The sermon for week March 19, 2017
Remember the FutureThere is a boy in a field under an oak tree. The oak is ancient, and he rests up against the trunk, nestled in the roots. He has a bemused smile on his face as he watches the summer sun dance through the green leaves. He smells the warm earth, the musty, rough bark.
A memory that is not his comes unbidden to him. It is an unknown relative in the year 2017, a thousand years ago, standing in the pulpit saying goodbye to his congregation. The technology in his future day can tap into genetic memory and pull up memories from relatives, a technology that seems like magic to us now, just as the iPhone would seem magical to those in the 1890s or even 1990s.
The man in the pulpit speaks to the people, reminding them of all they’ve been through, all the accomplishments, all the blessings, all the work they’ve done together. They hired this unknown man in 2010 as their associate pastor. He was straight out of seminary, and wanted to live in Ohio to be near his family. He was married, and he and his wife had an 18-month-old little girl.
This was a new thing for the church, the first full-time associate pastor in a long while. The church drew from the endowment, pledging for 3 years to fund this position and see what happened. This associate pastor would be charged with faith formation and family ministries as well as helping out the senior pastor in worship and visitation. This was new and it could fail big time.
And I have failed. It is my hope that I have failed you well! You cannot innovate and evolve unless you fail, learn from the failure, and then try again. I hope that I am remembered for failing, and failing you well.
We tried something big, it could have been a failure. We landed a $38,000 Scientists in Congregations grant from the Templeton Foundation. After the first speaker, David Andersen came into my office, excited about the program we put on. I was less than thrilled. I saw all the holes and how we could have done things better. Yet I wouldn’t have noticed these things unless we tried something. And I improved and learned how to fail better. I also took most of this on, on my own. I had a great team of Sheila Banerji, Mike Ogawa, Al Compaan, and others, but I went at it largely alone. That was my failure here. I have slowly learned to share the work over the course of six years.
Through that grant, we were able to have conversations around science and faith and how they merge. I was able to meet my theological hero, the late, great Marcus Borg. It was an amazing revelation to me that I could meet the very authors of all the books we read. We can bring authors to the community and talk with them and ask them all sorts of questions and spread the love around. We’ve since invited some wonderful people like Alan Jones, Walter Breuggemann, Diana Butler Bass, and Glennon Doyle Melton. Glennon was our biggest success, and it was entirely, 100% lay planned and led. The tickets sold out in under 30 seconds online.
I think we are reminding people that the church was once the warehouse of wisdom and the institution of ideas. Theology was once called “The Queen of the Sciences” back at the dawn of The Enlightenment, for without asking the big scary, unanswerable questions the other fields of science, it was feared, would become reductionist and nihilistic meaning that if you were a chemist, people are just sacks of chemicals that don’t mean much in the scheme of things. Or if you’re a biologist, people are a collection of selfish genes seeking to reproduce themselves with no cosmic significance. Theology is needed to keep our cosmic significance and the bigger picture. The boy under the oak tree smiles at how tradition continues and persists in new forms in his day. He thinks about how these same ideas come to him in his education and he sees how we contributed to that.
When I got here, I didn’t know how to set up liturgy very well, how to preach, or how to innovate with our worship services. You all helped me fail my way to being better. We tried the “Sylvania Sessions” which were rock worships that combined theology with music from my favorite bands like Pearl Jam, the Beatles, Mumford and Sons, and Green Day. Not many people came to these, but it was a good failure. I learned and became more comfortable in leading worship. People gained a wider awareness of God’s work in the world. God is still speaking, even through people you’d least expect.
I have had great mentors in the late Bill Chidester in how to do the daily routine of ministry. Susan Rowland Miller in writing liturgy and paying attention to how worship flows. Joycelyn Degener and Cathy Hunter for pastoral care and deep listening. David Andersen for how to lead a Bible study and preach. Sally Mossing, Cindy Garmenn, and Lori Bitz on how music and planning add vitality to worship. Sam Buehrer and his non-anxious presence and how he sets up a funeral service. You have the best pastor in the state for funerals here. Kathy Tashima in her love of people and heart for justice and Kristen how she has stepped right in and carried on this same tradition. Janet Hildebrandt and Sharon McCord and their heart for children’s ministry, the reason why we have so many children here now is completely their fault. All our moderators, and so many more, I can’t even name. There are so many teachers here, sitting here in the pews.
