On Faith And Rainbows

Below is the sermon that I preached two Sundays ago.  I wanted to post it so I could remember this time and so that church members who weren’t able to make it to church when I announced we were leaving could have the opportunity to read it.  I hesitated posting it at first, because of how emotional this has been for me, but I do feel like there is an underlying message of change and good news attached to something extremely personal.  Enjoy!  See you tonight for WADT pictures!

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

***

On Faith and Rainbows

I went to lunch with some coworkers early on in the week and popped open a fortune cookie with the following fortune: “It takes rain and sunshine to make a rainbow!” I sat back in my chair and stared at those words for a few minutes, thinking about how true they have been in my life over the past couple of months.

Most of you know that I spent the summer working as a chaplain at Grady Memorial Hospital downtown completing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, a required unit for my pending ordination. It probably won’t surprise most of you that nothing could have prepared me for what I saw, what I experienced and what I felt during my 11 weeks of often 60 hour weeks inside the walls of Grady. That was rain.

I surrendered my hospital ID on a Friday afternoon and on Monday morning I was back at work at the school of public health down at Emory, a job that I worked while I was in seminary. This is a job flexible in hours, part time, paid and doesn’t involve me sitting with grieving families on a daily basis. I have found new meaning in my life outside of Grady. I have time to eat breakfast at home and not on the go, to cook dinner and to read for pleasure. I am training for a half marathon. I can watch the leaves change color. I can spend time with my husband and my friends and family. I can marvel at the beauty that surrounds me. That was sunshine.

And all of a sudden, there was a rainbow.

Despite the breath of fresh air that came with life outside of Grady, there was a gray cloud hanging over my head: My ordination process. Most of you remember when Heidi and Rachel went through the process a few years ago. It is slow, tedious, confusing, linear and long. I was in Connecticut last month for a meeting with my committee on church and ministry, only to find out that – for reasons beyond my control – things had been pushed back another month. I arrived in Connecticut excited about the prospect of moving forward and I flew back to Atlanta feeling completely defeated, feeling like a failure both professionally and vocationally. I felt like I had let down my home congregation and my family. I wasn’t sure if I was even supposed to be on the path to ordination; maybe I had misunderstood my call. That was rain.

This past Thursday I met with my committee on church and ministry again through a conference call. The tone of this meeting was much different. I was commended on the sermon I submitted to them, praised for my openness to new ministries and was told repeatedly of my maturity and readiness for ministry. The committee voted affirmatively to call my Ecclesiastical Council and on December 12th I will go before the delegates of the Litchfield North Association of the Connecticut Conference; if I am approved, I will begin my search and call process. That was sunshine.

And all of a sudden, there was a rainbow.

That brings me to today – and some news that I have to share with you all. Last month when I was in Connecticut, I was speaking with a Connecticut Conference staff person about my upcoming search and call process. It was recommended that I circulate my ministerial profile nationwide to widen my pool of possibilities. It was also recommended that I look at where some of the highest concentrations of UCC churches are – and to consider giving congregations more confidence in me by already living in their vicinity. Unfortunately, the southeast is not known for its saturation of UCC churches (yet!). And after a lot of prayerful consideration, Bruce and I have made the decision to move to Connecticut. We are leaving in Atlanta on December 7th.

This decision brings us both sunshine and rain. On the one hand, we will be much closer to our families and to the support system of my sponsoring congregation and ordination committee. I will have the opportunity to supply preach for congregations in my association and possibly get my foot in the door of churches with openings. That is sunshine.

But it is not going to be easy to leave our family here; here in Atlanta and specifically here at Pilgrimage. In my etidings message this week, I said the following: “I’m not sure that I can put into words what Pilgrimage has meant to Bruce and me over the past three years. When we walked through the sanctuary doors nearly three years ago we were two people living very far away from our families for the first time in our lives. Three years later, while still living the same distances from our nuclear family, we have our own family – right here.” That – this – is rain.

