Sermon: The Image of God

Matthew 25:40-45

One of the challenges of being the new pastor is determining where the congregation is in their spiritual life as well as where they are regarding contemporary social issues.  I do not know you or where you are, and you don’t know me or where I am, but I did give you a glimpse of my theology and spirituality in my first sermon. During the first few weeks and months of a new ministry, the new pastor tries different things to help them figure it all out and see how far they might be able to go with specific topics.

If memory serves, I told you in my first sermon, that I believe it is the role of the preacher to move the audience from where they are to where the preacher thinks God is calling them to be. Over a period, a relationship and an understanding develop between the preacher and the congregation. With all that said I believe one of the issues we face as people today is that we do not recognize the image of God in the other.

All through history, it has been the practice of one group of people to dehumanize another group of people to justify their treatment of them. If we stay strictly with Scripture, which is not a history book but it will work for our purpose today, we see the ancient Israelites being conquered on a variety of occasions ending with the Roman occupation during the time of Jesus. The Romans and the other conquerors made the Israelites less human, and that justified their treatment.

In our history, the history of the United States, this has happened on several occasions. The Native American population was treated as less than human; the African Slave trade was able to continue as long as it did because the white man felt the black man was less than human. So ingrained was this thought that it was enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. The role of women was considered less by men until the 20th century, so we have a history of this as humanity.

I am not taking issue with how people of the past felt about other people or situations. The times were different, and the thought process was different. What I take issue with is when people still think like it is the 18th and 19th century towards other people and value them less as human beings.

For many of us in the room, segregation is not a distant memory. For many of us we can remember white’s only bathrooms and school for black children and white children, so in essence, this is a contemporary issue. The ability of one group of people to feel that another group of people is less than human makes it easy to treat them differently.

My point is this, as a Christian I have no other choice than to look at another human being as having been created in the image and likeness of God. They have within them the Imago Dei, the Image of God the Divine Spark of you will, and that makes that person holy and as we heard in the Scripture this morning, how we treat them is how we treat God!

Also, as a Christian, It is not part of the plan for me to determine who is and who is not worthy of my help. At one point in time in our lives we have all been “the least of these,” and maybe, just maybe someone was that one thing we needed to get us through the day. Perhaps it was a kind word, maybe it was a smile, and maybe it was a cup of coffee on a cold day or a warm meal when we have not had one. We might be the one kind person that is the difference between a person deciding to take their own life or not.

I am not sure where I heard this, but the saying goes, “you may be the only Bible someone ever reads.” You, and me, whether we like it or not, as the spokespeople for all of Christianity and our words and our actions might be the deciding factor in the trajectory in someone’s life.

I want to share a little story. One of the good parts of coming to a new place is you have not heard any of my stories.  Anyway, I am a mason, and I am proud to be one. The motto of the Masons is we make good men better. We take the rough stone and smooth out the harsh edges. My particular lodge meets one Thursday night a month. We typically have dinner before the meal served to us by the young men of DeMolay. If you do not know what DeMolay is that is the Masons for young men under 18 years of age.

One Thursday night I was going through the line, and one of the young men thanked me for wearing the pin that I had on the lapel of my jacket. It was the UCC coma in the rainbow design. He thanked me for the public stance I was taking on equality, and he shared a quick story with me about how he had been treated by his schoolmates and some of the young men in DeMolay. He thanked me for the giving his the assurance that it would be okay. The funny thing is I did not even realize I was wearing the pin on my lapel but that one thing, that one silly little pin, gave the young man hope. He knew I was a person that would not judge him and that I would accept him for who he was where he was, that is my job as a Christian. I do not have to agree with him on anything, but I do have to accept him as a fellow human being, created in the image of God.

Now, before I start to sound all self-righteous here, none of us are perfect, we all have times in our lives when we have fallen short in this area of seeing Christ in the other. I will admit it is difficult sometimes to see that but, that does not give us an excuse. We have to strive to see Christ in others and not make excuses to make us feel better when we don’t want to help.

When we see the homeless person on the street and we say “they are lazy,” when we say “they need to get a job,” when we say, “they will only use the money for drugs or booze,” we are making a judgement, and we are dehumanizing them to make us feel better about not helping them. We have all done it, I have crossed the street to avoid it, and I think we would all be dishonest if we feel that we have not.

