confirmation. He wants to know that the love of God shines down on him.

It does. Jesus looked at him and loved him, says the text.

But in the very next breath, Jesus says that’s not enough.

It’s not enough because he challenge of faith is to ask how it is that the love of God shines through us.

Faith challenges us to live lives that point, not to us and what we have done, but to God, and to the ways he calls us to live.

Faith challenges us to give up anything that would get in the way of that kind of life.

Look to God, says Jesus, the one in whom all things are possible.

And as we learn to follow him, through his grace, our lives might even come to shine like diamonds.

From the Newsletter: “Learning to Breathe…and Pray”


When I was in high school, I became a serious student of meditation.

I know…it some respects, that hardly seems like me.  Actually, it seems even more amazing, in retrospect, that a school as thoroughly buttoned-down as mine was would have a weekly meditation group in the Academy Chapel.

Other rules that were rigorously enforced at that time included lights out by 10 p.m. for freshmen and sophomores, no “hot-pots” for in-room cooking, and, in the rare event that a girl visited your room during the literally three hours a week that “intervisitation” was permitted, the door was to be open between 60 and 90 degrees, lights on, and (most famously) “three feet on the floor at all times.”

Doesn’t sound like a place that would offer Zen Meditation on Friday nights, does it? But it did.

The practice became important to me. Maybe part of the appeal was precisely because it was so very different from the rhythms and the pressures of the school community and its ways.

In a place where people prided themselves on pulling all-nighters as a sign of dedication, it was so very different to be told to relax. To breathe. To let your mind wander.

The evening when Andrew Nugent came in, sat down, and promptly fell asleep, our teacher told us to not to wake him, because we needed to “honor his resting”—this was a very different way of thinking for me.

It was in my senior year that I came to see what I was doing as prayer. It was a sudden realization, in the middle of one of our Friday night meetings, and to be honest, I was not well prepared for it.

I had not started this whole thing with a religious quest particularly in mind, so I was bewildered to find myself in the middle of one. I was even more surprised to find myself connecting to the church language of my childhood—to Creation and its Creator, to the Holy Spirit, and, as it unfolded more fully in the following weeks, even to the teachings of Jesus. Church as I knew it had been more about blue blazers and penny loafers and making sure I wasn’t late for youth choir, and not so much about relaxing. The exotic words of Buddhist practice—sangha, dharma, zazen—were all much easier to drop in casual dining hall conversation at school than any Christian ones seemed likely to be.

But I knew in my heart that, in some way, at least, it was the Christian ones that were supposed to be mine. I knew also that, in my learning to breathe, in my wandering, and in my seeking for a way to live differently within a school community I loved, it was God’s vision for my life that I was after.

Later this month, we will begin offering Saturday morning Yoga in Fletcher Hall, in the hope that members of our church and the wider community might learn new ways to breathe, to relax, even to honor their own resting, here in this busy and ambitious place we call home. I don’t know that I am quite ready to grab my mat and get started—I think I’d need to do some remedial work first. But I am delighted to know that we are reaching out in this way, and I hope you will come, and that you will pass the word to anyone who might be interested.

Most of all, I love the thought of what might happen in the life of that first-time visitor, who comes to our church just for a little Saturday break, a little stretching, a little quiet time, a little deep breathing—who suddenly looks up one morning and realizes that she is seeking something else entirely, and that what she needs most is a way to connect to the God who is seeking her and each of us at every moment. And who realizes in the very next moment that she’s come to the right place to undertake that search.

However it is that you search, may you find, and find abundantly. Make sure you share it when you do.

See you in church,

From the Newsletter, “What We Have Words For…”

I’m not sure when I first heard my father’s maxim that, when it comes to car horns, “not all honks are equal.”

He has developed a personal lexicon, of sorts, to name many of the differences.

Someone ahead of you hasn’t noticed that the light has changed? “Give him a ‘little toot,’” my father will say.

If the truck in the right lane might not realize that you’re moving into its general footprint on the left, my father counsels, “Give ‘em a ‘hey, I’m here.’”

