Rising Up Out of Nowhere

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on October 23, 2022

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.

A million years ago, I bought a new car… I was excited – most new car owners are, of course – but I’d been wanting to own a VW for some time and this was the time.  So I took delivery of a brand new VW Beetle and happily drove it around town.  I loved that car.  

Sometimes my new car stalled at traffic lights.  Both my husband and I thought this was because the VW was my first standard transmission car.  Because, after all, the car was brand new, right?  And assuming it was driver-error was the easiest explanation.

Then came the day I was cruising down the interstate through Jacksonville, Florida, and the engine stopped running.  I was fortunate; I was able to get the car off to the side of the road, without being hit (or hitting anyone).  and doubly fortunate; after a few minutes, not even long enough for the engine to cool off, it started right up again, and I continued my trip to my mother’s home without another incident.  My husband and I thought, this time, that I’d gotten some bad gas.  And most of the time, the car drove perfectly.

Now my husband was a mechanic by trade and upbringing.  His dad had been an auto mechanic, and my husband prided himself on his ability to keep our vehicles running.  So when I returned home to Vermont and the car kept stalling out at intersections, even when he was driving, he realized there was a mechanical problem.  He worked on the car, and fixed it.  For a week, or maybe two…. and then one day, it stalled on him as he was driving me to work.  When I came home that evening, we no longer owned the VW.  He’d gone to a dealer and traded it for a Ford.

That VW was a lemon… an unfixable car, unreliable, and really unsafe.  Nothing changed the reality that it might stop at any moment.  But for all the time we owned it, right up to that last morning, we couldn’t see what was right before our eyes.  That car was bad, right from the first day I owned it, and our pre-conceptions kept us from seeing it.

I’m boring you with this long story about my lemon yellow VW (yes, it was what VW calls Texas Gold) because it’s a inside-out version of the same story Jesus tells in the Gospel lesson I read.  Two men went to the Temple to pray.  One of them lived in a land of delusion where he thought that all the things he did made him good and important.  The other saw himself realistically, and knew that no matter how good he tried to be, there were always going to be gaps.

For us, today, this is a story about seeing ourselves truly, about recognizing where we are as we recover from COVID.

Last week, I said that we still matter.  Even in a world where church has lost much of its influence, we still have an essential part to play in our world.  But here’s the thing:  we are called to understand where we are right now. 

We’re coming back from a dread disease which has warped every program we offer.  We’re living in a world where the way we’ve done church for the last 200 years no longer works.  But, in the midst of all that is different, we’re still trying to evaluate ourselves by the standards we’ve always used.

That rich man in Jesus’ story is simply describing himself in the ways he learned really matter.  his terms are useless; he just hasn’t realized it yet.  He doesn’t realize that God isn’t interested in his worldly successes, that to God this sounds like boasting.  

Now, we’re not boasting about the many things we’re doing well, right now.  Instead we’re taking things in the other direction.  We look around and say, oh look, we only have 45 people in church.  We’re failing.  

Oh, look, the search for our new pastor has been going on for a while; why don’t we have that new person right here right now?  

We think that if COVID is over, well, we should be right back to normal.  I’ve had a couple of people come to me in the last year with detailed plans for how we can re-make our church so that it matches the height of our successes maybe forty or fifty years ago.   Yes, I can imagine what this church looked like in 1948, when Ralph Christie was the pastor.  The records say we had 376 men who were members, and a total of 967 members.  I can’t help realizing, you know, that the Congregationalists of 1948 didn’t even want to name that women were members.  There’s no number for attendance, but the yearbook says we had 277 children in church school.  Those were glory days indeed, stalwarts in preserving the traditional stories of their world.

But those days are gone and they’re not coming back.  And that’s good.  In those days, they didn’t count women.  In those days, Black people were not really welcome.  In those days, gay people were really not welcome.  In those days, all the men wore white shirts and ties and worked in the power structures of the community…. and the women of this church wore white gloves and worked in charity, because there were few jobs for them out in the world.  We had numbers and power, and we lived then as we understood the gospel. 

Today we’ve moved from then.  Today we’re really working to live out our belief that everyone counts, even in a world where so many are thought of as disposable people.

Our anxiety makes it challenging to face the future with hope.  Things don’t look the way they did before.  We’re having to change how we present ourselves, and sometimes it just doesn’t feel right or fair.  It’s no wonder the rich guy in the story stuck to what he knew.  It’s just plain hard to admit to ourselves and to God that we’re not the big cheeses in town these days.

We live today in a world where everything, or almost everything, we’ve counted on has turned out to be less solid rock and more like walking on a trampoline.  That’s another reason why it’s so tempting to evaluate our progress today on decades-old standards.  We know what they were and it’s really hard to get it in our hearts that those standards no longer work, that, indeed they may not have worked as well as we thought even back in the salad days of our church.  

When he tells the story, Jesus makes it clear that it’s ok to not be perfect, it’s ok to not know the future.  This is a time for us to look forward with anticipation to ways of being church that best meet the needs of today’s world, not a time to look back to the ways that worked “back then”.

Recently, I read an article which asked: – “which is the best hymn style?” .  And the author ended this way:

So which do I personally prefer, today’s [new music] or the traditional psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? Answer: That’s the wrong question. The question I need to ask myself is more: “What music will best help this church encounter God in a fresh, powerful way, one that moves them to deeper devotion and greater obedience, so that we’re not just hearers of the music but doers of what God tells us through it?”  [https://baptistnews.com/article/yes-i-like-the-old-hymns-too-but-not-the-ones-you-may-think/#.Y1QkEy-B3Ax]

This is our opportunity today.  To step beyond our anxiety about a changing church into our hopes and dreams for the church for today and tomorrow.  God has a plan for this church; it’s our calling, our opportunity to figure out what that will mean for our life together.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child