I know that somewhere there is a rainbow – but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Most scholars believe that Paul wrote the letter that we read to Timothy this morning while he was imprisoned in Rome, facing imminent death. The editors of the HarperCollins Study Bible note, “Concern for church order is thus less important in this Letter than are personal exhortations. In particular, the example of Paul’s faithful endurance in the face of suffering is used to encourage Timothy—and through him all Christians—to similar endurance.”

In many ways I feel like Paul right now. I am not in prison and facing death, but I am getting ready to leave. And I feel like time is running out. With the craziness of mine and the church’s schedule, this will be my last time preaching before we move. So I almost feel like it’s now or never – to encourage you, to commend you, to inspire you, to celebrate you and to challenge you.

This church has undergone a lot of changes in the three years that Bruce and I have been there. The most noticeable, of course, are the physical changes of the building and grounds. We went from blue walls, folding chairs, partitioned off Sunday School classes and a mold-infested trailer to a worship inducing sanctuary lit by the beautiful colors of the stained glass windows, brand new fellowship and educational spaces for the youth and children and a spruced up meeting and educational space in the fellowship hall.

I have worked closely with the Christian Education committee during my time here and I continue to be in absolute awe over its growth and vibrancy. We currently have six Sunday School classes in session following our 10:00 worship service. Six!

Parish Life events are only getting bigger and better. The strength of community that is being built during these events will be the catalyst that this congregation needs to continue to grow in the spirit of Christ’s love and ministry.

The diversity in music and worship has doubled, if not tripled, over the past few years. We have brass, woodwinds, bluegrass, bells, vocalists, drama, dance, drums and more! The talent in this congregation is absolutely incredible.

The missions committee continues to open up this congregation to the needs of this community and of the world. They refuse to be complacent and inwardly focused and they want to collaborate with others. That attitude has rubbed off on each and every one of you. I can see it. I can feel it.

The church as a whole is finding new and exciting ways to mix tradition and innovation, combining age-old texts and sacraments with 21st century technologies and communication devices. Communion on facebook? Well, maybe not … but you are thinking creatively.

I also said in my etidings blurb, “If I had to pick one thing that Pilgrimage does well, I would say it is the spirit of hospitality and support throughout the entire congregation.” The members of the Good News team have given new meaning to the phrase radical hospitality. Most of the new members in our congregation note specifically in their Inquirers Classes how, where and by whom they were welcomed by when they first visited Pilgrimage. That’s not normal; that’s something to be proud of. That is something I hope to one day call my own church to strive towards.

And let’s talk about the youth and children! They are smart, they are compassionate and they care about this church, the community and the world. They probably know their bible better than I do and their energy should be bottled up and distributed out. People say that mainline protestant churches are in trouble, but I don’t agree. Not with this generation chomping at the bit to get into leadership! Their potential is great and their ambition is greater.

Paul says in his letter to Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” In other words – You have the tools. Use them. Trust them. You are already doing good things. Continue to do good things.

I do not think that I could think of a more perfect thing to say to you as I begin to make my own transition out of this congregation. You have the tools. Use them. Trust them. You are already doing good things. Continue to do good things. This is the sunshine.

Of course Paul doesn’t exactly leave quietly. He continues on with some advice. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” In other words – Keep going. Because the work doesn’t stop here; it doesn’t stop today. This is only the beginning.

Again, I do not think that I could think of a more perfect thing to say to you as I begin to make my own transition out of this congregation. Keep going. Because the work doesn’t stop here; it doesn’t stop today. This is only the beginning. Continue to push the boundaries to force change where you see that it is necessary. Give of your time, your talents and your financial gifts to continue to allow this church to grow and to thrive. Teach what you know and be open to learn what you don’t. Do not force conformity among one another and love each other because of your differences, not in spite of them. Believe in the people around you. Believe in yourself. Believe in this congregation.

Be open to change.

But be true to who you are.

Yes – you are already doing good things. But your work isn’t done yet. This is the rain.

And all of a sudden, my friends, we have a rainbow.

Pilgrimage United Church of Christ is still very young. When I was a student intern here, I once described Pilgrimage as a rebellious teenager, capable of so much, yet still struggling to find its identity. I know I sound like a broken record when I say this, but 30 years is not old for a church! Here is the beauty of where you are right now: You do not have to have all of the answers. You do not have to have to declare your identity. You can just be who you are.