These are two of what he understands to be “short honks” — the kind you might also give when you drive by a friend you’ve spotted walking on a nearby sidewalk.

Then there are the “punitive honks.” Those are longer. More jarring. These are not about a genuine warning, or sense of urgency. They have names like “The Unh-uh,” “The Whoawhoawhoa” and the “NO WAY.” They’re usually “assessed” after a particularly egregious example of aggressive driving by the other person—weaving through traffic, riding your bumper, coming into your lane without signaling, or cutting the line in a merge. The high crimes of the road. My father has never been one to, for example, speed up and give another driver “the look” —he sees that as foolishly asking for trouble — but even so, “punitive honks” are somewhat in that spirit, and now again seem called for.

To be honest, I can’t really say if the lexicon is all that helpful. That’s almost beside the point. More than instructions for using the car horn, it’s more of a world view. But it’s one I was raised on and share.

So yesterday, when I was walking Grace to school, I was instantaneously shocked and appalled when a driver in an SUV “assessed” the most punitive “NO WAY” honk I have ever heard on a driver, someone who had seemingly misunderstood the merge at Putnam and and Mason, and was blocking the right hand lane. To me, a minor infraction at best—we’ve all been there. But clearly, it wasn’t to the person in the SUV. The response was a car horn so long and loud that the person in the offending car hit the brakes, instantly terrified. Every head turned in that direction. A window rolled down. In that nanosecond, I actually wondered what new vocabulary words Grace was about to learn.

And that’s when the cop on crossing guard duty down the street appeared, like the fury of God’s own thunder.

“Whoawhoawhoa, there, guy,” he said to the driver in the SUV. “NO WAY.” (Yes, really.)

I mean…clearly, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Frankly, I wouldn’t know how.

That’s just it. Because stepping back from it a bit, the moment has reminded me that the lexicons we have for what angers or frustrates us, and for what violates our sense of fairness and by precisely how much, are often quite sophisticated and quite deeply-ingrained. By contrast, our lexicons for what delights and strengthens us often are not. We can be strangely inarticulate when it comes to joy and hope.

Maybe the rosy moments are more mysterious to us, somehow. All the more reason to study them more deeply—to find ways to name those experiences, to spot them so that we can be on the lookout for others. I feel like I need to do that more. Or maybe it just shows that what delights us isn’t as central to our actual worldview as it should be. I hope that’s not true.

Certainly, joy is central to the Christian worldview. From Jesus’ own teaching to the church’s ongoing reflection on what it is to be faithful, joy and hope, delight and strength are at the heart of our lives—and of our life together.

A strong faith teaches us to see the world as it is. But important as that is, if faith only teaches us to see the bad, to have words for what’s broken in the world and in ourselves, then it isn’t doing its job. Such half-formed faith hasn’t taught to see the world God has made in all its fullness, or the hope God has for each of us. Because our final hope is in the world that God is bringing into being, and our call is to join God’s work in making it so—to be the people who name what hope, peace, love and justice look like, here and now, even in an imperfect, unfinished world.

God calls us to be people who say “whoawhoawhoa” in the face of wonder, and “NO WAY” in the presence of joyful abundance, generosity and kindness.

As we learn to watch our language, may we be on the lookout for the emergence of that kind of lexicon.

Those are the words worth knowing, worth sharing, and worth writing on our hearts.

See you in church,

Sermon: “Thin Places” (Mark 9: 30-37; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8)


Not too long ago, I was flying home from a working trip to Scotland when I caught a bit of the conversation from the row just in front of me.

I’m not an eavesdropper by any means, but we were in that somewhat undefined time at the beginning of a long flight…those few minutes before take off when the main cabin door has been closed, and everything has been stowed, and the aisles are clear, and you’ve found your reading glasses and untangled your earphones, and you are ready to go, but you have not started going just yet.

If you’re a seasoned traveller, then you know that it’s usually at this moment at the start of a flight when you risk taking a gander at the person traveling next to you, and decide if you are going to risk making contact or if you’re just going to blow up your traveling neck pillow and put on that little mask and pretend you’re asleep until they get the message.

