On June 19, 2006 a letter was sent to our church membership declaring that our clergy were empowered on behalf of First Congregational to perform civil union services for same-sex couples. On June 26, 2015 the US Supreme Court struck down the statues of any state forbidding same-sex marriage as unconstitutional.
Because the terms of what is at stake here have changed, we need to update our position regarding the consecration of the relationships of same-sex couples. And I propose we do so now as I preach on the subject this Sunday and invite you to join us afterward in the Morehouse Room for an open hearing of all views. Trust me, every point of view will be heard and every person will be valued in that setting, very much as we spoke of racial reconciliation under the sacred canopy.
Why now? It is something how our journey unfolds, isn’t it? I meant to lead us in this discernment a year ago, but then the roof threatened to cave in, and we got busy. Then after we returned to the Meetinghouse I decided it was time, and a lesbian couple united with us, to confirm that timing. God speaks in such ways to signal our engagement with and discernment around the vital issues of our time.
In 2006 we arrived at our discernment on civil unions by group consensus rather than congregational vote. I like that approach again this time round and believe it augurs well as we look to the future. Voting can get political and divisive, making some feel like winners, others like losers. Building and sharing in consensus is where not all of us necessarily agree, but we can agree on finding a way forward.
What might we achieve? The United Church of Christ has an activist-based Open and Affirming process all about affirming the rights of gays and lesbians. The churches opting in eventually get designated as “Open and Affirming Churches.”
As for me, I don’t see folks coming to us wanting us to affirm their rights so much as offer a blessing. Rights are the language of the nation-state. Such talk tends to politicize an already difficult issue. But blessing is the language of the church. So I want us to consider the nature of the blessing we have for same-sex couples.
My hope is that we will become what I call a Full Blessing Congregation. And let me tell you what I mean by that. For nearly 2,000 years, the Christian church had zero official blessing for gay people. These relationships found no sanction in the services of the church. Sometimes gays were actively persecuted by the church.
Then in the Seventies, some pastors performed services of commitment on the sly for gay couples, sometimes in our sanctuaries, but more commonly outside of them. Church authorities couldn’t stop us clergy from acting on our consciences, but kept this from occurring in their buildings, lest these services be construed as approval or complicity. We might call this phase of our history “partial blessing.”
I’m asking for same-sex couples desiring the church’s blessing, and willing to submit to marriage as a time-honored covenant, and to model their love after the self-giving love of Christ, whether anything is to prevent us from offering them not only the sanction of our services, but even the full blessing we offer every couple.
For me, this is a matter of moral and spiritual discernment, not rights activism. So will you come and be with us on Sunday and help us see God’s way forward?
Preaching is strange, believe me. I will never exhaust its mystery. You can sweat over a sermon that falls flat. You can cobble together on the fly something that people find riveting. The latter happened last Sunday. I could tell by your faces. Most of what impacted you was spontaneous and not even on my manuscript. If you weren’t there, I entertained the weighty question: will our children have faith?
I want to build on that theme recalling the story of a young girl with a special faith. Fifty-six years ago Ruby Bridges walked into William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Ruby was black. The rest of the students were white. She walked in accompanied by federal marshals. At some point you have probably seen Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With. That was Ruby.
Ruby’s little walk signaled a major development in desegregation. Before her first day of school was done, parents had emptied that school of white children in a massive boycott. Ruby learned alone in 1961, taught by one teacher who stayed.
Huge crowds of protestors gathered daily outside to yell slurs and death threats at Ruby. Throngs of angry whites waved Confederate flags. Some even shoved a child’s casket in front of Ruby with a black baby doll inside. Mobs can get so ugly.
Episcopal layman and Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles studied children from the Sixties desegregation movement. Coles took a personal interest in what made Ruby tick. Her display of strength, stoicism, and bright cheer amid her daily hell caught his attention and puzzled him. He began to meet with her every week.
One day Ruby’s teacher told Coles that she had noticed Ruby moving her lips as she was walking into school. Coles asked her who she was talking to. “I was talking to God and praying for those people in the street.” Coles pressed on, “So why were you doing that, Ruby?” “Well, because I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they all needed praying for?” We are talking about a six year old.
“Where did you learn that?” Coles asked her. “From my mommy and daddy and the minister at church. I pray every morning going and every afternoon as I come home.” Coles continued, “But Ruby, those people are so mean to you. You must have other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them.” “No,” she said, “I just keep praying and hope God will be good to them. I pray the same thing for them, ‘Please, dear God, forgive them. Because they don’t know what they are doing.’”
