What an awesome day!
A few notes on today’s sermon …
To give you some context, today was Stewardship Sunday at church. And even though my sermon had “it’s time to pledge for next year” undertones, I think it can speak to anyone in transition that is getting ready to look towards the future and see visions.
I read, “Oh The Places You’ll Go” during my children’s sermon and talked about Stewardship/Vision and how it is important to dream big.
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy you’ll decide where to go.
– Dr. Seuss
This was how I had the altar set up today.
Okay, I think that’s it – here’s the sermon. Audio is here.
A Future With Hope
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
This verse – Jeremiah 29:11 – is the verse that we have been using for this year’s Stewardship Campaign. The theme of this year’s campaign was, “A New Beginning.”
I am sure that at this point, you all are tired of hearing that phrase. I have managed to sneak it into several sermons, Epistle letters and worship services. But here is the thing about “A New Beginning”: It is not just a phrase that someone coined and had printed on a banner. It is something that, as a church, we have all grabbed hold of and attempted to live out in our community and in our ministries at the Rehoboth Congregational Church.
Over the past several months, we have been on a journey together. We have tried new things, we have re-thought some old things and we have searched for God’s grace amidst the crazy and hectic world of life and ministry. As a new minister, especially, you all have shown an exorbitant amount of faith and patience in me as I settled into my role and my call here. Next week we get to celebrate the strides that we have made and our hope for the future at my Service of Installation right here.
But today we also get to celebrate the strides that we have made and our hope for the future.
Today is Stewardship Sunday, a day when we offer our pledges for the 2012-year to God; we bless them and we ask God to use them – and us – as vessels in service and in ministry in this community and in the world. Stewardship isn’t just about filling out a pledge card and handing it to the Financial Secretary to report to the Trustees so that they can crunch the numbers. It is about investing in this church; investing in a vision that you have for this church; investing in the future.
We chose this scripture – “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” – to go with this year’s campaign because of how beautifully it encapsulates what we were trying to accomplish. We are trying to embrace this New Beginning and look to our future with hope.
Now I it is important to look at this scripture within the wider context in which it was written. The prophet Jeremiah was not necessarily ministering to a group of people who were embarking on a magnificent journey, like we are right now as a community. Jeremiah was ministering to a group of exiles. Following the fall of Jerusalem, the nation of Judah, the Judean people, had been exiled to Babylon. The first deportation was in the year 597 B.C.E. and many other deportations followed after; this became the age of the “Babylonian Exile”. The Judeans were exiled from their homes; from their communities.
So when Jeremiah prophesies, “For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place,” he quite literally means, “Sorry guys – God says you will eventually get your future with hope, but for right now you’re stuck in Babylon. So make yourself comfortable.”
Well, that’s hopeful, isn’t it?
70 years is a long time. Especially when the Trustees would like to create a budget for – well – next year. But I have two thoughts on why I think that this scripture – and especially the context that it was written in – speaks very relevantly to where we are right now.
First of all, I think it is important to remember that change takes time. Believe me when I say that no one would love more than me to rip up the “Rehoboth Reality” sheet that was included in this year’s Stewardship packet as soon as possible. Believe me – I would love this to be gone next year. But change takes time.
Do I think that we should make it one of our goals – one of our visions – to not only rip this up, but also to dream bigger? Yes – let’s reach! But change takes time.
That being said: Do I think that we can make a dent in this? Absolutely, I do. I think we are journeying down a very positive road and the ‘reality’ will very look different next year. But let us remember to be patient with one another along that journey. Let us continue to be prayerful in our discussions about money and about giving and spending and about the paths that we want to travel.
And I am not saying that it is going to take us 70 years to see our visions become a reality, because I do not think that we are supposed to interpret this scripture literally in our lives. But I do think that Jeremiah is reminding us through this prophesy to the exiles that, 1: Change takes time and 2: (and more importantly) God is with us always. God did say to the exiled that he was not going to visit until the 70 years were complete, but that was in a very physical and literal way that we do not have an understanding of today. God was there with the exiles; God was speaking to them. They were not alone through that time. We are not alone.
The second thing I will say about not just this scripture, but also about the context in which it is found, is the fact that Jeremiah was not necessarily ministering to a group of people actively in crisis mode. Yes, the Judean people had been exiled out of Judea and were living in Babylon. Yes, they were living in exile – they were forced into exile; but they were not living in imprisonment.
Scholars believe that while the Judean people were exiled in Babylon, they set up lives for themselves. There were allowed freedoms – both religious and personal – in the cities that they settled in. They could still celebrate their Jewish heritage. Despite the fact that they were living in exile, they still lived their lives. They had no other choice; they could either live as though they were imprisoned exiles and be miserable and fruitless for 70 years – or they could take the deck of cards that they were dealt, accept where they were and see how they could still have a prosperous and hopeful future.
I think it is easy to look, not just at this particular church, but also at mainline Protestant churches as a whole, and act imprisoned. It is easy to say, “People just don’t come like they used to,” or “People just don’t give like they used to” or “There are just too many distractions these days” or “Sports are just taking over” and admit defeat that churches won’t be as vibrant as they once were. I think that it is also easy to say, “With less people there are less pledges coming in” or “The economy tanked and people just don’t have the money to give anymore” or “The culture of giving is different than it used to be” or “Our endowment isn’t yielding as much as it once was” or “Operating expenses are more than they used to be and we can’t afford salaries” and feel imprisoned by the fact that churches will not be as financially secure as they once were and therefore not as virbrant.
But that is not what the exiles did. That is not what God called them to do – that is not what God calls us to do.
The Judeans living in exile took the situation that they were given and set up a new life. The tides were changing and they knew that; they knew that life would never be the way that it once was. That is life: ‘For everything there is a season’ and those seasons change.
But we still have that future with hope. God promises us that future with hope.
I think that we can look at this ‘Rehoboth Reality’, we can recite all of the reasons why the mainline church is in decline and we can look back fondly at a time when this church was packed to the brim, had multiple Sunday School sessions and less financial worries and feel defeated.
Or, I think we can rejoice in the people who are here today; the ministries that we are apart of today; the new things that we are trying; and go back to our visions.
Two weeks ago I preached about ‘vision’ and I KNOW it resonated in you because I heard you talking about; I heard you talking about it that day, that night and throughout the week. I know that it resonated in you and I know that you all have great visions for this church. Things do not have to be where they once were for those visions to come true: Things can change and that change can be positive. Those visions do not have to look anything like what has been done in the past and that does not mean that this community will not thrive.
Yes, the tides are changing, but what if we rolled with those tides and see where they take us? What if we looked at the world that we are living in today – yes, a world that is very different than the one we were living in 50 years ago – and lived out a ministry that is relevant and accessible to that world? Oh the places we might go, the people we might meet along the way!
It would be easy to say, “Things just are not the way that they used to be and the church will never thrive like it once did.” But I think that it would be so much more meaningful if we said, “The world is changing in some pretty amazing ways – let’s take the church along for that ride!”
Let’s invest in this church.
Let’s invest in a future – with hope.
These pictures frames on the altar – they are empty. You get to decide what goes in them.
May God bless you in your discernment, in your action and along your journey. And may God bless us all and give us a future with hope.