Paul’s final words are these: “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” The words “always be sober” are comical in light of last night’s wine tasting, but I think the rest of the call can be said to you all verbatim: Do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

I am excited for you. I am excited about the potential of this church and its congregation. And the beauty of the United Church of Christ is that this isn’t goodbye – and when I head north on December 7th, it still won’t be goodbye. The covenantal commitments of the United Church of Christ will always keep us connected. As the UCC continues to discern what it means to be a mainline protestant denomination in the 21st century, it is my hope that conferences around the country will continue to collaborate. I encourage you – and I will do the same! – to push for those collaborations to happen. I hope to work with you again in the future. And I hope to see some of you at General Synod in 2011 in Tampa.

This isn’t goodbye. And honestly – it isn’t the end either. But it is time to start a new chapter. Paul knew that the real ministry was going to go on long after he left. And the same goes for me. I have great expectations for Pilgrimage United Church of Christ – I know that the best is yet to come.

Amen.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I finished my sermon!!  I couldn’t sleep last night because I was so afraid I was going to oversleep my alarm and be late so I am running a little low on energy right now.  It was such a wonderful day, though.  I love preaching at Pilgrimage; they are so forgiving of and welcoming to me when I preach.  It is so encouraging and comforting.

Anyway, without further adieu …

Acts 5:27-32
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’

***

Where Do We Go From Here?

In June of 2003, I took my first trip to Teupasenti, Honduras to observe a Christian-based education mission that my church in Connecticut supports. While I was there, I saw poverty at its extreme: Large families living in shacks without windows, doors or floors; multiple siblings having to share one single pair of shoes; women walking over 10 miles a day in order to teach six grades all at once in a one-room school house; 600 children waiting patiently for one meal of chicken and rice (the only meal they would receive that day) and a group of hard working people – despite their work ethic and resilience – unable to break the cycle of poverty and self-sustain their village after the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in the late 90s.

As my trip drew to a close, I knew that my life had been changed forever. I was 18 years old and about to leave for college. I felt empowered to help the people of Teupasenti, to work with them and with the organization, Children’s Rescue Mission, to strengthen and grow their community from the inside out. In addition, I wanted to look at my own finances, adjust how I was spending my money and look to see if there was a way I could support them monetarily as well.

I flew from Tegucigalpa – the capital of Honduras – to Miami where I collected my luggage, went through customs and waited for my flight back to New York. I thought about the friends that I had made and the life that I was returning to. I thought about the stories that I wanted to tell and the changes that I wanted to make in my own life. I thought about the fact that you could feed one child one nutritious meal for 50 cents – a mere $180 a year to feed one child every day for an entire year!! I thought to myself, “Where do I go from here?”

I was getting a little thirsty, so I wandered through the terminal until I found a vending machine. Without thinking twice, I paid $2 for a bottle of water.

Two dollars; I spent two dollars on one 16 ounce bottle of water!! The amount of money that I spent on 16 ounces of water could have fed one child for four days in Teupasenti.

It is easy to lose perspective of how you are being called to act when that reality isn’t staring you in the face. It was easy for me to forget about the faces of those I wanted to help when I found myself back in the United States, surrounded by the modern conveniences of the developed world. It was easy to forget that I had asked myself the simple question, “Where do I go from here?”

Do you ever wonder if Jesus’ disciples had to force themselves to ask to the same question after the crucifixion and miraculous resurrection? Jesus ascended into heaven, but here on earth, were people wondering, “Where do we go from here?” Here’s the thing – the political situation in Jerusalem wasn’t exactly springtime and roses in the first century. There was a reason that Jesus was put on the cross, a political one. Yes, in a Christiological sense, Jesus died for the sins of the world, but in a political sense, Jesus was sentenced to death because he broke the law in Jerusalem. Anyone who preached his message would be – in a sense – breaking the laws of Jerusalem as well.

