Taking the Easy Path

A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton, Massachusetts on August 23, 2015

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18  Now therefore rever the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness.

Ephesians 6:13-17        Therefore take up the whole armor of God

Years ago, I was called to serve a church in an upscale, wealthy community.  On Sundays, we often had more than 150 people in church. One of the things they loved to do, occasionally, was have coffee hour.  On our first Sunday together, they got out the silver, the delicate china cups and saucers and prepared delicious tiny cookies and sandwiches.  We had a delightful time, with lots and lots of little conversations going on all over the hall.

The next week, there was no coffee hour.  After several weeks had gone by, I asked about it.   Well, I heard, they couldn’t do it too often, because it was so much work.  No one wanted to come in early each week and start up the coffee pots.   No one wanted to polish the silver.  No one wanted to wash those delicate cups.   No one wanted to do all that baking and preparing each week.

You all know where they were coming from, right?  But what was missing?  When would we talk with one another?  How would we meet visitors?  With no coffee hour, folks just left after church, and we never met them.

You’d think it would be simple to start a weekly coffee hour.  How hard could it be to plug in a pot of hot water, put out jars of instant coffee and tea bags, use paper cups.  Well, talk about heresy!   If you suggest instant coffee for coffee hour, even paper cups will seem acceptable by comparison!

We started using paper, having a reception every week, and people – new and longtime, stayed, talked, and got involved.

I thought it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t easy for them.  I hate to do dishes; they loved beautiful china. Even today, there are folks in that church who believe we lowered our standards.  The beauty of the silver and the china was what was important.

Accepting that the church thought it more important to welcome the newcomer than to have that high-quality coffee hour was a really hard decision.

Don’t be mistaken – change is hard.

A couple of years ago the Old South Church in Copley Square in Boston owned two copies of the Bay Psalm Book.  There are only 11 copies of this book in the world.   The Bay Psalm Book is rarer than a Gutenberg Bible, and Old South owned two of them.  They lived in the Boston Public Library’s Rare Book Room.  Beautiful possessions, they had no practical impact on the church’s mission to welcome the least, the last and the lost.

Faced with the increasing costs of doing ministry – we know about that, right – and with the increasing costs of caring for a historic building – we know about that too –  the church began to think about selling one of the copies.

For many folks it was a slam dunk kind of decision.  After all, the Copley Square building was still chugging along with its vintage 1875 heating system, a really slow elevator to the upper floors, and the original electrical system.  Who wouldn’t want to upgrade everything before it failed entirely?  Much less adding internet access, air conditioning, handicapped access to more of the building, and so on.

But others said – not that the work didn’t need to be done – but that it could be financed through the use of the church’s $23 million dollar endowment and the running of another capital campaign.  They added that they had a fiduciary responsibility to the folks who’d given them the books to keep both of them.

Everyone agreed the work on the building needed to be done:  they disagreed on financing. The deciding was not easy; there was a fight and it ended up on the pages of the Boston Globe.  No one wants their church’s fighting to end up on the front page of the Globe!

Deciding isn’t easy.  The right way isn’t always clear.  And when the deciding is over, sometimes people leave.

When all was said and done, Old South’s congregation voted to sell the second copy of this book. The book was auctioned off at Sotheby’s two years ago, for just over $14 million, which Old South is using to upgrade its building and support its ministries throughout the city.  Some of the folks who disagreed left the church.

When we hear the story of Joshua, it feels all warm and fuzzy – but that’s only because it happened thousands of years ago.  Close up, when  we’re reading about a church fight in the Globe, we can see the pain on faces, hear the anguish as friends argue with friends, notice the folks who have simply stepped back until it’s all over…. Because it’s not easy, not always clear, what the right way to follow Christ is for today.

Decisions to follow God, weren’t all that easy back in Joshua’s day and they’re not now, either.  Then, and now, they ask us to form our daily lives intentionally.  Our decision to follow Christ asks us to live in ways that build up the world.  It asks us to put our desires in the context of the community, to see ourselves as part of a whole – and then, together, as church, as community to discern God’s will for our life.

But, we ask, how do we do that without conflict?  I’m going to suggest that that’s not the key question.  The only organizations that don’t have conflict are dead or dying.  The question really is how do we disagree in ways which build up, rather than tearing down?

In the lectionary readings for today,   there’s a reading from Ephesians 6.  The author of Ephesians sees life as a continual struggle, and offers up some advice, which I think applies to making the decisions of life as much as anything else.

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times. . .

Use the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness.  Proclaim the gospel of peace.  Let your faith keep disagreements from feeling like personal attacks. And remember that God comes first.