I ask you again, what I asked you in my sermon. How many of you want that for your children? How many of you will support FCC as we try to give it to them? How many of you will help us embed Biblical truth deep within their character?
You say that is impossible in today’s world. I say consider the resources God has provided us. Ruby’s parents could neither read nor write. But they discovered through their humility how to practice Jesus’ love in daily living. Will you join us?
I said something recently that I wish to retract or maybe merely modify. I led off a sermon a few weeks ago saying that there are three answers to our prayers. The first answer is the most popular one: yes. The second answer often baffles us: no. The third answer to our prayers is the most agonizing and confusing: wait.
So much of getting clear in faith is asking right questions. I wish to question the idea of prayer working for us by getting answers we deem acceptable or helpful. Peter W. Marty recently wrote that in discussing prayer and its outcomes, we should eliminate the word “answer.” Suffice it to say, that really got my attention.
What did Marty mean? Well, now to claim there are only three answers to prayer, it sounds utterly saturated with our self-interest. It sounds centered around us rather than centered around God. Those are not the directions I want to lead us.
Yes, Jesus did encourage us to pray for things we need, even specific things. And I still believe that doing so is a sign of spiritual maturity, a sign of closeness to God. But we should remember that in the context that prayer is not mostly about us. Prayer is mostly about God, and sharing in the life God has given to us.
When you ponder prayer, picture relationships with friends across decades. We have special friendships, where time and distance can’t intrude. We know friends with whom we can pick up where we left off in a lifelong ongoing conversation. Such settings evoke deep conversation that inspire curiosity, promote honesty, and reveal transformations of ourselves, which might otherwise remain invisible. Those visits are less about achieving a result and more about sharing company. We know such relationships are beautiful because such company as that is rare.
Prayer is much like that. Perhaps the most important outcome of prayer is not getting what we want or deem necessary at a certain moment within our journey. Perhaps it is to enough know God, and therefore know ourselves. Or better still, perhaps the purpose of prayer is to enjoy God so we can rejoice within our days. Robert Farrar Capon has said, “Prayer is just talking to someone who is already talking to you. (Prayer) is listening to someone who is already listening to you.”
The place where I have learned the most about prayer is sitting with the dying, reading Psalms to them, taking their hands into mine, and settling into our prayer. We always reach a point where we put aside prayers that seek certain results, such as healing. And we begin to pray for things like God’s presence, constancy, companionship, guidance. We pray for God being strong for us in our weakness. Those prayers have been for me some of the most free and liberating I’ve known.
On this Celebration Sunday, we recognize Church School teachers and children, bid farewell to Mary Jo, and look to a new era of ministry to our young. We do not yet know where we will be as we reshape all these ministries to eliminate gaps. Would it be enough to pray for God’s presence, constancy, companionship, and guidance? Would it be enough to let God usher us forward? Yes, yes, and yes.
Now back in our beloved Meetinghouse, we naturally ask the Spirit: what’s next? What big challenge awaits us? What moves would God have us make just now? We’re at one of those rare, inviting “blue sky and clean sheet of paper” moments.
Fortunately, our Board of Christian Education has mulled this over for the past year. They presented something at our last Council meeting that I want you to know about. Few would disagree that taking seriously the lives of young families with children is central to the cause of the whole church. Even more so in Darien.
We’ve discussed how millennials are a missing generation within most churches.
Of course, we are gladdened by how our youth ministry has grown and thrived. Gary and Erica Morello have sacrificed, showing us the way forward. Getting into families and our youth’s public lives—time intensive!–has set the table for youth ministry. Now grade school children excitedly can’t wait to be in the Youth Group.
Many of us feel like, why should they have to wait? The problem is we have gaps in our ministry to children and youth that cry out for us to address. Our Church School was sagging long before Mary Jo arrived. Churches everywhere ask hard questions about reinventing the Church School. Our number of our confirmands drops from double-digits to single-digit, not that numbers are everything. Having planned for a middle school youth group, that was sadly scuttled as Yale Divinity School pulled out of our program for a student intern at the last moment last year.
Rather than whine or complain, we have asked: why not do something about it?
The Board of Christian Education proposes an expanded Director of Christian Education position to shore up related ministries and supplement Gary’s work. Council liked the idea but was worried about taking on a full-time salary just now. We tabled the idea for more discussion next month. We wanted you to know this. Think about it. If such dreams can become reality by autumn, we must plan now.
