Congregational Church of Grafton MA, May 13, 2018
1 John 5:9-13 — Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Yesterday I went to a three hour funeral of a beloved friend. We gathered, almost 400 of us and shared photos, told stories, sang songs and listened for God’s word.
We came, knowing that dead is dead, that there is no life after death. We’ve buried pets and plants, family members, friends, beloved and enemies. And when they’re gone, they’re gone.
But this time, as the time together went along, we began to see something else. We began to see the form and substance of new life arising out of the old. We began to see death turning into new life.
Now, I’d planned all week to talk today about the eternal life that’s spoken of by the author of John’s letter. I looked up quotes, found stories… all in the hopes of explaining the unexplainable.
Just how is it that what has been dead and buried can possibly rise and live again? And what could something so inexplicable, so un-scientific mean to us?
But after yesterday’s experience, I find I just want to tell you what I saw and heard for myself. Because yesterday, in its own way, I saw the dead rise and what I saw expanded my understanding of eternal life in a way I simply did not expect.
Let’s be clear. I did not see an actual dead human being sit up and walk away. The three hour funeral was for my seminary’s campus. Andover Newton Theological School is a lovely set of buildings places on the top of the tallest hill west of Boston – from the top floor of the tallest dorm you can see all the way from Newton to Worcester. It is a quiet leafy green paradise. And on its best days, it was filled with people who all loved and served God, who sought to build community and share the good news of Jesus Christ.
But times change. There are fewer churches, increased running costs, fewer students, more outgo, less income, and for the school, the beautiful campus, the sign of all we’d “always done” has been transformed from an important tool into a millstone around our neck. There was never enough money to do all the necessary upkeep…
Does this sound familiar? Fewer and fewer people attending, less and less interest, higher and higher costs, more and more expensive upkeep….? I could just as easily be talking about this place, about our church.
So, if I went to Andover Newton yesterday to “say good-by to the campus” to attend a metaphorical three hour funeral, how is it that today I’m saying that I saw eternal life in action while I was there?
It’s because the time we spent together kept pointing out to us, kept helping us to see that the time for doing things the same way we’ve always done, the time for sitting in the same seats, in the same place, for running things in the same way, is over and done.
The time we spent together kept pointing out to us that every day we need to be willing and open to recognizing how our old habits can keep us from meeting the needs of the future.
Andover Newton nearly closed, but today it is a renewed, re-born, maybe even resurrected school on a new, to us, campus at Yale Divinity School in New Haven CT. We were independent, owners of our own campus. In New Haven we’re doing things differently. But we’ve discovered that on this new campus, in company with the Yale Divinity School, we’ve shed the practices and expectations of the past that were holding us back. We already have new students for a program that won’t officially start until next fall.
Think about what this means for us. The writer of our lesson for today says that eternal life is found in Christ. It’s not found in reverence for yesterday – that’s not bad, but it’s a poor foundation for tomorrow. New life, eternal life, is found in putting Jesus Christ and the principles of Christian living first. It’s not found by offering answers to yesterday’s questions. Andover Newton found its new life by putting everything they’d been doing on the table, by gradually and painfully coming to see that their current situation had freed them from the cold dead hand of “we’ve always done it this way.” That pushed the school back to its beginnings.
You probably don’t know it, but Andover Newton is the oldest graduate school in the United States. Andover Seminary invented graduate theological education. At a time when you learned to be a doctor or a lawyer by apprenticing, our ancestors decided that apprenticeships were no longer an adequate way to learn to help people deal with the crucial questions of life.
They started as a daring group of experimenters, trying something new, rebelling against “we’ve always done it that way.” That’s what the school – leadership, faculty and trustees – went back to a few years ago.. a beginning built on a willingness to put the past away and try something new.
We here in this church are in something of the same place as Andover Newton. We are at a crossroads in our life. Like that school, we can keep on doing things in the same old way or we can move out into a bold experiment.
I’ve been here now for just over a year and a half, and I know you to be good people, like my classmates at Andover Newton. Like them, we all like doing things the way we’ve always done. We like the familiar. We’re ok with a little change, done slowly, but radical change, putting aside the old for something that feels uncomfortable, well that’s not something we jump right into. Trusting people we don’t really know to do the right thing, well that was hard for us in Newton too.
But if Andover Newton hadn’t stepped out on a new and different path, if it hadn’t girded itself up to go over all its programs and honestly discern if this or that program was part of our future, if it hadn’t been willing to give up its beloved Doctor of Ministry degree and any number of other things, well, it would have closed last year, never to graduate another student, unable to teach out the final 100 students, all of whom will finish their degrees. The money was gone. They chose God’s everlasting life, they chose to let go of all that was killing them, all that was dragging them down, drowning them, they chose to follow Christ.
And yes, I’m suggesting that we are facing similar choices. The old ways of attracting people to church don’t work anymore. I was raised in a world where one of the ways you proclaimed your status as a respectable person was by attending church. Today, the Pew research folks tell us that fully one third of Massachusetts folks don’t believe in much of anything and no more than one third attend church regularly. Even well-read college-educated adults miss Biblical quotations because they’ve never read the Bible, don’t know the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and have no idea what we do in here each week. They have never been in a church, not once.
It is time, the right time, the ripe time for us to sit down in community to talk together about what we are called by God to do share the good news of Jesus Christ to one another, to our community, to the world. Before us stretches the “slow time” of summer. When we get to September, I want us to have constructed our plan for what we will do during our 2018-19 season to help our church thrive and prosper.
I’m not going to tell you what your goals should be.
I’m not even going to tell you what you should do.
We will discern these together.
I will only say this, that if our plans do not include doing things which push us beyond our comfort zone, if they do not require us to give up something we have loved or cherished, if they do not require us to change habits, we will almost certainly be trying to re-create yesterday, only in a different shade of color. And even if we do the exact same thing superbly well, it won’t bring back yesterday. We need plans for today’s and tomorrow’s realities, not cherished memories of the past.
We’ll talk about this at Cabinet this week. Pass your ideas, your fears along to any of us who come to that. The Cabinet will plan times for us – as a congregation – to get together to discern where God is calling us to go.
And now, may God bless this church and guide it to new life.
© 2018, Virginia H. Child