Well, the man in seat 31B must have felt safe with engaging the person he saw in seat 31A.

Now, since all I saw was the back of their heads, all I can say is that the man in 31B had salt and pepper hair, and the woman in 31A had long red hair that she kept back with an artsy looking silver clip, with an intricate Celtic knot design.

“What brought you over to the U.K.?” asked the man pleasantly.

And the woman opened right up and said, “Oh…I have been over here for three weeks making a documentary, mostly in Ireland, about the Celtic idea of ‘thin places.’”

You see, according to Celtic spirituality, a “thin place” is one where the veil separating heaven and earth becomes especially opaque…especially, well, thin…and it seems as if we can sense God’s presence more easily.

The term has been around in the Celtic world since before Christianity, but it has been part of the Christian experience there for over 1500 years, so it very much names a sense that Christians have had, too.

It speaks to that sense we have of some places as holy ground—and not because something particularly happened there, but just because some places have a mystical quality about them, a spirit or an energy that makes them different than other places.

A thin place isn’t necessarily breath taking or even beautiful…but nevertheless, there is something about it.

All of which is to say, the woman in seat 31A had been over in Ireland, trying to figure out what that “something” was.

I was really delighted to be overhearing all this.

But you know how these things go. The flight attendants started on the pre-flight safety demonstration, and everyone stopped talking, and to my great disappointment, the conversation on thin places never resumed.

Even so, ever since then, I have been thinking about this whole idea of “thin places.”

Because like many of you, I’m sure, I have known places like that…places where it does not seem remotely crazy to say that the veil between heaven and earth has become extremely thin.  Places where the crazy thing would be in trying to deny it.

The concept is not unique to Ireland or to Celtic Christianity, by any means.

Within Scripture, and particularly the Gospels, there is a real awareness of those moments when, somehow, the Kingdom of God draws near…those moments when the veil between heaven and earth seems to be pulled back…and there is a kind of unity within Creation that any of us might know, might feel, or might even touch.

The Hebrew Scriptures talk about the midbar, the wilderness, the place outside civilization where anything might happen…and where revelations from God are decidedly more likely to occur.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus instructs 70 of his followers to go throughout the surrounding towns and preach the Gospel. He tells them, “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘the kingdom of God has come near you.’”

Likewise, Jesus explains to his followers, when they are turned away, they should wipe even the dust from that town from their feet and keep walking, but over their shoulders as they go, they should say to the people of that town, “Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” (Luke 10:8-9, 11)

The veil was parted, but you chose not to see.

And yet, I can’t help but be sorry that Jesus wasn’t the man sitting in seat 31B on that airplane, because I think he would have had a lot of questions about thin places for that filmmaker.

It’s interesting to reflect on what it is that seems to qualify as a “thin place” in our world, isn’t it?

Are the thin places really all emerald green and covered with craggy rocks and shrouded in mist?

Surely not.

Do you really need to get on a plane to find one?

Surely Jesus would say no.

He seemed most interested in a very different kind of “thin place.”

He points to that in this morning’s Gospel from Mark.

Mark tells us that out on the road to Capernaum, Jesus overhears a conversation among his followers about who is the greatest—who is the most spiritual—or maybe it’s who has been to Ireland the most.

He responds to that by taking a child and putting it among them, then holding the child and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9: 36-37).

The thinness that interests him is not so much the quality of a place, but the quality of human character…or the quality of a life.

What pulls back the veil is when we enter into the mystery and the vulnerability of one another.

It’s when we recognize that we can choose to be “servant of all” and that the very disposition toward service, even the smallest act of holding a child, can help us enter that mystery.

It’s when we hear the voices of the voiceless, and see the invisible, and hold on to those who are so weak that their lives seem almost to run through our fingers like water.

The thin places Jesus cares about are surely places like Afghanistan and Iraq, or among the refugees from Syria, or in too many places we might name…so many places that, frankly, we should be naming a lot more often than we do. Of course he knows those thin places.

