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Nutley, NJ 07110


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St. Paul’s Congregational Church

June 23, 2019 Proper 7C, Children’s Sunday

1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a; Galatians 3:23-28; Psalm 42

The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds

Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

This week the Church Council met for the last time this program year – after we heard the update on the furnace replacement and asbestos removal project, we moved into a discussion of the highlights of this program year and the disappointments of the year as well. Highlights included the various Anniversary special events culminating in the Anniversary worship service in May with Freeman Palmer as our preacher, the renewed energy in our choir and music program – the midday music and concert series, the start up of a Sunday School class for children over the age of 4, the Tenebrae Service, Evan Harzer’s Eagle project, the confirmation of 2 of our young people – lots to celebrate for sure this past year.

Then we moved to a reflection of disappointments, frustrations over the past year. As you’d expect, this wasn’t as easy for us – we began with frustration over reduced numbers of members to do the work of the church, our financial stresses, the state of the building – we’re all aware of these challenges, aren’t we – and we’re not alone in these – many churches are facing the same questions. We, like many churches, are looking inward, in maintenance mode, vs. looking outward…I asked, what do we want our church to be known for? What do you think we’re known for today? This led to a basic question: what is the mission of the church, of our church?

As we continued to talk, the answers deepened. Maybe we’ve lost sight of why we’re gathered at all – as a people of faith, looking to deepen our relationship with God, to expand our experience of God, and share that with others.

Such a good question, isn’t it. How do we deepen our grounding, our faith that will sustain us every day of our lives, no matter what’s going on in our world, in our church, in our daily living challenges.

I like to use the image of a spiral to describe our faith journey – our growth as disciples – that journey that takes our entire lifetime. The spiral begins at a base but rarely moves directly upward: sometimes there is indeed movement upward, the image for growth, but just as often the spiral moves on a plane – treading water if you will – that’s the time when we experience the “what ifs, the doubts – the time when our searching just doesn’t seem to make any progress – these are the plateaus of our journey.

Then there are the times when the spiral activity actually moves downward – sometimes in a sharp decline. We meet those sharp declines in our lives when we’re faced with unexpected tragic news, when death comes to a loved one. Other times the decline is a more gentle descent – so gentle, that until we get brought up short, we don’t realize we’ve gone backward – the gentle declines happen maybe when we get so involved in our daily living, our daily struggles, that there’s no room for the spiritual, the faith seeking. That’s the time when we’ve separated ourselves from that loving Presence of God that’s always around us.

But the spiral does eventually move upward again – growth does occur – and the downward trend never really hits the base again – never really takes us back to where we started. That base is solid, solid enough to support us wherever we are in the spiral, wherever we are in our faith journey.

God is good – I realized our scripture lessons this morning describe that spiral of our faith journey – the Old Testament, the psalm, and the Epistle lesson all describe the various stages of the journey we’re all on – I’d guess we can all identify with one or another of these readings today – where are you on that spiral right now?

We begin with the base – the base of baptism. In Galatians Paul tells us we are clothed in Christ. It’s in baptism when we are named and claimed as God’s own – most of us don’t remember our own baptism, but we know it’s happened, that special, sacred time when something happened that has forever changed our lives.

The clothing image Paul uses is probably from the earliest baptisms when people emerged from the baptistery and immediately put on all new clothes – usually white – symbolizing the cleansing of baptism, the new life. And we continue that tradition today, don’t we – children are often brought for baptism in white gowns, maybe heirlooms – baptism clothes us in Christ. That’s the base. The strong, life changing, eternal, unrepeatable base.

But baptism isn’t magic – while we’re claimed through grace as one of God’s own, it brings no guarantee that we won’t feel fear, pain, frustration – that’s not the human condition, is it.

That’s where the psalmist touches into our spiral. The writer expresses so clearly that longing for God, for help in times of distress, for relief in terms of suffering. As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God!

Talitha Arnold, in yesterday’s Daily Devotional wrote, “What does the world thirst for? You may have lots of answers to that question: hope, love, justice, honesty, peace: but before you get too far in your response, a second question: What do you thirst for? Before God calls us out to minister to the world’s needs, God first asks us to be honest about what we need. The ancient psalmist knew that. They felt like a deer searching for water in a dry land. As a desert dweller, the psalmist would have known such physical thirst first-hand. The psalmist also knew that regardless of the lushness of the landscape around us, souls can run dry, too. "My soul longs for you," the psalmist writes. "My soul thirsts for the living God."