We have an obligation as Christians and as human beings to help those less fortunate then we are, and that help does not always have to be money. Sometimes, as I mentioned before, that help can be as merely seeing them as fellow human beings and accept them. Listening to their story and understanding them. Having empathy for their position and doing all we can to try and make their lives better. Thinking of the other as less than a human might make us feel better, but it does nothing to change the situation for the other.

We cannot solve all of the problems of the world, but we might be able to help address the issues that are the whole world for one person. When the fire department arrives at a house on fire they are not interested in how it started, the see the problem right in front of them, the fire, and they put the fire out. Once the fire is out, and everyone is safe, then they turn towards the cause of the problem. We need to take care of the immediate issues of the “least of these” and see to their basic needs, food, clothing, shelter, medical, safety, and then, and only then, can we begin to ask the broader question of how did they get there.

The point of all of this is that no matter where people are from, no matter the color of their skin, no matter their religion, no matter their sexual orientation, no matter their legal status each human being has been created in the image and likeness of God and as people who claim to follow Jesus we have no other option then to look at them as human beings and take compassion on them. Again, we do not have to agree with them, as you don’t have to agree with me, but we do have to treat the other with the dignity that they deserve as a fellow human being, and I will remind you of the words from today’s Scripture reading;

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes, and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'”

Sermon: The Will of God

A Sermon on Mark 3:14-20

To truly understand this passage we need to back up one verse where we read in part, “And he went up on the mountain….” (v. 13). Before starting anything, Jesus went away to pray. The mountain, which is used here to denote a place away from the rest of the crowd, was often a place that Jesus retreated to for prayer, silence, and refreshment.

And it was on this mountain that “he called to him those he wanted. And they came to him” (v. 13). He called the multitude, and from that multitude, he chose the twelve that he would train to take his message to the far reaches of the world.

They came from all different walks of life. For the most part, they were uneducated tradespeople, not the religious leaders or the uber-pious of the area. He did not call together a council of elders to discuss the plans and then develop a strategy for putting it forth. Nope, he called them together, and he taught them, by his example, what they were going to do when he had left them.

Matthew was a tax-collector and, therefore, an outcast; he was a renegade and a traitor to his fellow countrymen. Simon was called the Zealot, and the Zealots were a band of fiery, violent nationalists who were pledged even to murder and assassination to clear the country of the foreign domination. The one who was lost to patriotism and the fanatical patriot came together in that group. I can only imagine the conversations that those two must have had. Christianity began by insisting that the most diverse people should live and work together, putting aside their difference for the sake of the mission.

I find it interesting how the writer of this Gospel gives the list of the 12 but, at the end of the list, there is Judas, “who also betrayed him” (v. 19). Jesus chose Judas, and I believe, knowing full well that he would betray him. Jesus wanted the ones he chose specifically for the mission, and Judas’ purpose was to betray him. It is also telling that at the Last Supper, Judas was present and Judas participated in that meal so, as you see, everyone is welcome even those who will betray him.

But the significance of this passage is in the fact that what we now know as Christianity began with a group. This is in stark contrast to what the Pharisees had been teaching. The whole essence of the way of life of the Pharisee was separation from others, and the very name Pharisee means the separated one. Jesus stands this on its head and showed that the very essence of Christianity was that it brought people together and bound us to one another.

So what was the attraction?  Why did these men follow Jesus?

They felt a sort of magnetic energy and attraction from Jesus. There was something about this itinerant preacher that made them want to take him as their master. We read in other parts of Scripture where he just said to them, “follow me” and they did. Andrew, the first to hear the message of Jesus, calls his brother Simon, later Peter to “come and see.”

They also had courage, and make no mistake about it their mission would require an immense amount of courage. Here was Jesus flipping over tables in the Temple and calling out the religious leaders calling them a “brood of vipers.” He was on a collision course with the orthodox leaders, he was branded as a sinner and labeled as a heretic, and despite all of that, they followed and continued to support him. Did they have their misgivings, sure, did they have their doubts, yes and we see it time and time again. But they were willing to risk it all for the sake of the mission. They all had their faults, as we do, but one thing was for sure, they loved Jesus, and they were not afraid to tell the world that they loved him, and that is the very essence of being a Christian.

