I preached this sermon at the installation of the Rev. Dr. Gregory Gray as the pastor of the Thompson Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. I was so honored he asked me to preach! It kind of felt like a full-circle moment, because I preached at his husband Jon’s installation in 2013 – at the time, Greg was still in Georgia! It’s crazy to look back at how far we – and our churches! – have come since them.
Thompson Congregational Church
September 16, 2018
Sharing This Good News
I hope the prophet Isaiah will forgive me, but I felt compelled to paraphrase his words, just a bit …
The Holy Spirit has come upon me,
because the Rev. Dr. Greg Gray has asked me to preach at his installation;
he has called me to preach the Gospel to everyone who has gathered here today,
to encourage those in this congregation, wherever they are on their journey through life,
to proclaim an official end to the transition time between settled pastors,
and to tell the church that something really amazing is happening in their midst;
to proclaim a time of new beginnings
a celebration of the conclusion of one chapter;
and the beginning of a new one;
to reassure you that this new chapter is full of great possibilities, grace that is still yet to be uncovered and hope that surpasses all understanding—
to give you courage in the face of adversity,
joy and gratefulness instead of fear and frustration,
a bold voice of praise and thanksgiving instead of a trepid heart.
They will be called Thompson Congregational, United Church of Christ,
the church called to show this community what it means to love God will all your hearts, soul, mind and strength; as well to love your neighbors just as much. And also what it means to teach this love to others creating new disciples.
They shall continue their efforts to re-build after the fire,
they shall repair not only the physical space, but the spiritual space, as well;
they shall repair the building that has been damaged,
but hold fast to the truth that their community is and will be strengthened and lifted up by God and God alone; for they are the Church, the Body of Christ, Thompson Congregational, United Church of Christ.
Friends, allow me to introduce myself – I am the Rev. Sarah Weaver; I am the pastor of the Rehoboth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Rehoboth, MA. I bring greetings and congratulations from my congregation, who – seven years later – still remembers what it feels like to take a giant exhale when the search process and transition between settled pastors was finally over.
So let’s start off by taking that big exhale, shall we?
It is an honor and a privilege and a joy to be here with you all this afternoon. Greg, I never shared this with you, but I was truly touched that you asked me to preach today; that you trusted me with this moment, what I know is an important moment for you all, as a church. So thank you, Greg, thank you, Thompson Congregational Church and thank you to the Windham Association for welcoming me here today.
“Hope is the belief in the good that is yet to come. It is the thing that gives us the courage to keep going forward.”
I am quoting two of your own members from a video called “Advent Hope” that was posted on your church Facebook page last December. Greg opened the video with images from during and immediately following the devastating fire you experienced in 2016, but then, in a bold testament to the strength and perseverance of this church, said these powerful words:
“But we still find hope here.”
You were asked to answer the question, “What does hope mean to you?” and I was so touched by those two responses, “Hope is the belief in the good that is yet to come” and, “Hope is the thing that gives us the courage keep going forward,” because they showed me that, even in times of uncertainty, you know that God is still calling you to journey forward. Thompson Congregational Church, you havethat hope that surpasses all understanding; hope that your story is not over yet, hope that you will rebuild, hope that your church will not only survive, but thrive in the days and weeks and months and years to come, generation after generation.
Our Gospel reading comes to us from the Gospel of Luke, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. He began his ministry by reading the same words that we just heard read from the Prophet Isaiah. What I love about looking at these two passages next to one another is that it reminds us – it reassures us – that these prophesies were not a one-time thing; that they can still be fulfilled today. These words were just as relevant to those that Jesus spoke to as the ones Isaiah was prophesying to.
And they are just as relevant to us here today.
You, Thompson Congregational Church, are being given garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning. Installing Greg as your settled pastor will affirm what God has known to be true all along; that the hope you spoke about in last year’s Advent video is alive and not only inspiring you to rebuild, but also to continue to proclaim the Good News.
Because here is the really cool thing about you guys – you did not let a fire stop you from being the Church.
When Greg first asked me to preach today, I told him that I really wanted to come out and visit at some point so I could get to know you all before today. But, life happened – and, of course, it is hard for pastors to be with other churches on Sunday mornings – and I never got to come out. So this past week, I have been trying to get to know you virtually. I clicked through your website and Facebook page and various articles that came up in a google search. I looked through pictures and watched videos; and I was inspired by what I saw.
You see, I kind of expected to see more about the fire; about how the church was affected and what is going to happen next. But do you know what I saw instead?
A church that blesses backpacks that are going to be donated to the local schools, first responders in the community and animals, both small and large.
A church that is committed to making a stand against bullying, participating in anti-bullying rallies and offering support to children and youth in the community.
A church that reaches out to individuals and families who have been impacted by addiction through the Holbrook Fund.
A church that collaborates with civic organizations and the local recreation department to host events that are fun for people of all ages. A church that knows that the true depth of their strength does not come from what happens inside their walls, but outside in the community.
A church that believes in the power of singing together and praying together and eating together.
Thompson Congregational Church, even in the face of adversity, you have continued to look outward. You have continued to respond to Christ’s call to love God and then love others. You have continued to proclaim the Good News of God’s love, light and grace and, as Paul wrote to the church in Roman, “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
And there are beautiful, beautiful feet in this congregation.
Which brings me to my next point.
Paul told the church in Rome that people will not hear the Good News without someone proclaiming it to them. And this is a charge that we all need to take seriously today. Christianity is an experiential and a shared religion; 2,000 years ago, the only reason people knew that Christ had risen was because the women who experienced the Risen Christ went and told other people about it.
And that piece of our faith – the piece where we tell others what we have experienced and how our faith (and, specifically, our church) has changed our lives – is more important now than it ever has been.
Paul said that, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the death, you will be saved.” Thompson Congregational Church, there is an amazing story that is being written here; a story of hope, a story of resurrection and a story of new possibilities. You need to confess that story with your lips; you need to tell your family and your friends, your neighbors and your coworkers. You need to tell the people that you know and the strangers that you have just met.
You have to tell people about the ways that God has worked within this church and the ways that God is still working within this church; the ways that God has kept hope alive in this church, the ways that the God that you put your faith and trust in has never left your side. Display the glory of God, like Isaiah prophesied. Bring this Good News to your community; invite people into your story; pray that their lives might be changed, too.
Greg, I have two gifts for you this morning. The first is a framed print of that passage from Romans, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Because I think this passage is going to define a lot of what you all do here at Thompson Congregational Church.
And I am not just talking about your shoe collection, either.
Because of devastating circumstances, you all understand that a church is more than its building; you all understand what it means to be church and to do church out in the community. You know that it takes collaboration, creativity, patience. You believe that it is the hard work you do, but also the grace God gives that enables you to make a difference. You all are ready to march, dance, stroll, crawl and skip out into the community and bring the Good News.
And I, for one, cannot wait to see how the community will be changed.
The second gift I have for you this morning comes from a stained glass artist in Chepachet, Rhode Island. You see, one of the things I have always been drawn to is the sun rising behind the church in your logo. Because it reminds me that, even in the darkest part of night, the sun will always rise again.
As Christians, we hold fast to the truth that, even in the darkest moments of our lives, the Son – S-O-N – will always rise again. The Good News that he preached, that he lived out and that he called us into will rise up above all else.
This is the Good News, friends. This is the Good News.
And it is time to share it with the world.
Congratulations, Thompson Congregational Church. Continue the work that has already started. Hold onto that hope you spoke so poignantly of last year. May your ashes be turn into garland; your mourning into gladness; your faint spirit into a mantle of praise.
And may your feet be beautiful as they are called to bring the Good News.
Thanks be to God!