But the claim of the Gospel is actually bigger than that.

The claim of the Gospel is that Jesus also cares about the thin places close to us…the thin place where a single dad heads off to work, expecting to be laid off from his job this week…the thin place we experience on the anniversary of a parent’s death…the thin place we perceive when a happy child seems to have withdrawn and grown dark and closed.

He cares about the thin places where we don’t know what to do, and about the thin where we do know what to do but we don’t know how.

And yet part of the challenge of being in those kinds of thin places is that because we’re in our own “thin place,” we don’t feel much sense of connection to others in their thin places, wherever those might be, near or far.

That’s understandable, I suppose, and yet the Gospel is here to remind us that to get wrapped up in that kind of inner focus can be quite precarious for us.

Our reading this morning from the Epistle of James gets at that, I think.

He writes, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)

And to James, this involves a fair amount self-examination because our own motives, our preoccupations can be so murky.

James reminds us, for example, that we can fall so easily into praying for what we want, without really asking ourselves if we want the right things…or if we’re trying to discern what it is that God wants and coming to terms with the larger wisdom of that.

James is tough on us in this regard, and yet, I know that in my own prayer life, when I find myself in a thin place, it is easy for me to start telling God how to fix things instead of listening for God’s word.

Instead of trying to bring myself closer to God, I too often pray that God will do what I want.

When that happens, it’s important to try to remember the more fundamental affirmation of our faith, which is that in prayer, the veil can be been parted…that God is closer than we think…that we aren’t called to go hunting high and low for God so much as look for he is standing in plain sight.

“Draw near to God,” says James, “and he will draw near to you.”

Sometimes in the moment when the thin place is most frightening, most wild, most strange, it is possible to perceive God more deeply and more clearly: the hospital bedside can become a green hill with craggy rocks of Ireland—a place where the beauty is not physical but nonetheless washes over us…a place where we experience the nearness of God.

It is that nearness of God that defines the thin place.

If the documentary filmmaker on the airplane could visit our church, I think each of us would have a story to tell that would belong in her film.

Notice the thin places around you, the precariousness of life for so many of us, and you will find God present there. Abundant there. Life-giving there.

That’s what it is to live the Gospel.

Don’t get me wrong: someday I’d love to go on a trip to Ireland in search of those thin-places, where the wild landscape meets the passionate sky, and the fog of mystery rolls in, right on cue, and the veil that separates earth and heaven will be miraculously thin.

But this morning, we’re reminded that, as Christians, we look to the one who parted the veil in all times, and all places, and in the name of reaching every human heart.

Jesus says: “Whoever wants to be first must be the last of all and servant of all,” (Mark 9:35).

He reminds us that as we enter the thin places of this world, seeking to serve one another with love and a commitment to the greater good, there he is in the midst of us, the veil is parted, and his Kingdom is come.


From the Newsletter: “Faith Beyond the Bumper Stickers”


Dear Friends of Second Church,

The other day, I was thinking about the last time I went “church shopping.”

It was almost exactly fifteen years ago, when I moved back to Connecticut after several years away. I had just started as an English teacher at Kent School—still one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.

It didn’t take long for me to get involved in the local United Church of Christ congregation there, and that church remains my spiritual home in many ways—it’s where I served as a deacon, where I first regularly attended Bible study, where they threw a square dance in my honor to help me with tuition, where I was ordained, where I performed my first wedding, etc., etc.. It’s the place where Melinda, the person I still consider “my pastor” is serving.

But you know what? It almost didn’t happen.

You see, on the Sunday I decided I would finally go “check out that church at the north end of town,” I pulled into the parking lot…a little bit late, so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone, or give my name, or otherwise get caught like a fly in their web. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into, and I wanted to make sure I could get myself right back out. I eased into a parking spot, nose out for immediate departure.

And that’s when I saw the old Volvo.

Parked right by the church’s sign was a decrepit old Volvo with faded blue paint—the kind of car that your nephew with the wild streak drives while in college.