Jesus called them for two reasons. He called them to be with him. They were to be his steady rock and his companions. We read that the multitude would follow him, but these twelve were his inner circle, his closest friends they were to identify their lives with him. Jesus called them to send them out. Jesus knew that for his message to “go into the whole world,” he would need ambassadors to bring that message.

He taught them in word, but more importantly, he taught them by example. He did not just gather them all together and teach them; he showed them how to love others, he showed them how to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and welcome the stranger. He gave them a message of love, and he taught them how to share that message with others, in other words, he made disciples of them. But he also gave them power, a power to do amazing things. But power is not the right word here what he gave them was a boldness, a boldness that they would need to stand the world on its head and transform it.

So where does that leave us?  Jesus has called each of us. He has called each of us here today into a community of love and support. Jesus has called us to show us a way, a new way, a way of love and service to others. Jesus has invited us, as he invited Judas, to sit and break bread with him and others of different backgrounds, races, creeds and gender identities. Jesus calls us to love all and to be taught to love all. But he has also called us to send us out. For a message to be useful it needs a sender, it also requires a receiver, but it first needs a sender. We are called to be senders of that message every day. We send that message by the way we act towards others, how we speak about them and to them. And we send the message by how we put his example into action.

Jesus called the twelve to be people of action and to change the world. He is now calling on us to do the same.

Some things I have been reading this week

Life Is in the Little Things: Finding the Extra in the Ordinary

Made a Big Mistake? What to Do Instead of Beating Yourself Up

How I’ve Learned to Free Myself from Depression When It Hits

Does Your Church Offer a Better Way to Our Culture?

Why Your Church Must Choose Reconciliation Over Winning

The Influence of Christian Media

Gettysburg and the Great War


Sermon: Here I Am

It is so great to finally be here with all of you. It has taken some time to get here but here we are at the start of what I pray will be a fruitful time for tis church and for all of you. My wife Nicky and I are very happy to be here. And we look forward to getting to know all of you. I understand there are name tags available at the entrance to the church and I would like to ask each of you to please wear yours and if you don’t have one, let us know and we will get you one. It will assist me, and others, to get to get to know you and your names.

Last Sunday, I completed my term as interim at Bethany Congregational Church in my hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts. Towards the end of the service we conducted what is called the “service of release” where the congregation released me from the covenant I had with them to be their pastor. It is always sad when a relationship comes to an end but at the same time the service requires us to look forward. They sent me off with prayers for the new covenant that I now have with all of you, the covenant to be your pastor, your teacher, and your guide as we embark on this journey together.

Pastoral relationships can be very interesting. We do not really know each other and we might have some expectations. Perhaps these come from the past experiences we have had. There might be some expectations of my roll and I might have some expectations about your roll. The best way to figure it all out is through communication.

One of the lessons I learned early on in ministry was to try and fix something long before it gets out of hand. If you have a question about me or ministry or the process that we are about to begin, just ask. It is better to get an answer straight from the source rather than third, fourth, or even fifth hand. The only way this relationship, this sacred covenant is going to work is if we are open and honest about our expectations of each other. I have no doubt that at some point I am going to make some of you angry, well let’s talk about it. Let’s not let thing fester under the surface. We need to have a relationship where we can share anything with each other but at the same time when it is finished we move on. I am not one to hold on to things, once it is done it is done.

So a little about me.

I was not brought up in the United Church of Christ I was raised Roman Catholic and was ordained in the Romanian Orthodox Church where I served for 12 years as pastor of a small congregation in Central Massachusetts. I am a veteran of 15 years in the United States Army and National Guard. I have a heart for mission especially disaster support. I serve as fire chaplain in the City of Quincy as well as one of deputy chief chaplains for the Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains. I am part of the Disaster Resource Team for the Massachusetts Conference and serve as the Disaster Spiritual Care Lead for the American Red Cross. I have ministered in New Orleans, Blacksburg Virginia, Newtown, Connecticut, and most recently my own hometown after the last round of winter storms. I have sat with parents who have lost children in school shootings. I have sat with wives who lost husbands in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have brought what comfort I could to families who watched as the violence of winter storms and hurricanes took everything the owned out to sea. And through it all, all of these experiences have shaped me as a person but they have also shaped my theology and my spirituality.