We just heard a reading from the book of Acts. Now, many scholars believe that the book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke were at one point one literary project that was separated when the New Testament was coming together and the Gospel of John was inserted after Luke. This means that the same person wrote both Luke and Acts; Luke was part one and Acts was part two. Think of it this way; the Gospel of Luke chronicles the life, ministry and death of Jesus Christ, the book of Acts is the sequel, it is the first generation of Christians, the 12 Apostles sharing the Gospel. The book of Acts chronicles those people whose leader went directly against the laws of society; they watched their fearless leader hang on a cross, overcome death and then ascend into heaven and – after it was all said and done and they were putting the pieces back together – were asking themselves the question, “Where do we go from here?”

The book of Acts starts off with the ascension of Jesus. The Apostles came together and Jesus told them that they would receive the power of the Holy Spirit and they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus called them to be witnesses to the message of the Gospel – even though he was not going to be there to set the example.

And that is what they did. They carried on using the example of Jesus’ life; they healed the sick, they reached out to the poor, they shared their possessions and they called for radical justice. They did the same thing that put Jesus on the cross and they did this without Jesus being physically present to lead them.

I always get chills when I start to think about the earliest followers of Christ. They had nothing to gain by preaching the message of the Gospel. In fact – they had everything to lose. And yet they continued to push the boundaries of the law. The felt in their hearts that what they were preaching was right and they allowed themselves to be filled by the presence of the Holy Spirit and continued to preach the Good News.

And here I am, 2,000 years later – with nothing to lose by preaching the message of the Gospel, by healing the sick, reaching out to the poor, sharing my possessions and calling for radical justice – and yet it is so easy for me to forget all that I saw and all that I felt empowered to do in Honduras. It is so easy for me to forget the fact that one minute I had asked myself the simple question, “Where do I go from here?” – because the next minute I bought an overpriced bottle of water that could have fed a child for nearly an entire school week. I lost sight of the reality I wanted to hold onto because it was not right in front of me.

We come into the story today after the Apostles were called before the Council for breaking the laws of Jerusalem. Luke recorded that the “high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’”

I do not know about the blood, but they were determined to bring Christ’s message of love and justice to the people of Jerusalem. They were determined not to lose perspective of who and what they were being called to be and to do and to the reality that they wanted to hold onto even though Jesus was not there to lead them. They were determined not to forget that they had asked themselves the simple question, “Where do we go from here?” Instead, Peter and the Apostles allowed themselves to be strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit and answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom who had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey God. We – this worshipping community, our greater church community our national church body and the entire Christian Church – are witnesses to these things.

The last four to five months have been a very, very busy time in the life of the Christian church. Starting at the end of November, we hung the greens and settled into Advent, preparing for the birth of the Messiah. We welcomed Jesus into a manger, celebrated in January when the wise men arrived with gifts, saw Jesus as a boy in the temple and were inspired by the miracles he performed. We could barely catch our breaths and all of a sudden we were receiving ashes and entering Lent, reflecting on the journey that Jesus was taking, thinking about the sacrifices that were about to be made and the changes that were about to occur. Am I the only one who thinks it just seems like yesterday that we were putting chrismons on our tree and covering the altar in poinsettias? How has Easter already come and gone?

I think now – the Sunday after Easter – is a great time to pause, to take a deep breath and to ask the question, “Where do we go from here?” Where do we go from here as members of this church, as a congregation in the United Church of Christ and as Christians in a broken world? Where do we go from here? What have we taken from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? What have we learned from the ministry lived out by Jesus on earth? What did the 12 Apostles – who risked all that they had to proclaim the Gospel throughout the world – teach us with their tenacity? Who are we being called to be as Christians? What are we being called to do in their world? Christ was crucified and resurrected, but what does that mean for us – today, living within the framework that we are living in? Where do we go from here?

In many ways, we are extremely lucky. The United States isn’t perfect, but we have the individual freedom to practice the religious tradition we feel called to. The United Church of Christ isn’t perfect, but within our denominational system each church has the individual freedom to govern themselves and discern what they believe. Here, in our country and in our church community, we can ask ourselves individually and as a community, “Where do we go from here?” – and no one will answer for us.