The back was covered with bumper stickers. Bumper stickers for Presidential candidates who had been knocked out of the primaries…three elections ago. Bumper stickers for causes that were scarcely even causes, anymore, and others that seemed to presume knowledge of outrages I’d never heard of. Bumper stickers that obviously disagreed with one another, and were meant ironically, but in some way I found obscure. Bumper stickers I agreed with, making me wonder if I needed to reevaluate some of my opinions. And in the back window, there was a UCC shield…just in case I might mistake the car’s owner for a random visitor.

And I took that all in, there in the parking lot, with the organ inside the church already playing the first hymn, and I thought to myself, “Is that what this place is?” “Do I have to agree with all that, somehow, if I’m going to go to church here?”….”Good Lord, what if that’s the pastor’s car?”

Well, I went inside, more non-committal than ever. The service quickly proved itself to be warm, inviting, thought-provoking, reverent—everything I had hoped I would find in my local church. Even so, I found it hard to relax; I couldn’t stop wondering about that Volvo with its bumper stickers, and when the whole thing would start to get weird on me.

It never did. Or maybe I should say, fifteen years later, it still hasn’t yet. (Turns out, the Volvo did belong to random visitor…apparently a random UCC visitor.)

That Volvo was a funny introduction to what would soon become my home church.

That said, in its way, it was a great introduction to broad spectrum of beliefs, opinions, and commitments that can be found in a United Church of Christ congregation, whether it’s in Kent, or here in Greenwich, or in any number of other places.

We understand ourselves to be communities gathered by God, and not simply by the easy affinities that we use to make community in so many other parts of our lives—same backgrounds, same hobbies, same tastes, same politics.

We embrace that we aren’t all in the same place, even when it comes to our faith. Questions such as what it is to be a good person, what human flourishing should look like, or how to imagine the shape of a world of justice and love are not easy matters to agree on, and we don’t pretend they are, or suggest they should be. We don’t all read the Bible in the same way. Or pray alike. Or interpret Christian traditions with a uniform point of view.

We believe in the struggle of seeking answers to all of those questions—and in the further struggle of trying to work out those answers together.

It’s a remarkable and wonderful way to be the Church, but there is neither a roadmap that tells us how to get to our final destination, or a blueprint that tells us how to hunker down and build it where we are.

Somehow, it’s in the striving that the Church comes into its own, and we each come into our own. Anyway, that’s the UCC’s wager.

As the church’s program year begins again this week, I hope you’ll find ways to become a part of that striving. And some Sunday in the near future, if you see a visitor dawdling in the parking lot, wondering what this place is, and if there’s really room for someone like them among us, I hope you’ll greet them warmly and show them the way in.

We’ve been saving them a seat.

See you in church,

Sermon: “Re-Covenanting” (Mark 8:27-38)

Welcome Mat

Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, makes a lot of room for questions in the life of faith.

Don’t get me wrong: it makes a lot of room for the answers, too.

But for us, in the United Church of Christ, so much of what it is to be faithful seems to flow from the “question” side of the equation.

We’ve always seen something very important in our willingness to question…to wonder…to explore…to seek ways of understanding that aren’t simply received wisdom, however compelling it might be.

For us, the challenge is to understand the truth as God has placed it on each of our hearts—and to build a community around that searching, and then on the living out of that truth in the deepest ways we can.

It’s a wonderful way to be a Christian, but it puts a lot of responsibility back on each of us to be serious: to be serious about asking the big questions, and serious about living out the implications of the truth as God chooses to reveal it to us.

It reminds us that we have to be serious about loving each other and working together if anything like the Kingdom of God is to take root in our world.

In practical terms, that has meant that our denomination has been at the forefront of a lot of the great social movements of American history—Independence from Great Britain, Abolition, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights, Marriage Equality.

Because, of course, those are movements that emerged from a willingness to question…a willingness to embrace a deeper vision of human flourishing, and a call to undertake the hard work of making the world a more welcoming place.

But of course, it isn’t always quite so sublime.

So I was not particularly surprised this week to see on some of the UCC’s online forums that there was a roiling debate about what we ought to call this weekend.