We’re not just talking about factual truth here, but the inner truth of understanding why you’re where you are on this.

Last year, I worked with my church on the process of becoming Open and Affirming.  Some of us were not comfortable with ONA.  As we went through the process, they began to understand that heir objections weren’t grounded in Scripture, but grew out of their personal feelings.  When they  understood that truth, they began to hear the congregation’s sense that God’s extravagant love and welcome was extended to all.  It wasn’t easy for them, but they stayed with us, even in their discomfort.

Be true to yourself; be the person you claim to be.  Avoiding the hypocrisy of saying one thing and living another is a big part of living a righteous life.

It is salvation – the health of God’s community – which is central in our life.   It is not about winners and losers, but about discerning God’s will for us.  We believe that God speaks most clearly to groups of people, not to individuals.  Of course, a group such as this church can be mistaken, can mishear God.   But we believe that it is always better to listen together. Even when what the congregation discerns is not what you did!  Even when you think they are wrong.

Don’t take me wrong.  Trying to do the work of discerning God’s will, either for ourselves or for our church, is never easy. It wasn’t easy for Joshua.  It wasn’t easy for the folks at Old South.  It wasn’t easy to move from china to paper cups.  It’s never easy to become Open and Affirming.   We are almost certain to make mistakes from time to time.

But with the power and comfort of the Holy Spirit,

our aim will be clear,

our hope trustworthy,

our love abounding,

and our passion for the work of ministry unabated.

Amen.

© 2015, Virginia H. Child

Growing into God

A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton, MA on August 16, 2015

Proverbs 9:1-6         Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. . . .

Ephesians 5:15-20   Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise. . .

What is it that makes life worth living? How do we find value in what we do with our lives? All of us would love to think that what we do makes a difference in the world, but that’s not where many of us end up. For every person whose research saves lives, there’s a pile of people processing mindless pots of paperwork for some faceless organization. And even in the most rewarding work in the world, there will be days when nothing goes the way we expect.

It’s not a new problem. From the very first, we’ve wondered what it is that makes life worthwhile. Is it money? How about a great car? A good-looking spouse? Any spouse? Well-behaved children? A powerful job? Fame?

If we followed that line of thought, we’d have to think that Tom Brady has the most worthwhile life of anyone in Massachusetts – all that money, nice car, beautiful wife, lovely children … and, oh yes, some problems with the NFL? Even the greatest sometimes have cause to wonder what’s worthwhile.

Back in the day, eons ago when the book of Proverbs was assembled, folks asked those same questions. They began to collect their answers, the words of wisdom which gave them comfort when everything else fell apart. They began to describe a way of life. Instead of getting, it focused on giving. Where we thought about life “me” first, it calls us to see the world as “we” oriented.

Folks began to collect ideas that worked for them.. . . the sorts of things that, today, would end up as Facebook memes: Trust in the Lord; raise your children in the way they should go; the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; pride goes before destruction; a soft answer turns away wrath.

All those proverbs are built on a foundation of intentionality, a sense that the good life, the wise life, doesn’t happen by chance, but is the result of deliberate choice. There is a structure to the wise life; it’s not hodgepodge, it’s not casual, happenstance, but – at it’s most powerful – it is a very intentional way of living.

There’s always a tension in life between me and us, between what we want and what’s right – for us, for our world.  We could say we often find ourselves captive to a desire to take the easy road.

Look at the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt. They were promised freedom. In Egypt they were oppressed by their captors, worked unto death, kept from raising their own children and generally treated as if they were unimportant, disposable, not-quite-human, slaves.

And then came Moses…. the secret son of two Israelites, raised in an Royal Egyptian household, a man who fled to the desert after killing an Egyptian — and a man supremely unsure of his worthiness for the job. And God called Moses to lead the people of Israel out of their captivity in Egypt, into the Promised Land of milk and honey, where they assumed that everything would be great.

It turned out, of course, that getting to the land of milk and honey was somewhat more challenging than walking from here to the Sooper. . . in fact, as it ended up, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before coming into their promised land. . . and Moses himself died before they got there. More than once in the journey, the Israelites pled to go back to Egypt. “Better to be a slave,” they said, “than to die here in the wilderness!”

Now you would think that this would have been a simple decision — stay in Egypt and be beaten to death or journey in the desert to something better — but the rigors of searching for the better made the bad look awfully good.

They wanted to substitute safety, comfort, the familiar, for the challenges, maybe even the prickly edges of the desert march.

The story of the Exodus is much more than just a literal history of the escape of a band of nomads from slavery – it is the story of each of us seeking to be free of what enslaves us, seeking our own land of milk and honey, of each of us seeking a life of wisdom.