The strange thing about the Christian year is that it is very top heavy. We go through Advent-Christmas-Lent-Easter in a short amount of time and now we have this long lull in the seasons where we get to focus not on what is going on in the Christian Church year, but on who we are as Christians.

The Apostles experienced the death and resurrection of Christ and rose to the challenge of living out their call and spreading the Good News.

We have just re-experienced the death and resurrection of Christ, the reason we are who we are as Christian people. Where do we go from here?

Amen.

Ash Wednesday

Tonight I had the honor of presiding over the Ash Wednesday service with my pastor.  It really is an incredible worship experience and a fantastic way to kick off the 40 day journey we are all about to take through Lent.
I thought the best way to reflect on the service is just to share my reflections themselves, the meditation that I used as a welcome in tonight’s service.  I think it tells the story of why this service touches me so deeply.
On a different note, as I was setting up this afternoon, the sun was hitting our new stain glass just right and the light just seemed to spill on the freshly draped cross.  It was exquisite, I couldn’t help but grab my camera.
Isn’t it strange how you can see the presence of God in a worship space – even when worship is four hours from happening?
Peace and blessings as you enter into this Lenten season,
Sarah

***

Good evening – and welcome to our service of worship marking the beginning of Lent.

The church I grew up never once hosted an Ash Wednesday service. In fact, they were vehemently opposed to the idea, saying it was too morbid, too ritualistic, too – well – Catholic. Year after year, I would watch my Catholic classmates come to school marked with ash on their forehead and I quietly wondered what it would be like to have ashes cling to my forehead.

I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but it wasn’t until last year when I was serving as a student intern here at Pilgrimage that I took part in my first Ash Wednesday service. And as much as I wished I could have experienced the imposition of ashes long before that point, the absence of it in my life gave me 24 years to think about why I – as a protestant, as a member of the United Church of Christ, as someone who experiences God in the ordinary – wanted to take part in this ritual.

Why?

In a very basic sense of the service, Ash Wednesday is about remembering our own mortality. It’s not supposed to be uplifting or cheerful. We don’t bring in the brass and splash the sanctuary with poinsettias and lilies. We came from the dust of the earth and the ashes clinging to our foreheads remind us that – in the same way that Christ clung on the cross – we are all mortal. We will all return to the dust of the earth.

But what does that mean for us, today? What does that mean for each and every one of us as we enter into this 2010 Lenten season? Seasons of the Spirit, a lectionary based educational and worship resource that we use at Pilgrimage, described Ash Wednesday in the following way:  In many traditions around the world, the time just before Lent is a time of trying our other identities, wearing masks, a carnival. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a time of inner revealing. We confront the reality that sometimes our prayers are efforts to show God our best sides, rather than our most broken selves. It is a time to unveil to our own awareness the true contours of our hearts, including the shadowy parts. We see and wear ashes not only in grief for our mortality, but also in a sense of freedom. In God’s loving way, forgiveness, justice, and renewal aren’t all up to our efforts and goodness. Our spiritual work is to make all dimensions of life and community available to the renewing love of the Holy One.

Tonight, when I receive my ashes, I won’t be the same person that received ashes last year. I’ve changed, I’ve grown; maybe for the better, who knows? But the beauty of who we are as Christians is that every year we get a fresh start to re-experience God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The beauty of who we are as members of the United Church of Christ is that no matter who we are or where we are on our journey through life, we are welcomed at this altar and invited to feel the ashes on our skin.

Is Ash Wednesday supposed to remind us of our mortality? Yes – but that is not all that it is designed to do. It is designed to remind us that even though we are all entering this journey through Lent from different places, emotions and periods in our lives, we all enter together. We are connected by the ashes that cling to us, by the grace of God shown as Jesus clung on the cross and by the hope we have that Jesus’ message of shalom will one day be peace on earth.

Today denominational barriers are ripped down as Christians all over the world wear ashes together. Differences in race, gender, age and class are gone because the ashes we wear are all the same. We walk into this Lenten season together. No matter who you are, no matter what your journey looks like right now – here, at this altar, with this ash – we all walk together.

Let us worship God.