“We used to call it ‘Homecoming Weekend’” said one of my colleagues out west. “But then we felt like that would be awkward for newcomers. What if it’s not your home? Should you come?”

There was a lot of back and forth on that.

“We call it ‘Parish Feast Day,’” said someone else. “Some people find that a little Catholic…” she admitted.

Nobody much liked calling it “Rally Day,” anymore. That used to be a pretty standard term. One person said: “Unless I’m bringing Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump to church, I don’t think people would get it.”

And someone else added, “To me, ‘Rally Day’ says checkered flags and race cars, not church.”

This went on all day yesterday at great length. But you get the idea.

Until finally, somebody said that in their church, they’d started calling it “Re-Covenanting Sunday.”

And my thought was that, well, it’s probably tricky to get that printed on the balloons, but the spirit of that is really quite important.

Because if you read much of our history, you’ll see very quickly that we talk a lot about covenants in our tradition, and the Bible talks a lot about covenants.

We say one whenever we receive new members—and at our Annual Meeting: we say the Salem Covenant of 1629, with its wonderful language of binding ourselves “in the presence of God to walk together in his ways”….

From Scripture, the most famous example is probably in the Book of Exodus, at the receiving of the Ten Commandments —this sense of a permanent, binding kind of obligation that unites God with God’s people.

There are other moments of covenant in the Bible, too.

Covenant is how we understand our responsibility to God, and also to one another.

In those moments when we are so full of questions, or when challenges come up that nobody ever imagined possible, it’s the covenants that we are supposed to refer back to, and to use so that we can get our bearings…and remember who God is, and who it is that God has called us to be.

The Bible has a lot of laws, too, of course—613 in the Old Testament alone, according to Jewish tradition.

But covenants are different than laws because they don’t simply speak to the micro-expectations of “…if this, then that…”

Covenants speak more broadly than that. And they speak to the idea of relationship with God. When God speaks in the context of covenant, God says, “Well, you may do this or you may do that…but if what you want is to honor your relationship with me, well, then these are the terms.”

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that our tradition understands marriage and baptism as ceremonies of covenant.

They are moments when we promise things to God and to one another…and not just into the air, or out of a sense of vague hope for the future.

They are promises we make within the context of relationship. A promise to hang in there with one another and with God, under the umbrella of certain terms and conditions.

So I sort of like the idea of “Re-covenanting Sunday,” even though it is a bit of a mouthful to say.

Because I think it’s important for us to do something more than simply re-convene in this beautiful place we love so well.

We’re invited to re-commit to one another and to God, and to think about this whole notion of living within the context of relationships: most immediately, our relationships with each other here, and with our neighbors, and with the world.

Not too long ago, I heard of a church that doesn’t publish its membership directory until a couple of weeks after Homecoming Sunday, because it sees membership as more of a year-to-year thing…as something that needs to be particularly reaffirmed, and not just some sort of general thing you do once and forget about.

Now, clearly, they don’t have as many snowbirds as we do. But I get it.

A marriage wouldn’t be much of a marriage if it were just a short series of promises we made at some point and then promptly forgot all about. And the same goes for a baptism.

These are lovely in their way, but are only the beginning.

And so is our life together as God’s church, gathered in this place.

Our great promise and our great challenge is to understand what it means that we are here now…today…in this moment…and here among these other folks, in the grand pursuit of seeking ways to be faithful to our promises.

According to Mark’s Gospel, it was on the road to the villages of Caesarea Philippi that Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”

And it’s then that Peter says, “You are the Messiah.”

It’s a wonderful moment, but, of course, it’s not the end of the story at all—far from it.

Because what it means that he’s the Messiah—what it means for him, and what it means for each of those who followed him—that isn’t something that is obvious at all right then, even in the wake of Peter’s crucial moment of recognition.

Jesus points to that. He doesn’t deny the recognition, but he seems to say that following him involves a lot more than just that one moment of insight.

Mark says, “Jesus called the crowd with his disciples and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’” (Mark 8:34-36).