The Director of Christian Education is about rebuilding our church school with an eye toward getting into the lives of young families, as Gary has with youth. Also included in this job description is forming a middle school youth group to feed into our high school youth ministry. The DCE will assist Gary with Confirmation. Mary Jo has been splendid with our children, but we need more hours and other skills.
How do I feel about it? I laud the spiritual investment this makes in children and youth. What is more important? Also, I want young families to know we have their best interests at heart. Inclining toward them to address what matters most to them will pull them in from our periphery, and bring them into our orbit of ministry.
Some feel like it is the next big thing. But all of this is really not so new. A decade ago we were staffed much like this. Maybe we are only coming full circle, healthy and poised for growth. Maybe we should thank God for putting us in this position.
Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. Every year, the week before Memorial Day, I spend my time in prayer asking God to wash his love over the families, friends and soldiers who have been affected by war.
I would like to invite you to join me this week in prayer for our fallen sisters and brothers. Remember, God’s heart is broken right alongside these people. As a result, keeping them and those close to them lifted in prayer will lead the Holy Spirit into their hearts.
Recently, my wife and I watched a movie called: “Hacksaw Ridge”. The true story of Pfc. Desmond T. Doss played by Andrew Garfield, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor despite refusing to bear arms during WWII on religious grounds. Doss was drafted and ostracized by fellow soldiers for his pacifist stance but went on to earn respect and adoration for his bravery, selflessness and compassion after he risked his life — without firing a shot — to save 75 men in the Battle of Okinawa.
This movie impacted me deeply. Truthfully, I cried throughout several scenes. Desmond Doss, reminds me of the parable that will be preached this Sunday in church, The Good Samaritan:
But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ (Luke 10:33-35, NRSV)
There are many ways to interpret this text but at the heart of it is, Divine Intervention. Doss saw an opportunity to serve in a most courageous way. I’ve been fortunate to witness countless examples of Good Samaritans. Because of this, I’m motivated to conclude that human angels do exist in our world. Many of whom I met in our church.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Acts 1:8
Next week we wade into a graduation season of pomp and circumstance, caps and gowns. Huge, gushing, wild-eyed expectations will be articulated by tongues, loosed with alcohol. It will frighten the graduates much more than reassure them. Well-wishers will predict prosperous paths sometimes in a single word. “Plastics!”
Then there are the fawning speeches. Commencement speakers typically tell our young, “You’re amazing. You are awesome! You’ve got what it takes and much more! You’re the best and brightest of a new generation.” Better cue more drinks.
But how would the voice of truthful love speak if it surfaced at commencement? Maybe like this. “Listen, I won’t lie to you, but you don’t actually have what it takes. Neither do I. Nor do all of the professors arrayed in their finery before you. If you’re feeling a little anxious today, that’s probably a good thing…But I bring us hope. You and I aren’t left alone to our own devices and resources. An amazing power is afoot and at work in the world, if you’re willing to tap into it. A power that God will pour out upon those who invite and welcome it, those willing to trust God….So now, despite the ravings of this moment, you ain’t all that. But God is.”
Ascension Day, when Jesus departed the earth, is the Thursday before Memorial Day Weekend. Pentecost Sunday follows on its heels the first Sunday of June. Taken together, these two are a graduation of sorts. It was when the disciples finished their crash course with Jesus on the kingdom of God, and set out after it. It was when the disciples received earthy diplomas, graduating into 12 apostles.
Before Jesus bows out of the scene, he doesn’t say, “You’ve got what it takes.” Sort of the opposite, truly. “You need to wait…wait for the Holy Spirit to descend.”
How many times in your life have big moments presented themselves when we wonder if we are up to the challenge, if we’re really up to what awaits us ahead? Do we alone unto ourselves have what it takes to do the things the world needs? The tendency is to puff ourselves up, inject some adrenaline, rile up testosterone. We tell ourselves or await others to assert, “Don’t worry, we’ve got what it takes!”
From a Christian point of view? It would be truer, wiser, and more honest to say, “Let’s not get ridiculous, ok? You and I don’t have what it takes to meet all of the challenges of this trembling moment in history. But God does. God has the power you will need and God will not begrudge giving it to you. But you have to ask for it. You must want it. The God of love will not force this upon you. Ask for it and await its coming. It will come, I promise. And you will look back and say, how did I ever do that? It was far bigger than my powers and gifts, thanks be to God.”
In truth, no one would ever invite me to give such a speech. If they do, I’m ready!
Our hope is that so much occurs on Sundays of such a vital nature that you will feel like you missed out big time by being away from worship on a given Sunday. We hope that not because we aspire to amuse or entertain you, trivializing the church. We hope that not because we have a need to bask in the spotlight, diverting your attention away from where it should be–your relationship with God.