You have been a wonderful teaching congregation. You showered my family when my son Sam was born. You welcomed him and countless babies with food and gifts and cards. Sam is now five years old and will be in kindergarten this fall. Both Eve and Sam attended Stepping Stones, which is AWESOME. I am so thankful for Tammy Graves and her crew.
I love to travel. I’ve traveled more in this call than in my previous profession where my one and only trip was to Pittsburgh. Here, in this profession, I’ve traveled to Tampa, Florida, and Carefree, Arizona, for the UCC Next Generation Leadership Initiative. A program that took me away from the congregation twice a year, one that the congregation helped me get into. I’ve gone to Kansas City and Ginghamsburg, Ohio. I went to the Chautauqua Institute both as the UCC Chaplain of the week and in their New Clergy Group where I met Jan Linn, who was one of our Chidester lecturers. My whole family journeyed to Colorado for a preaching seminar on story-telling, which was an amazing week. I’ve been to Synod in Long Beach, CA and… Cleveland. Long Beach was a touch cooler, but the Synod experience is amazing. It’s in Baltimore next year… just like Baltimore to take something Cleveland had… and I recommend checking it out.
Most of these travels and ideas came from the real brains behind my ministry, Kate. She is amazing. I can’t say enough about her and the unseen ministry she has provided. Helping us get word out through her mad P.R. skills in The Blade, Sylvania Advantage and online. The theological word for public relations is “Evangelism” and she has that gift and has spread news of your good works around. She has helped coordinate meals to families with new babies. She has also made arrangements that this will continue because that’s how amazing she is. This woman, who never intended to marry a minister and be a pastor’s wife, is amazing.
The boy under the oak tree grimaces though, seeing the pain of funerals and loss. Of uncertainty. Of the loss of a beloved senior pastor not 9 months after his relative’s arrival. He sees how the community responded and worked together, had hard conversations around inclusion and peace. How they tried and failed and kept trying. This community is out in front, trying to lead into the inclusive kin-dom of God where peace, compassion, and love of every single neighbor is the standard, not the exception. There was pain, and might still be pain around the open and affirming vote. Yet it has done exactly what many said it would do, you’d lose some up front but then gain a lot of vistors and see growth in young families. Our last three new members class, almost every single person who has joined our congregation had done so because of ONA. It’s painful, but you grow through pain.
There are so many images of small kindnesses and grand gestures of grace. Drop in dinners and food and stories shared around the table, a picture of true communion. People are at their best when sharing their stories, their joys and concerns, with bread and juice and pink lemonade. This is the body and blood of Christ flowing in and among the people, together they are the image of Christ to one another and the world, and God bless the moments when they realize it, which they do; but not all the time.
I want to thank you for these past six years. Today we look back and smile. But I urge you not to look back too long and that you remember the future. The future has already happened, God’s beloved community has already happened in its fullness and it reaches back and breaks into our present giving us the First Fruits of the Kingdom that Christ taught about. This theology is found in the work of Jurgen Moltmann in his book “Theology of Hope.” These moments are called proleptic, the “in breaking” of the Holy Spirit, a taste of the future. Remember the boy under the oak tree, remember the kingdom that you glimpse every time you gather around the communion table, the future many of you were baptized into and work so hard to follow Christ into.
For six years, I have preached only on the gospel, with two exceptions when I preached from Acts and 2 Timothy. I wanted to re-introduce you to the head of the church and our sole purpose: The Good News of Jesus Christ. I want you to focus and remember the future. The Gospel is future oriented. It reaches back and highlights those proleptic moments in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus is the fulfillment, the completion, proleptic or the Holy Spirit “in breaking” incarnate, telling parables of this future. As Dallas Willard stated, “The gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die, and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” It is the future, now.
I encourage you all to continue to train yourself and others to be able to point to God’s present-future kingdom, to tell stories about it, tell your friends and family about it, to make this place the place that will have contributed to the reality of that boy under the oak tree. The boy under the oak tree is reaping what you sow. For the reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ You have been sent by Christ to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor. And your actions sow new seeds that will sprout, and yes, some will fail. But fail often and learn and sow more. As you have in the past, are doing, and will continue to do. You might feel like I’m blowing smoke right now, your heart might feel shaky and doubtful at these words, but I say unto you how firm a foundation you have in God in Christ! You stand on the shoulders of giants, engaged in work given to you by our ancestors in faith, to be picked up by our great-grandchildren whose names we can’t imagine, who might remember us, maybe not. The goal isn’t to be remembered, the goal is the kingdom of God. And nothing, nothing in heaven or earth, in things present or things yet to come can shake us from this goal. Amen.