Jesus is saying that it isn’t enough just to know the truth of who he is—it doesn’t stop there.

He’s saying that to be his disciple is to follow him in a much fuller, much more challenging way.

It is to risk true relationship with him, and to be committed to the work he lays before us.

It is to follow the road wherever it might lead, even as it leads us into places we would never have expected.

Of course, each of sees that work a little differently.

Each of us understands what needs to be done, and the skills we might offer, in particular ways.

Each of us brings our own questions to the work.

That’s a good thing.

Jesus asked a lot of questions, too.

I’ve mentioned before that a UCC colleague of mine wrote a book last year, called “Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the Three He Answered.”

It’s a very UCC kind of book.

But it reminds us that being the Church is never about simply reciting the answers of the past.

Being the Church is about asking new questions, and about finding fresh wisdom, and sources of new life for ourselves and for all the world.

We find that not only in the great traditions of our faith, but in our deep knowledge that the Holy Spirit blows through God’s people, making all things new.

Being the Church is about re-covenanting ourselves to another season of asking those questions and seeking God’s answers in a new day.

And so, welcome home, Church.

Let’s get to work.    Amen.

From the Newsletter: “The Empty Nest”


Dear Friends of Second Church,

This week, a friend of ours is sending her youngest one off to college for the first time.

All summer long, she has been trying to prepare herself for the pride, excitement, and sadness of this moment.

The late-night wars over whose car is where in the driveway line-up are now over.

The SAT is behind them.

If our friend and her husband want to sit at the dinner table, looking at their phones and not talking, no impressionable person will be there to be ruined by their bad example.

They may even occasionally forego the dutiful trifecta of protein, starch, and vegetable that has ruled their dinners for over twenty years, or go to sleep before midnight on Friday or Saturday night.

More than that, of course, they feel they have raised a good person. A curious, kind person who looks before she leaps, but who isn’t afraid to leap. They’re excited to see where she goes—what she reads, the friends she makes, the path that opens up before her. They’re hoping she decides to study abroad somewhere they feel like visiting—Italy would be nice. But she’s ready to paddle her own canoe.

Even so, our friends says that the summer has been “one long, emotional vice-grip.”

Their older child was a bit more wash and wear.

Two days before he was due to leave for college for the first time, he asked if someone could take him to Target to pick up a few things…by which he meant toothpaste, shower slippers, a big towel, and a package of tube socks. That was the first time all summer that they talked about his leaving…and he was fine with that. For him, going to college wasn’t starting adulthood so much as it was solving a minor logistical issue.

Not so, the younger one. She’s had three solid months of leave-taking—emotional cookouts in the backyard with her oldest friends, taking out photo albums to peruse on the living room couch…at one point, even sitting with a few of her old dolls. Oh, the feelings!

It’s left our friend, her mother, a wreck.

As Ecclesiastes reminds us: “To everything there is a season, and a lifetime to every purpose under the heavens.”

It is hard for our friend to see her family traveling out of this season of childhood. But she is also grateful for the feelings, even if she has not quite mastered them just yet.

So often, people seem to be afraid of feelings—wary of feeling life in its complexity, even to the point of a faith crisis. Some seem to look to God as a way to avoid intense emotions across the seasons of our lives, as if faith should teach us to know better, somehow, or equip us to rise above all circumstances.

To me, faith should prompt us to enter into all circumstances, to feel all that life offers, quiet and loud, comic and tragic, light and dark, laughing and crying, with all the depth, sincerity and heart that is in us.

What makes us faithful is not that we rise above such moments. Faith comes from our belief that God is to be found in all of them, and from the strength we find in remembering other times—particularly those when at first, it may not have seemed that God was there to be found.

God is found in tears and grief, as well as joy and serenity—in saying goodbye to a wonderful season in the life of our family, as well as hello the beginning of a new one in the life of someone we love.

In these final weeks of summer, as you say your own goodbyes and hellos, I hope you will find a moment to be still and know that in all our joy and sadness, hope and fear, God holds all of us in the palm of his hand.
See you in church,