My theology is quite simple, and you will hear me preach about this in almost every sermon, love God and love your neighbor. I share this theology with Jesus who commanded us to do this.

I love God and therefore I attempt to follow his will for my life and I attempt to follow the example, as I understand it, that Jesus left for us. I am a Red Letter Christian, I focus on the red words of Scripture, the words that we believe were actually spoken by Jesus and not someone’s interpretation of what that means. My theology requires me to love everyone and as a consequence of that love I am compelled to help them any way I possibly can. This love is unconditional because Jesus loves us unconditionally. Don’t believe me; just flip open your bible to the Gospel of John, the third chapter and the 16th verse;

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (NIV)

It is not our job to determine who is and who is not worthy of our love we are, just as God has, to love our neighbor and that includes our black neighbor, our white neighbor, our lgbtq neighbor, our Muslim neighbor, our liberal neighbor, our conservative neighbor, and the list goes on…

I believe that the bible is a guide in our lives but I also believe that God is still speaking and his revelation is constant and our challenge is to figure out, as those who have come before us, how we continue to make this 2,000 year old faith relevant in this fast changing world. It cannot be business as usual.

One of the greatest minds of the contemporary church was Phyllis Tickile. Phyllis wrote a lot about the emerging church and how to keep the faith fresh and new in each generation. Historically Phyllis has mapped out the history of the Christian Church from the time of Christ to the present day and has come to notice that every 500 years there is a reformation of the faith. It started with Jesus who was the greatest reformer, but every 500 years since then the church has undergone a reform of some kind. One of the problems is we do not know when the 500 years start and when they end so we may be in one right now.

Our job is to read the times and trends and to stay a head of the curve. We have to be relevant in the lives of the people we hope to reach with the message of the love of Jesus Christ and we have to speak the language that they speak and we have to be willing, when the time comes, to call out the hypocrisy that exists in the world of the Christian today.

In a recent survey of those who no longer attend a church on a regular basis said that one of the main reasons they do not attend is they are not really sure what the church believes any more. They know for certain what they are against but they have no idea what they are for! Churches, and Christians, are viewed as hypocrital and judgmental and they are also viewed as caring more about themselves and the continuation of the institution then they are the mission and ministry of that institution. We have to change that.

Just so there is no confusion, I am a progressive theologian and a liberal when it comes to social justice, which, despite what some in the national eye will tell you, is not the work of the devil. I have a certain core belief which I have already shared, love God love everyone. I believe in everyone’s right to their opinion and I support our rights to share those opinions, but when it comes to how Christians act, how Christians behave I believe that words are easy, it is easy to say you are a Christian, but show me you are a Christian because if you don’t I’m going to call you on it.

Again, just so there is no confusion, I am very active in the world of social media, Facebook and Twitter as I believe that is the, not so new anymore, world of communication. I have very strong opinions and fight for what I believe in with every fiber of my being. I believe as Christians we are to be the voice of those on the margins, the “least of these” if you will that Jesus often spoke about and ministered to. I believe we have an obligation as not only Christians but as human beings to care for those less fortunate then us and I believe it to my very core. I believe if you call yourself a Christian that it has to mean something and you have to live by a certain set of principles and if you don’t I will call you out on it. This world we live in needs to hear the message of love and inclusion and needs to hear it without conditions and that is what I try to do, but, in the end, and I am not always good at this part, we have to do it all in love. Speak the truth to power but we have to speak the truth in love because the truth is love. If the person you follow causes you to hate another for whatever reason, that simply is not Christian, a Christian cannot hate, period.

So where do we go from here?  One of the charges given to me is to help guide you through the process of calling your next settled minister. As you all know, as the interim I cannot be that person. I am here to guide you and prepare you for the one that will come after me. We do this by asking some very simple question with extremely complicated answers.

Who are we?
Who is our neighbor?
Who is God calling us to become?

