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.

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