A central mission of any church is to offer those streams of living water, that connection with the living God. A local congregation is like a "desert riparian zone." Those are the areas along a desert river that abound with life because they offer water, shade, and sustenance. Whether we're in the desert Southwest or rain-drenched Northwest, the world needs "riparian faith communities," where souls are renewed and the thirst for love and hope is quenched.

Lord knows, we're called to be such places in our thirsty world. As Psalm 42 reminds us, God knows we need such places in our own thirsty lives, too.”

We yearn for God’s presence in our lives – and so does the person sitting next to us, the person working next to us, the person we meet at the post office or at Shop Rite.

There are moments when we know God is with us, when we are absolutely sure. Both in times of joy and sorrow we are sure when we recognize the signs of that presence, whether in the word, or the touch of a friend, or, as our children reminded us in our puppet show this very morning, in the glorious sight of a rainbow in the sky.

These lead us to the upward times on the spiral, don’t they. We treasure those times – and hopefully, they will sustain us on those plateaus or downward trends of our own faith spirals and lead us to an expression of hope, of assurance, of trust in God. The psalmist names it: hope in God, for I shall again praise him. My help and my God. The psalmist leads us back to the base, the never changing beginning, even through our deepest yearning. What a statement of faith for us all!

How is it that we find God’s presence, God’s activity in our lives? How many times have we felt lost, alone, afraid – how many times have we cried out, God what do you want from me? I just don’t know what to do! What are you trying to tell me? And you know, I suspect that was in our minds as we sat around the table at our Council meeting through our deepening conversation.

Now we look to Elijah. He was afraid. He was fleeing for his life – he hides in a cave. We remember the wind, the earthquake and the fire. But God was not in any of these but after the fire came the sound of sheer silence. And that’s where God was – that’s when and where God speaks to us. When we stop the noise of the world, the noise of our own thoughts, wishes, fears, and let God speak to us. When we let ourselves hear what God is trying so hard to say to us – and so often that’s not what we expect to hear or want to hear.

Have you ever sat close to music speakers – your head is full of the noise, the vibration. Then it stops. All that’s left is that sheer silence – a silence that’s deafening in itself. A silence that echoes in your head, not unlike the silence that comes after a violent thunderstorm. Not unlike the silence that comes when we stop trying to force a decision, to stop looking so hard for answers. We overrun the still, small voice that’s trying to be heard. The presence of God that will fill us, direct us, love us, if we let it.

And that presence of God may lead us to places we’d rather not go, but like Elijah, we’re called out of our caves and called to move ahead, perhaps still nervous or afraid, but sure of God’s presence with us.

Our Sunday school curriculum offers us a meditation on the Elijah story:

Elijah

I ran.

I got so tired of the way things were

I just started running.

“No one listens to me,” I cried

and I started running.

“I’m the only one who cares around here,” I cried

and I started running.

“If I stick around here I’ll go crazy,” I cried

and I started running.

“No one understands me,” I cried

and I started running.

And I ran and I ran and I ran

I ran for days

and weeks

and months

and years

I ran into new problems

and I kept running.

And when I could run no longer

I stopped.

And I tried to catch my breath.

And I yelled out,

I said:

“God, listen to me.

I want answers.

I want some respect.

I want some attention.

I want…

I want…

I…

I…”

And I sat down to wait for an answer.

And I waited.

I said, “Come on, God, I’m waiting;

you owe me an explanation

and I want it now.”

And I heard nothing.

I said, “God, don’t you care?

Don’t you care about me?”

And I heard nothing.

I said, “That’s it, God;

I’m giving you one more chance.

You’d better give me some answers,

or else I’ll…

or else I’ll…”

And I heard nothing.

And I waited.

And the silence was deafening.

And then I heard laughter.

Starting small,

getting louder.

It was my own voice;

I was laughing at myself.

And then

in the midst of the laughter

and the silence

I heard a gentle voice.

And the gentle voice said:

“Are you ready to listen?”

And I heard God speak.

Donald Schmidt © 1998

We’re all on this journey together. We’re all at different places on this spiral but we are bound together by our baptism, by our being claimed through the grace of our baptism. We are bound together in love – all of us. Let us come together as we are, all desiring to become as God wills. Let us come together and allow God in Christ to work transformation in and through and among each of us on our own spiral of life.

Here’s a challenge for each of us: take time this summer and listen to the silence. Rest in God’s love and allow God in Christ to work transformation in and through and among each of us as we move as the Body of Christ here in Nutley on our shared spiral of life. The mission of our church will become clear. Amen.