Ser13nv22FC.doc “A Vision Worth Living” -1- November 13, 2022
Lection: Isaiah 65:17-25
First off, I want to thank Hal for one last opportunity to preach before we head home at the end of the month. I want to thank him as well for the opportunity to be here during his sabbatical for the second time. It is such a gift to serve in the place of a deeply respected colleague for a time, and to be subsidized to spend time with our grandchildren in such a beautiful setting. Charnley and I are deeply grateful!
Hal asked me to summarize my time with you these last few months and to share my observations on the life of this congregation of God’s people. I don’t believe he thinks I’m an expert, but just in case you might think that, I looked up some definitions of an expert and found these: an expert is a has-been drip under pressure. That’s not a bad description I suppose, but I like this one better: an expert is anyone from out of town.
Both of those definitions are helping me stay humble this morning. They remind me that my role has been to serve, and to observe, but most importantly to walk beside the people of Plymouth on a journey with Jesus. That’s all of you and so I want to thank you all for your patience and your kindness and for the privilege of working with your amazing staff and lay leaders during Hal’s sabbatical time. As you know, your ministry team will be evolving in the next months with the search for a new Associate underway and with Jane Anne’s retirement and with JT continuing his leadership journey. Let me comment on your staff. I have worked on and led church staff teams for a long time. This staff works together with respect and affection for one another. I have never served with a team where so much positive energy and spirit are present. Hal built this team, and his leadership will continue to build as the team evolves in the coming months.
As most of you know, I think, congregations in our tradition are lay led. As clergy, we serve as pastors and teachers, as coaches and advisers, and with the other members of the staff, support and facilitate the real leadership. That is your elected leadership team of three Moderators, past, present, and coming, your leadership council, your boards and ministry groups and lots of engaged volunteers. They, along with all of you, are the real heart of this congregation and their creativity and willingness to volunteer makes all that happens here possible. It is a sign of a congregation’s true strength, that the ministers, and especially the Senior minister, are often surprised by the level of activity and commitment going on in the life of the congregation. It has been a joy to behold.
Watching the Deacons every Sunday, observing the sound team, being in a building so well maintained by Trustees and volunteers who care, standing in awe of the team that led the Mission Marketplace and those who fill our worship with music and those groups that do so much in this community that brings to life the love of Jesus. I find myself wanting to dance with joy and thankfulness for this local incarnation of love called Plymouth. I am so pleased that in a world that is scary, my grandchildren are surrounded by a faith community like this one.
Let me make some specific observations and some generalized recommendations, after all, I am an expert, so you probably expect that, but I want to connect my thoughts with a specific text from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah is a complicated book that is really the patched together words of three or four different prophets who lived over the course of the two hundred years from about 700 until 500 years before Jesus. Some of these words, molded by tradition, have come to be associated with the birth of Jesus the Messiah. Some of these words remind us of the Christmas story, or as words of promise about a time when God will end history with peace and justice for all. These words are visionary words of power and beauty that make what I am going to say seem a little mundane, but one of the things I believe with my whole heart, is that if you want to build the "kindom" of God, you need to name it and claim it and live that promise with all the strength you can muster, right where you are. As the Wendell Berry poem I shared a couple of weeks ago said: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts,"
This congregation and every congregation I know anything about has emerged from and may continue to exist in a tough time. Pandemic, political pandemonium, fear for the future, and change have become the new normal. We live in a world that seems to conspire against the possibility that people can trust one another.
I spoke a couple of weeks ago about what I see on the political horizon, let me talk church. Congregations are crashing. Some ministers are leaving the ministry and people have developed new ways of living that do not involve coming to worship or a willingness to volunteer or support financially, institutions. Whatever tensions existed in a church or other organizations, have become worse or more intense. Old wounds have been opened and many decent people have been reborn as curmudgeons, whose anger has soured them and strained relationships with others, particularly in the life of local congregations. Many folks seem content to stand on the outside and criticize, rather than build or rebuild for the sake of the future.