These are the three big questions that we will work on over the next months as we prepare the search. I only ask one thing of all of us, since we will all be involved in this process, we have to be open to and remain open to the power of the Holy Spirit in this process. I believe God has already called your next minister, our task is to pray for that person and then seek them out, but we can only do it if we are in constant prayer and we let God be in charge of the process. I will guide you and offer you my experience, you will provide your input and suggestions, but God is the one who is in control.

Beloved of God Here I am, I am yours, and you are mine. Let us always remember that we have to love God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our souls and we have to love each other as we love ourselves, perhaps better than we love ourselves.

Sermon: A New Beginning

Note: On Sunday, May 27th, I preached my last sermon as Interim Senior Minister at Bethany Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. What follows is the text of that sermon.

I have given this sermon the title of “A New Beginning” because that is what we face today. This will be my last sermon here at Bethany, next week another will stand here and I will be standing in a new place so for both of us it will be a new beginning.

Change can be difficult, and change can be a little frightening. Change brings all sort of new adventures into our lives and sometimes, to make room for those new things, we have to get rid of some of the old. Although change can be challenging it is not bad, and we will survive if we allow God to lead the way.

In September of 2014, I had a parting of the ways with my previous church and found myself a wanderer in search of a new spiritual home. The last 12 years of my ministry had been filled with many, many joys and some sorrows. I had the privilege of baptizing babies, marrying couples madly in love with each other, and saying goodbye to many, many friends as I presided at their funerals.

My ministry allowed me to bring a group of college students to an orphanage in Guatemala where I witnessed their lives, and the lives of the children there changed forever. My ministry brought me to the flooded streets of New Orleans where I prayed with those dying in an airplane hangar at the Louis Armstrong Airport. My ministry brought me to Blacksburg Virginia and the campus of Virginia Tech after shots rang out and changed the once peaceful school into a shooting gallery that took 32 lives and altered that small town forever. My ministry took me to the White House where I was able to meet with representatives of the President’s Faith-Based Initiative and tell them about the work we were doing in Southbridge and that same weekend, my ministry also took me to Newtown, Connecticut where another gunman walked into another school and took the lives of 28, 20 of them children just going to school.

But, as with most things in life, change comes and a new beginning. I returned to my hometown of Quincy and knocked on the door of the church that I had looked at our the windows of the high school.  The church where in 1982, I was part of the Bethany Players production of “Here We Go Again.” Little did I know that church would one day be a place of spiritual sanctuary when my soul needed it the most.

October of 2014 found me knocking on the door and thankfully that door was answered with open arms and an outcast was welcomed in. I mentioned this last week, and it bears mentioning again this week. We are fond of saying that Jesus found rest and refreshment in Bethany and we hope you find that rest and refreshment here. Bethany was where Jesus’ friend Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha lived. Bethany was the place that Jesus often retreated to after a difficult time of ministry. Bethany was the place where Jesus performed one of his greatest miracles, raising Lazarus from the dead.

This place we call Bethany has a long history of being the place of rest for many. 1982 saw the 150th anniversary of Bethany, and in the program book for that celebration, there is a short history of the church. In the opening paragraphs of that history we are reminded of the fact that is 1842, “when it was not only unpopular but almost dangerous to do so, the church rented the meeting house for lectures on the abolition of slavery.” Bethany was also one of the first churches in Massachusetts to say that if you owned slaves, you could not be a member of the church. There is also a legend that Bethany was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The history also reflects on the Massachusetts Conference meeting held here at Bethany in 1954, when the first black person was elected moderator of the Massachusetts Conference. For generations, Bethany has truly been that place of sanctuary, rest, and refreshment.

But in October of 2014 Bethany opened its doors to another outcast, me, and welcomed me in mostly with open arms. For me, Bethany was a place where I could heal the wounds of the past, wounds that were deep and painful, wounds of a past that had not closed and was not finished. Like so many others before me, this place gave me space to “work it out” and to heal and to grow. You called this outcast to be your Associate Minister at a time when I was not sure I still had a call to be a minister, at a time when I needed to be ministered to. But you took a chance on an outcast, an unknown, a broken soul and called me to minister with you. And when our beloved pastor of 22 years announced his retirement, you called me to step into those rather large shoes and be your minister, your teacher, and your pastor. This place celebrated my marriage and wrapped me, and my wife, in arms of love when my mother died last February. I have had the privilege of ministering to you and being minister to by all of you these past almost four years, and although it has not always been easy, I will count this time as some of the best moments of my life.

