Good Sunday Evening! I hope you all had a wonderful sabbath.
I had the opportunity to preach at Bethany Congregational Church in Foxboro, Massachusetts today. I know several of the staff up there and they asked me to come and preach on living within pastoral transitions and 21st century discipleship. They are in between pastors at the moment, so both topics are extremely relevant. I have done a lot of work with these very things at RCC since I began 2 1/2 years ago, so I was honored to be asked to come and share my thoughts!
Enjoy the sermon …
Sarah Weaver (c) 2013
Bethany Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
August 25, 2013
Traveling As Disciples Into A Future With Hope
In November of 2010, I found the following fortune in a fortune cookie:
It takes rain and sunshine to make a rainbow!
At the time those words really resonated with me. I was living in Atlanta. I had just graduated seminary and clinical chaplaincy rotation. I was preparing to begin the journey of looking for my first call, but terrified about where the journey would take me. I had so many questions and not a lot of answers. The rain was falling around me.
Four months later, the rain was still falling. I had moved to Connecticut to begin looking for a church position. It was a dark, cold and snowy winter. Searching for a church position was becoming time consuming and frustrating. The reality of having no steady income was starting to take its toll on both my husband and me.
Then one day I received a phone call from the chair of a search committee at a church in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. At that point I had so many conversations similar to this one; but when I hung up the phone, something felt different.
In March of 2011, I stood behind the pulpit at the Rehoboth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, and preached my call sermon. The church was full that day – full of people, full of nerves, but also full of hope. You see – Rehoboth was experiencing a rainfall of its own. A difficult transition and interim time had left many people feeling disheartened. A spring flood had caused devastating damage to the lower level of the church building. Numbers were starting to dwindle. Church organization and finances were unsettled. The congregation knew that change had to be on the horizon, but no one knew how, where or when to begin.
At the end of worship that morning, I said the benediction, walked down the isle with my husband and out of the sanctuary. We were met by one of the members of the search committee, who escorted us into a room while we waited for the congregational meeting and vote to take place.
We could hear murmurings from the meeting, but for the most part we did not know what was going on. All of a sudden a period of silence was broken when a loud “AYE!” boomed through the entire building, followed by applause and cheering.
I was brought back into the sanctuary where everyone was smiling, cheering, laughing and crying.
For both the Rehoboth Congregational Church and me, the rain had cleared, the sun had emerged and a rainbow was appearing in the sky.
And it was so beautiful.
It is very difficult to live in the discomfort of a transition, particularly a pastoral transition. Transitions – by their nature – are unpredictable, disconcerting and scary. But they also gather the ingredients for that beautiful rainbow to come together.
Bethany Congregational Church – first and foremost, I want to promise you this morning that your rainbow is coming. And I guarantee, it will be so, SO beautiful.
God promises us that rainbow. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD,” our scripture from the Old Testament reads, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
When the prophet Jeremiah spoke these words, he was ministering to a group of exiles in Babylon, where – following the fall of Jerusalem – the Judean people had been exiled. This was known as the age of the “Babylonian Exile,” a 70-year period where the Judeans were exiled from their homes; from their communities.
So often we read this scripture and only remember the words of the 11th verse, “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.” And we should remember these words! They offer us hope and reassurance during times of trouble and uncertainty.
But what about the words that precede them? The 10th verse of this chapter says, “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.”
It is important to remember that this prophecy took place at the beginning of the exile, the beginning of that 70-year period. So when Jeremiah said, “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.”
Rest assured, I am not here to tell you that the search for a new pastor will take 70 years. But I do think that we can learn a lot from what the Judean people did while they were in their own transition.
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 be part of that prosperous and hopeful future, how they could create that rainbow.
Very often when churches experience a time of interim between pastors, they think that everything must be put on hold until a new pastor is called. And sometimes this may be the case, but not always. God calls us to live within transitions, not wait in vain for them to be over. You, members and friends of Bethany Congregational Church are the church and – just like the founders of this congregation were called to do in 1779 when Bethany was organized – God is calling you to do great things, with or without a settled pastor.
Let’s look at this morning’s Gospel reading.
Jesus said to 11 disciples that had gathered in Galilee:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Jesus lived on earth and called the men and women who walked with him into his ministry. But he also called those men and women to expand this ministry into new generations, to create a priesthood of all believers; a group of people touched by grace, united by the waters of baptism, followers of the Gospel and heeding this same call within their lives.
Jesus is calling you, Bethany Church, to go therefore and make disciples of all nations within the transition that you are experiencing right now.
I read a commentary once that talked about the ways that scriptures blends the God of history with the God of creation. One of the challenges of being part of a church with as much history and tradition as this one is finding a balance between these two. The God of history is infused in everything that has happened up until this point. It lives within the stories that are told, the way things were and the traditions that are honored today. The God of history is the reason that we are here today, the reason that this church exists the way that it does and the reason that so many people have been touched by this community over the years.
But the God of creation is still creating and still calling disciples today.
The God of creation is calling every single one of you into a unique and divinely inspired ministry.
The God of creation is working within this church, within this pastoral transition and within the changes that are happening.
Change is not always easy – in fact, it has been my experience that change is almost never easy. We tend to resist change because it is scary and makes us uncomfortable. We like the safety of the known and dread the vulnerability of the unknown. We are often scared that the decisions we are making may impact the future in a negative way. And we would rather guard against that fear by keeping things the way they have always been.
But if we guard against change, we could be denying ourselves the opportunity to be true to who we are and to who the God of creation had created us and is calling us to be.
Yes, God promises that future with hope, but God also calls each one of us to be part of the process, to live within the transition while it is happening and to be the disciples who create that future with hope.
God has created each and every one of us to be a disciple of Christ and we are all called to listen to the still speaking voice of God talking to each and every one of us. No one should be denied the opportunity to be an authentic version of the disciples that they are called to be.
As you live within your own transition, Bethany Congregational Church, I invite you to reflect on the ways that the God of creation is calling you to be a part both of what the God is history has done throughout the years, but also of what is happening in your midst right now. Be courageous as your journey forward, both in your words and in your steps. Find your passions and turn those passions into ministries that can serve. Be gentle with yourselves and with one another. Take ownership of this church and your piece of its history that is still unfolding. Feel united by those waters of baptism that shower over all of you and come together to worship, sing, serve and learn. Heed the call to make disciples of all nations. Celebrate who you are – and who you may become.
I think that this is a really neat time in the life of our churches here in this community, around the country and throughout the world. No, things may not necessarily be the way that they used to be, but so many incredible things are happening. The God of creation is alive and at work and we are active participants in the Body of Christ.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” – this was not something that has happened, this is something that is still happening. In every generation that call to discipleship is renewed. It was renewed in 1779 when this congregation was organized and forming its identity and it is being renewed today as this community re-forms its identity and prepares itself for the arrival of a new pastor.
The best is always yet to come. And you, as a congregation, are traveling as disciples into a future with hope. This is God’s promise to you.
Your rainbow is coming.
And it is going to be spectacular.
Thanks be to God!