Last week I had a chance to speak to a young colleague serving a small congregation in New England. This young leader is one of the brightest and best in a new generation of clergy who see things, including the Gospel, a whole lot clearer than I ever did. They have been tested in the recent tough times, and instead of joining those who are leaving ministry, they have embraced the pressure with a sort of persistent love, not unlike the saints and mystics who emerged in the plague and strife torn Middle Ages to lead and to serve and to be the presence of Jesus in that time.
I asked him what he was experiencing in his congregation. He told me what I already knew and shared just now about the struggle and the pain and the brokenness. But then he surprised me.
I half expected to hear him say that he was discouraged and exhausted. Something I had heard from other colleagues too often in recent days. Instead, he went all Isaiah on me. I was sitting at Hal’s desk staring at this text from Isaiah and wondering what on earth I was going to say about it this morning and this young pastor spoke God’s truth and said that he had resolved in the fractured life of his post-pandemic congregation to act and speak in a new way. As I listened, he spoke words which I am audacious enough to suggest were heaven sent. He said this:
“I have resolved to treat each day as a first day in all my relationships. I have committed myself in the work I am doing in this congregation to declare that God is doing a new thing in my life and in this congregation and to act like it and invite whoever shows up here to act that way too. There is no room for too much past.”
And I was sitting there looking at Isaiah 65 while he was speaking, and reading the prophet’s words: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating……” (Isaiah 65:17-18b)
Now that knocked the cobwebs off the center of my soul and spoke a word of life that I needed to hear and a word that I need to share.
Dear church, treat each new day as the first day, a day of rebirth and renewal and rejoicing. Do not remember the former things. Greet one another as if you are meeting for the first time. Work together as if the world depends on the work you are doing. Commit yourself to one of the mission partners of this congregation or one of the task force groups, like the environmental justice group or some committee in this community to make this a better town.
Mentor one another, be a second parent or grandparent to those attempting to mold a new generation of moral people in this place; care for one another. Remember that the person sitting next to you bears the image of God. Show up on Sunday or if you can’t, join the balcony, because praying and singing together, and studying an alternative reality that is love driven and Spirit led, is the only thing I know that can subvert and challenge the corrosive environment in which we are living. I have this nightmare vision in my mind of preachers and politicians standing arm in arm in front of a cross spewing vitriol and racial hatred and intolerance as if hanging a cross behind your head makes that OK. It’s not OK.
Dear Plymouth friends, do not hold on to some old hurt or some fractured reality of what has been or what might have been. Assume that God is still speaking and act like it. The best days of this congregation are not sometime in the past. According to the prophet Isaiah they are yet to be.
Do everything you can to grow this church family, numbers are not important, but they are. Money doesn’t matter, but it does. The only thing worse than not giving, is guilt giving. Give with a joyful generosity that will transform your life. Being a generous person is living Jesus and embracing your image as God’s child…. generosity is a life saver. To live the life abundant, give…..
Church growth experts, remember what I said about experts, forget most of what the growth experts have to say…. do mission, do love, do sincere caring and be seen doing all of that. You will suddenly find yourselves surrounded by people of all ages who are attracted by the irresistible power of Jesus love.
A minute ago, I asked you to study an alternative reality driven by love, now let me dare you to live in an alternative reality. Here’s how it goes: the way of Jesus is the way of love. It begins with God’s unconditional love for all of us and for this world and then it invites us into a partnership with that love.
That journey will lead this congregation into intense engagement with environmental justice, water conservation, serious engagement with white supremacy and the oppression of persons of color, especially indigenous people and the genocide that literally took place on the land on which we are worshiping. That will lead to all sorts of good trouble. But good trouble will put you exactly where God wants you to be in the good future God has in store for this congregation.
Finally, thank you for the gift of time in your presence. Next Sunday, I’ll be sitting out there giving thanks, which is exactly where I want to be on the last Sunday before we head home. Strength to you all! Amen.