Believe it or not, you have made me a better person; you have made me a better minister. You have restored my faith not only in the church but in people. You have taught me how to trust and to love again, and for that, I will be eternally grateful.

After the death of Jesus, as the apostles and others were gathered in the upper room, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty. What was going to happen was on their minds and then Jesus came in the midst and said, “peace be with you,” and the felt at rest. He told them that he would not abandon them and he was sending another that would help them, the Holy Spirit. He said to them that the Holy Spirit would guide them and bring them comfort and so I remind you today that that same Holy Spirit is with us and will bring you guidance and hope in an uncertain time. I do not know, none of us know what the future will hold for this place but I know, I am confident, that if we trust in the power of the Holy Spirit and we let God guide us, God will not abandon us and will bring us through.

Although I tried, there really are no words that can adequately express the feelings that I have as my ministry with you comes to a close so I will simply say thank you, from the bottom of my heart, and God bless you and keep you now and always. Amen.

Sermon: A Fresh Spirit

A Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Yesterday some 23 million Americans rose early to witness the wedding of Prince Harry of Great Briton and Megan Markle of the United States. Those 23 million Americans were joined by a worldwide audience that thought they were tuning in to watch a young couple in love exchange their vows and begin their married life together. But what they got was a stirring sermon about love from an American bishop.

It has to be mentioned that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Michael Bruce Curry, is the descendant of slaves and sharecroppers from North Carolina and Alabama. It should be noted that this “son of slaves” although born in Chicago and educated at Yale, returned to North Carolina as the Episcopal Bishop in 2000. This “son of slaves” was elected as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States in 2015 on the first ballot. And this “son of slaves” was asked by a young couple to preach at their wedding, at St George Chapel in Windsor England.

Now it should also be noted that in 2016 the Episcopal Church of the United States was sanctioned by the world Anglican Communion for its stand on inclusivity. You see the Episcopal Church, as our United Church of Christ, does not believe anyone has the right to tell anyone else who they can and cannot fall in love with. But the world Anglican bishops gathered in London and kicked the Episcopal Church, and its almost 2 million members, out of the club for being inclusive. And on Saturday, the Presiding Bishop of that church, the “son of slaves” stood at not only the heart of the British political system but at the center of the British religious system. I tell you all of this because for Bishop Michael Curry it is all about love.

Bishop Curry began his sermon with a quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King:

“We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love, and when we do that we will make of this old world a new world. For love is the only way.”

As Bishop Curry began to speak the internet exploded with Tweets and quotes of “amen” and “preach.” Now, Bishop Curry did not say anything that many of my fellow preachers and I have not been saying. If you have listened to me preach these last three years, or so you know that for me the central theme of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ is the love of God and love of neighbor. You know that I believe, as Jesus did that everything is central to this concept of radical love, radical welcome, and radical inclusion. But what many other Tweeting preachers and I were the happiest about, is that Bishop Curry preached a message of love so radically different from that of many Evangelical preachers in the United States today. In one very short sermon, and I am not sure if this was his intention, Bishop curry snatched back Christianity from fringes, on both sides of the theological, political, and ideological spectrum and told the world that enough is enough and that “love is the only way.”

About the halfway mark in his sermon, Bishop Curry reminded those listening that love has power:

“Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial. And in so doing, becomes redemptive, and that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love, changes lives. And it can change this world. If you don’t believe me, just stop and think or imagine. Think and imagine, well, think and imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial redemptive. When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down, down by the riverside to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room, plenty good room, for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.”

Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Fifty days ago we celebrated the fact that Jesus Christ overcame death and set us on a new path, not a new way of righteous indignation but a path of love, radical love. Jesus was not hung on that cross because he was a timid preacher who was afraid to say anything about the way the world was going, no, Jesus Christ was killed because he stood in the face of everything that was wrong and he told them no and show a new way forward.