We hope that because your spiritual walk in your spiritual home is not one more piece in the pie of your lifestyle—alongside work, leisure, vacation, family time, community involvement, etc. We hope that because what we are doing with you at church in worship is more like the pan coherently holding that life-pie together.
We hope the equipping FCC gives you to live out your life is foundational to you becoming the best person you could be, the one God means for you to become. If all of that sounds far too ambitious, then I ask you: why would we settle for anything less? In this contemporary world, so much competes for your time, money, and attention. Distractions are the rule and not the exception. We need to show up and do our job right to give God a shot at holding you within his grasp.
Unless I am missing something, church is the only place, or at least the primary place, that puts first nurturing your relationship with the Creator who made you and the Redeemer who will someday pick you up from the dust of non-being.
So without resorting to stunts, we aim to keep things as lively, engaging, fresh and transforming as the Gospel we proclaim. Accordingly, this Sunday, aside from the celebration of Rory James Swenson’s baptism—which our people find riveting–Gary and I will try something new. We will engage in a dialogue sermon.
All preaching is dialogical. That is most obvious in the African-American churches where the back and forth between the preacher and people is the art form itself. You would be surprised by how much both Gary and I draw energy from what we see in your faces, from the receptivity we feel in your posture, as you listen to us.
Many comment on the bond between Gary and myself despite our differences in age, experience, style, temperament, stage of life, presentation, and personality. No few find that surprising. One person said to me, I can’t believe you called him given how different he is from you. Of course, oneness in Christ makes all of that possible. We illustrate Paul’s words, that there is a variety of gifts but one Spirit.
This Sunday that dynamic is on full display as we two dialogue around I Cor. 15.1-18, Paul’s declaration of Easter good news. Be there or be square. Show up then or risk having to find out secondhand what happened. So see you in church!
You have heard me say more than once that in the course of the gospels, Jesus asks 365 questions but only answers seven of them. Maybe rather than ‘Jesus is the answer’ we might say ‘Jesus is the question,’ if you get my drift. So much is at stake in asking the right question. To get good or deep answers you must ask good or deep questions.
I was thinking of this with regard to our 13 young people confirmed last Sunday. Their faith statements reflected their probing questions, shedding their childhood faith to take on a budding grown-up faith. I was thinking of this with regard to this Sunday, when I will preach a second installment in the sermon series “Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love.” I want to ask what’s behind and underneath our fear. My sense is we won’t get anything like good answers for immigrants or refugees until we can ask questions such as these.
Church is where we ask the hard questions. Even when no clear or satisfying answers sound in reply, it is still worth asking them. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, asked, “Is evil a recompense for good?” (Jeremiah 18.20) Or to put his query more colloquially, “Is that what I get for doing the right thing?” Elsewhere, Jeremiah asks the flip side of that question, “Why do the evil prosper?” Church is where we ask the hard questions.
Questions like these are not low-key or routine inquiries. They are not asked in a neutral tone, as if to say, “Is the food any good there?” or “What station has the cheapest gas?” They are charged. They carry a full freight of feeling: anger, hurt, sadness, confusion, despair, rejection, more anger. Did I mention anger? It is why I want church not merely to be where we put on our “Sunday best”, but where we tell the whole truth of our lives. Otherwise, these deep and confusing truths of our lives might not find voice elsewhere.
To do the right thing and be rejected — or even be attacked — is one of the most disorienting experiences any person can have. Life isn’t supposed to be this way! And yet, it is. It is this way. The lives of the prophets, the story of Jesus in Holy Week, the lives of countless advocates of justice and righteousness throughout history confirm it.
If we don’t have easy or straightforward answers to Jeremiah’s tough questions, we can at least be grateful that we find them in the sacred Scriptures of our faith. In the Bible we hear people telling it like it is. Thank God. This means that when we are in the midst of such an experience, hearing stories of this happening across time, we are less alone. It means we worship a God who can handle questions born of hurt, anger and rejection.
Slowly, it dawns on us there are no easy or obvious correlations between righteousness and reward, between evil and punishment. We live this side of the Promised Land, which is to say, here and now, things aren’t always clear and don’t always make sense.
But as our faith bids us to ask such profound questions, we still hold fast in the belief that ultimately there is moral meaning in the universe. If nothing else, Easter and the resurrection of Jesus means this much. And if we can adorn and garnish that truth to live with the confidence of moral meaning in a world that daily challenges such trust — that is faith and it is a beautiful thing to behold. That is what we are going after, friends.