Most of us are not in captivity to people who force us to make bricks without straw, at least not in the literal sense. At the same time, the story of those laborers, beaten because they couldn’t do the work for which they were unequipped, seems awfully familiar. We know what it’s like to be asked to do the impossible and then punished because we haven ‘t succeeded, and we know what it’s like to be caught in the middle between the demanding higher-up, and the underling who can’t produce.

Most of us aren’t in captivity to the desire to run back into the burning house, or even to a literal Golden Calf, but some of us know how challenging it can be to deal with an abusive personal relationship in a healthy way, and we know for sure how tempting it is to make ourselves substitute the outward signs of success for the inward reality of success.

We have our own Egypts, and we are in captivity to them as surely as the Israelites were in captivity to Pharaoh. Like those long-ago Israelites, we too are fleeing captivity and fleeing captivity isn’t easy.

Now, why is that? What makes it so hard to move from the bad to the good?

Well the Israelites make it clear that one problem is simply that the bad is familiar while the good is unknown….and that, no matter how bad the familiar is, there’s a certain amount of comfort there, and a certain amount of risk in leaving the familiar for the unknown.

Yet another problem is that, often, when we try to step out in a new direction, we have to leave behind something we loved in order to get somewhere we can only vaguely see. Change, growth, has it’s good side, but it also means losing something – often something we loved and cherished.

We trade in soft, snuggly, sleeping toddlers for challenging teens with their own ideas… it’s exactly what we want – children who are growing into thoughtful, perceptive adults, but it costs us the simple comfort of that limp sleeping child.

This way of wisdom is expanded upon by Jesus Christ. In his life, his ministry, we see the wise life lived out.

There’s a way of living prepared for us, the way of wisdom, personified by Jesus Christ. It’s a way which helps us move from finding value in what we have to finding it in who we are.

There’s no doubt that taking up the life of wisdom can be a challenge. Jesus himself acknowledged that when he called us to “take up our crosses” and follow him. There’s no 4 lane super-highway to satisfaction, as if we could just follow a map and get there, but there is a guide — Paul writes that we are called to let love be genuine, to hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good, and is outlining for us the true path of wisdom.

The Israelites moved to a new physical place, but for most of us, the journey to a life built on wisdom takes place right here and right now, as we re-focus our lives on a different set of values, on values which build a world of peace and justice, values which express a love for all of creation.

God calls us saying, don’t let the difficulty daunt, don’t let the lure of the familiar hold you back, but let go of that which holds you captive and step out in faith for the promised land, and I will be with you, guiding you with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. You will never be alone; you are my people and I am your God. Come, now, and follow me.

Amen.

What Does Success Look Like?

You’d think it would be easy to identify a successful church. Pews packed; parking lot overflowing; crib room stuffed to the gills, right? But. . . we who do interim ministry are all too familiar with the church which dramatically loses members after a beloved pastor leaves. It turns out that those pews were packed with people who were worshipping their pastor, and when he/she left — so did the parishioners. So, while successful churches are likely to be filled on Sundays, those packed pews are not the primary sign of success.

A few years ago, a colleague was called to a neighboring church as interim. The church was happy, and anticipated a brief and cheerful interim. But the interim named some things that everyone would rather had been swept under the carpet. A fight ensued, half the congregation walked out the door, the interim was fired. A failure, you’d say? Sure, except that the next settled pastor says the church would not be in the healthy place it now is, save for that interim’s naming truths everyone wanted to ignore. Sometimes, success looks like failure.

Recently I worked with a church which loves its secretary. You’d hope, of course, that every church would love its secretary, but I’m not so sure any more that’s a good idea. Loving has all those overtones of “my secretary, right or wrong,” And this secretary – a charming, kind-hearted person – was neither competent at the ordinary tasks of a church secretary nor reliably present at the appointed time and place. The church recognized her shortcomings but they loved her, and so covered her work themselves. But is loving our employees, even in their incompetence what God asks of us?

I’ve come to believe that success, church-style, is about more than happy campers, more than packed pews, more than a kindly acceptance of “good enough”. That’s not the kind of life to which Jesus calls us.

Jesus calls us to a life of courage; a life of vision; a life committed to giving our best at all times and in all places.

It takes courage to step into the new, to turn away from the habitual, to risk failure and condemnation.

It takes vision to recognize the ways the world has changed, and to imagine how we might adapt and adopt to serve our world.

It takes commitment to move from “good enough” to “excellence”, to recognize that it is not kind, not loving, to encourage mediocrity.

Sometimes that means folks won’t be happy, that the pews will thin out, but more often, it means that people will be focused, that they’ll be glad to be there, and energized by the opportunity to serve God.