Some call Pentecost the birthday of the Church and well, I think that is wrong. The Church was not born in that Upper Room on that day when Holy Spirit came rushing in like a wild wind; no, the Church was reformed on that day. No longer was it to be a church of exclusion, but it was to be a church of inclusion a place where it did not matter how much money you had or how your clothes looked. A church where it did not matter where you came from, where you were going, or what job you had. A church where it did not matter whether you were a saint or a sinner all were welcome. A church that says “No matter who you are, No matter where you are on life’s journey, You are welcome here.”

One of the first commentaries I read yesterday afternoon regarding the Sermon by Bishop Curry mentioned how stoic the British people, especially the Royals are. The article went on to speak about the younger generation of Royals, the likes of William and Kate and now Harry and Megan and how they are breathing new life into an old institution. As Bishop Curry preached, and the camera panned around the Chapel, there were a lot of dower faces in that room, but there were also some smiles. The conclusion of the review and it seems funny to read a review of a sermon, but the conclusion was that Bishop Curry brought a breath of fresh air into an otherwise stale system. In other words, he brought a Pentecost into the room.

The message of Jesus Christ was that the only way we had to transform the world was through this idea of radical love. Bishop Curry ended his sermon by saying that we need to discover love. We need to rediscover the redemptive power of love, that same redemptive power of love that was shown when Jesus Christ willing went to the cross. The cross is a symbol of inclusion and the redemptive power of love and not a symbol of exclusion and hate that so many have turned it into. Jesus believed, Dr. King believed, Bishop Curry believes, and I believe that the only way we have of ever beginning the process of healing and transformation of the world is to discover that redemptive power of love.

Jesus told his Apostles that he was leaving them with a new commandment and that new commandment was to love one another. Let us pledge on this day, this day of rebirth and regeneration, that we will go from this place to simply love each other.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

I am not sure when it began, but I have been researching my family tree for as long as I can remember. From the days of getting in the car and driving to cemeteries and town halls in Maine to sitting at the kitchen table looking at records on the internet, this journey has been fantastic and frustrating all at the same time.

The hunt for clues and the mystery, being on the verge of discovery and a breakthrough only to have it dashed at the last minute, after months of research keep me coming back time and again to find out all I can about my family and where we came from.

Genealogist and blogger Amy Johnson Crow (I wonder if we are related) issued a challenge a few months ago to blog, tweet, write or whatever about 52 of our ancestors over 52 weeks. I heard about this challenge on a recent episode of the podcast Extreme Genes, and although I am coming late to the party, I am jumping in with both feet, and I am hoping I rise to the challenge.

As I understand the mechanics of it all, each week Amy will send an email to the participants, she asks that you register, but I don’t think you have to, with a topic to write about. For example, last week was “Mother’s Day” and this week is “Another Language.” The idea is we write about an ancestor that fits the theme and then tweet or share on other social platforms with the hashtag #52Ancestors.

So, I am taking the challenge and see if I can complete it. Wish me luck.

Hey, why not jump in and write about your family.

The decline in Religion, Blah, Blah, Blah

Another week and another poll showing what we already know, religion is on the decline in the United States.

Recently, ABC News and the Washington Post released a poll about adherents to the Protestant Church in the United States. The poll shows a shift from 12 percent in 2003 to 21 percent today in the number of people who say they have no religion, the question is, how are they defining religion?

Poll people and asking if they belong to a church is not an accurate gauge of where or not they have religion. Church attendance, or membership, is only one way to determine if someone “has religion” or not. I am amazed that this is still the only marker we have to determine this.

As a church leader, for the last 15 years, I have watched the steady decline in church attendance, but I have also noticed an increase in the amount of spiritual activity in the people around us. Sure, people do not walk inside the brick and mortar building on Sunday but when are we going to realize that that is not the only way people have of expressing a belief in something more substantial than themselves.

With that said, we, and by “we” I mean church leaders at all levels, only have ourselves to blame for the decline.

I regularly hear from people who say that “the church” has no relevance in their lives. We do not speak to the issues that they are grappling with in their lives, and we hold to an outdated sense of who belongs and who does not belong.