Confirmation rolls around again this Sunday and I find myself eagerly anticipating it every year. Even if this is only a first confirmation for these 13 young people, and not a final confirmation of anything, with other confirmations of faith to follow at stages along life’s way, it is significant. So much so that I invariably find it chokes me up. Yes, we want to cast what this means in the broader sweep of life. Yes, we want to make it as personal as the gifts of each individual youth.
Right now I’m viewing Confirmation in the broader context of everything we’re attempting with our children and youth at FCC, Darien. Our goal to make this ministry seamless across the 18 or so years we have a shot at forming our youth. It’s exciting that the last stop—high school youth ministry—is alive and strong. We have gone from involving 3 or 4 youth to several dozen in our youth ministry, courtesy of Gary. But we need to build backward from high school into a vibrant and vital middle school youth ministry, and downward from that into a spirited Church School. To do this, let’s notice how our ministry to high schoolers has come alive to grow exponentially.
We were talking about this last Monday night as the Connecticut Conference Minister, the Rev. Kent Siladi, was visiting us, asking about FCC, Darien. Kent preached here last January as I was in Annapolis to do Lise’s wedding. He already gets why this ministry thrives. And that is why Kent is enlisting Gary and Shawn (from the UCC in Greenwich) to show other UCC churches the way.
Have you noticed how much time Gary spends out there, in the world of our youth, at their concerts, at their sporting events, their plays and their award ceremonies? Have you noticed how much effort Gary expends getting to know parents? The arc of ministry today takes us out into the world rather than tapping our foot waiting for folks to show up because we are terrific.
In the old ways of ministry, now past and gone, all roads led to FCC, Darien. All we had to do was open our doors and wait for folks to show up. Not only were we the only church in Darien for a hundred years after our founding, all town business was transacted here, and this is where citizens would pay their taxes. All roads led to F.C.C. because we owned the spiritual franchise.
Today no spiritual franchise exists. The largest growing religious group–a full one out of three under age 30—is “none of the above.” So if we wait for them to come to us, get ready to watch spider webs grow and dust to gather within our beautifully restored and fully prepared church. If some wonder why Gary isn’t here in our church more, spending more time with “our” youth, it no longer works that way anymore. If our territorial instincts got the better of us, and we were to reel Gary in from being out there with his time, you would see our youth ministry ebb.
The simple truth is that the rest of our ministries need to become more out there in the world if we seek to thrive on every front. Of course, this is a shift in paradigms, and change like this will always come slowly. It is the same reason though, why you have heard me go on and on about inviting newcomers to worship. Our new members tend to do this naturally while our veteran members will ask, why? “That is not how I got here.” Well, the world for which we were all so carefully prepared is gone. And we must prepare to minister in another world, glory be to God.
This Sunday you are invited to a dialogue between faith and reason, religion and science. I will preach on the foundations of truth underlying science and religion. Dr. Fraser Fleming will use my sermon as his point of departure in an 11th Hour address and panel discussion that will follow Coffee Hour within our Parish Hall.
Dr. Fleming, a New Zealander, will be here with his wife, Pam. They are from Philadelphia. Dr. Fleming heads the chemistry department of Drexel University. Fleming is also the author of The Truth about Science and Religion: From the Big Bang to Neuroscience. The book explores popular views on science and religion, provides historical and scientific background, and philosophical insight needed to think through issues of science and religion, and their influences upon our lives.
If that sounds drily intellectual to you, consider how much is at stake here. This week I read an article written by Wilfred F. McClay in the Hedgehog Review. The article was the basis of David Brooks’ March 31 opinion piece in the NY Times. May I share a few of McClay’s conclusions? Truly fascinating stuff, at least to me.
“The progress of our scientific and technological knowledge in the West, and of the culture of mastery that has come along with it, has worked to displace the cultural centrality of Christianity and Judaism, the great historical religions of the West. But it has not been able to replace them. For all of its achievements, modern science has left us with two overwhelmingly, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life.
“First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering of ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for, let alone what we should be willing to sacrifice for, or to die for.
“Second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight to which it has added appreciably…That growing weight seeks opportunities for release, seeks transactional outlets, but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in secular dispensation. Instead, more often than not, we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy…
“Perhaps human progress cannot be sustained without religion, or something
like it, and specifically without something like the moral economy of sin and absolution that has hitherto been secured by the religious traditions of the West.”
Congregationalism always faces into and ponders the vital issues of our time. What could be a more pressing issue than this? Come and help us sort it all out.