A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on October 16, 2022
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:27-34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:
“The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Luke 18:1-8 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
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.
On Friday, July 22, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) [closed] the Hunts Mill Bridge, which carries Pleasant Street (Route 114A) over the Ten Mile River in East Providence. RIDOT will completely replace the bridge and reopen it to traffic by the end of the year. The bridge carries approximately 11,420 vehicles per day
The bridge is about a mile from my house. And closing it is a major pain. Close to 12000 cars go over it every day. It is a major highway. And the bridge was in terrible shape; repair/replace. . it just couldn’t be put off any longer. The road is to be closed until the end of the year.
The first couple of weeks were awful. People didn’t notice the “closed” signs, so when they got up to it and couldn’t cross, they got angry and frustrated, had to back up the street into driveways, turn around and go about a mile out of their way.
We’re all kind, loving, safe drivers in Rhode Island (of course we are), but even the kindest driver isn’t happy about that, or about the detour, and the homeowners in the area were not amused at the number of people turning in their drives.
Now, add to that that the two bridges from East Providence, over the Seekonk River, into Providence are each being worked on – that sometimes traffic on the bridges backs up from one city into the other – and that there is no other way to get into Providence from the east unless you drive five miles north into Pawtucket….
And now you’re right where we all are at this time in our little COVID adventure. It’s just all too much. We can, and did, handle one thing – but then there was another, and another, and while we were a teensy bit off balance, more bad stuff, more disorienting stuff, happened. Like I said, it’s all too much.
This past week I announced that Kortney had COVID – for the second time. And on Monday, Shari discovered she had it also. Mind you, the one thing we are sure of is that they didn’t give it to each other. Shari was on vacation when Kortney got sick. But because I’d seen Kortney, in the office, on the day she tested positive, I spent the next five days or so worrying that I was going to develop COVID. It’s all too much.
Doesn’t this feel like the way things have been going? Terrible things, irrational things, annoying things, dangerous things. One thing, two things, and another…. and then one day. . , it’s all too much.
It’s not just COVID, tho that’s a major part of things, but also the changes that isolation forced on us. The isolation of the last two years has been enormously disorienting.
Now, as we seem to be coming out of things, now that we’re able to begin to claim some good learnings we’ve seen, we are anxiously waiting for our beloved past to re-create itself today. Thanksgiving… right back the way it was. School, right back the way it was… and church, right back the way it was. . .
I can’t speak for other areas, but here in church, the two year break has exposed something we had not been able to see so clearly before. Here, right here, the church we knew before COVID was struggling, and the two years has not solved the problems.
Right here, right amid us, our church world has been changing.
It’s been changing for years, and we ignored it. It’s been changing for years, and we hoped next year would be different. Our church school has been slipping away and we’ve expected that the next great curriculum would make a difference. In 1997, right about 25 years ago, we had over 100 kids in our programs. We’ve never again had that many children. Today, I’d we have five kids in the youth program and there is no Sunday school.
The same is true of attendance. Over the last 20 years or so, that’s dropped from 160 to 95, to, right now, about 45-50 here, plus about 20 on line.
It was easy to say that tomorrow would be better, until COVID gave everyone permission to try not coming at all, and an alarming number of people have decided that getting the kids up and dressed and over here on Sunday mornings is just not worth the hassle.
It’s all too much, way too much.
Lately I’ve been hearing more and more lines like this: “when the new pastor comes, we’ll be able to get everything back the way it’s always been”, or someone saying, “we can’t stop that, we’ve always done it”.
Let me be as clear as can be. Your new pastor won’t be able to bring back the golden days of yesteryear. They don’t exist. What you and your new pastor will be doing is creating the exciting days of the future. What will church look like? How will you use this magnificent building? How will you serve God here in Middletown?
It’s daunting, for sure, but it’s also exciting. And it’s so deeply worthwhile.
This isn’t the first time we’ve had to start new. Our scripture lessons, first the Jeremiah and then the story from Luke, tell us about times when change had come, or when old things didn’t work anymore. Jeremiah promises his hearers that God is making a new way, giving us a new covenant, promising that there will be a tomorrow and that God will be with us all the way.
Luke tells a story about an unjust judge, who finally gives in and gives justice only because he’s tired of hearing from that nagging widow. Now, Luke isn’t saying that God is like the unjust judge, that if we nag God we’ll get what we need. Luke is saying that if even the unjust can be forced to be just, how much more can we depend on God who loves us.
Sure, in the midst of the exhaustion and disappointment of today, there’s a temptation to say “enough”, I’m outta here, to step away, to drop the work. But I’m here today to say that we, here in this covenant community, are engaged right now in the most important work in the world. What we’re doing is so important that it makes all our work worthwhile. It’s so important that, if we have to leave every old habit behind to make it work again, it will be worth it. Nothing is more important than our work.
You see, God has called us to be beacons of light to people, including ourselves, who are discouraged. You know anyone like that?
God has called us to offer hope to the hopeless. God has called us to be creators of new ways for us to live, to be church. Because we’re living in a world that really needs the power of reconciliation. We’re living in a time when trust is thin on the ground. What’s been happening to us, has been happening to a lot of other groups – people find it harder and hard to build community. And yet, when they experience it, experience true community, they love it. We know how to do this; we know how to build community. We know how to talk about values, about what’s really important. And the world needs our conversation, our action
God is with us in this work… has given a promise that we will have strength and vision to see what needs to be done, and the courage to follow that vision.
This is a blessing… to be freed from the burden of re-creating church for the 1950s, to be empowered to meet the needs of today. Yes the world has changed. Yes, COVID has been awful. But no, we are not lost. We do not need to stay where we are.
Let us move forward into the unknown future, trusting in the everlasting love of God.
© 2022, Virginia H. Child