A hundred years ago we built these massive church buildings that take an enormous, almost grotesque amount of money to maintain and operate. Church leadership spends most of their time focusing on how to keep the building open and less and less time on ministry in their community where the building is. These vast temples to a once great thing mostly stand empty during the week. People walk past them without giving them a second thought as they have no relevance in their lives. Church leadership is paralyzed with fear of being sued, and other such nonsense that they will not open their buildings to community groups or other support groups and God forbid they open their doors to the homeless population that often sleeps on the steps of the church.

The more significant problem is, and this goes to the relevance statement above, more people know what churches are against rather than what they stand for.

Not a day goes by that some church leader somewhere is releasing a statement condemning this or that behavior. They stand there, in righteous indignation, as they pronounce that God has spoken to them and they “feel compelled” to call out sinners. That is funny; I thought our job was to love people and serve the “least of these” as Jesus commanded us to do.

No surprise, but the poll shows that the largest segment of the population with no religious affiliation is the 18-29-year-olds, 35 percent.

I was recently in a meeting of church leaders, including someone from this group, and I mentioned that if we had any hope of reaching that age group or being relevant in their lives we had to start speaking their language and be interested in what they were interested in and caring about what they care about. We cannot hope to reach a generation that is focused on social justice issues like gun control, poverty, education costs, and the like if we still preach the “Leave it to Beaver” message of the 1950’s those days are gone!

The bottom line is this, the church is not dying, the institutional church might be dying but spirituality and community are on the rise, and we need to figure out how to be part of it. Dinner and table churches, pub theology, interactive Bible studies and discussion groups, listening sessions with young folks, taking a stand on issues, and not being afraid to preach the gospel that we need to love everyone and that all people have inherent worth and are created in God’s image.

We need to stop condemning and start celebrating like the Easter people that we are!

ABC News/Washington Post Poll on the Decline in Religion

The world needs properly trained clergy

Certain professions, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, auto mechanics require a certain level of education and competence. One would not consider hiring a lawyer or going to a doctor that was not adequately trained and licensed. When building a house we employ licensed contractors who use skilled and licensed tradespeople to do the work necessary, so it boggles my mind that people would attend a church with a pastor and teacher that has little or no education. What we need today is an educated and professional clergy, and we only harm message and ministry of the church when we think otherwise.

A friend came to me one day and told me that he felt called by God to go into the ministry. We sat and talked about his call, and I discussed that pathway toward ordination, and that included some time in school namely seminary. He told me that he was not able to attend seminary nor could he afford it. I mentioned that is my belief that if he were indeed called a way would be found for him to attend. He ended up not going to seminary, and I am not sure if he pursued his call or not. The point is seminary or some professional theological training in important in ministry.

When I step into the pulpit each Sunday, I face an educated congregation. The level of education of the average person today is much different than it was 50 or a hundred years ago. The preacher was often the most educated person in the community, and it was their responsibility to understand how to convey the message of God to the people. But ministry is much more than preaching, and that is where the training come in.

Now I will admit, the modern seminary education does not prepare students, well, for the practical arts of ministry. Seminary does not leach leadership, accounting, plumbing, website and bulletin design or any of the other myriad of tasks that the 21st-century ministry is called upon to perform. What it does is give one a solid foundation in theology and religious studies and some programs will give one the skills necessary to preach and teach. But the church of the 21st century is a very complicated thing and the minister today needs to be a multi-disciplined person.

The Gold Standard of seminary education is the Master of Divinity Degree. This terminal degree is the professional degree that gives one the educational qualifications, educational only, for ordination. A student needs more than “book learning” to be a minister and those skills are learned in the field. Most programs balance “book learning” with field education.

A recent article featured on the webpage of the Religion News Service points to a recent study by the Association of Theological Schools, find that more and more students are opting for a Master of Theology rather than the traditional Master of Divinity. One reason, the Master of Religion, can be completed in two years where the traditional Master of Divinity takes three years of study. The study found that one of the main reasons for this was cost, that is understandable. But another reason was that the Master of Religion allowed a broader study of religious topics where the curriculum of the Master of Divinity is usually a set sequence of courses.

The bottom line is the church needs an educated clergy and needs to find a way to make that happen. The church and her people deserve clergy that has the best training possible, and the congregations need to realize the cost of this and come to grips with salaries to cover those costs.

Read the entire Religion News Service piece here.