St. Paul’s Congregational Church, November 17, 2019
Luke 21: 5-19, Isaiah 65: 17-25; Proper 28C
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Our Sunday School curriculum gives us a good introduction to the theme of today’s readings: “Our scriptures speak in different ways about the “end times” – and as strange as this literature may seem to us today, it is a truly powerful witness to the tenacity of hope among people of faith down through the ages. Amid painful and prolonged suffering, when no relief can be seen on the horizon, people of faith turn their faces toward visions of a new age. How do these passages relate to us today? For some, the end signifies freedom from unbearable oppression and provides a welcome escape from a grim future. For others it means the collapse of a familiar way of life which, despite its glaring social problems, is both comfortable and secure – for this group these predictions of end times are often full of fear and apprehension.”
The curriculum introduction then asks the question, “into which group do we fall as a church and as individuals? Do we look forward to the coming of God’s reign and all the changes it will bring, or are we secretly apprehensive that it will mean the end of too much that we cherish and value? Does the chaos of change fill us with hope or despair? Can we imagine a new heaven and a new earth? What would it be like? God calls us to live that impossible dream now, each day: that is our way through chaos.”
So, I’ve been both challenged and comforted by our readings on two levels, especially the beautiful passage from Isaiah: first as I’ve watched impeachment hearings this week and in the midst of all that chaos, trying to process yet more school shootings, this time in California and on Friday night right here in New Jersey at a high school football game. Again we ask, When will this end?
Secondly, after experiencing the 54 degree temperatures in the sanctuary last week, dealing with more radiator leaks resulting in water dripping into the music office again, this time causing a ceiling tile to drop, and working with our heating service company to try to resolve these issues – all this added to the stress of the week: well, these readings have been especially appropriate to me and to us as church too as we look ahead to our November church council meeting today.
We are at a crossroads in our life together in community – yes, we have a new furnace but we all know we’re still tweaking that – and the cost of that project has reduced our reserves to a critical point – we’ve got to face that fact – and figure out what’s ahead for us. There are some basic questions in front of us: certainly, how are we going to pay for all of this? How can we grow? Are we going to survive this?
Yes, we’re facing a financial crisis – but maybe it’s bigger than that: maybe what we’re facing is an identity crisis?
Inspired by this Isaiah passage, I’m aware of moving into a new place in my thoughts that’s brought me both great challenge and great hope in spite of the frustrations, the sadness, I’ve been feeling: that new place is to listen, to lean in to the challenges of these days – and maybe we should be asking these questions instead: what is the mission of our church? What good news do we have to share? Why do we want to stay open? If money were not an issue, how would things be different?
What does it mean for us at St. Paul’s to be the church? What ministry, what mission, is God calling us to? Yes, we’re a small church with an aging building, fewer people to do the work of the church, struggling financially – what is it that the Still Speaking God is saying to us?
M. Scott Peck once said, “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is in only such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” Now is that time. And Isaiah shows us the way, just as he did so many thousands of years ago.
The message of the gospel is timeless, isn’t it – and I also know, though, that it’s hard for us to talk about the future for lots of reasons: an important one is that we’re bound to past and present concepts of reality. We think in terms available to us, based on our own experiences and our own limited vision. But I also believe we’re called, to integrate the past into the now into the future: to think outside of the box, to dream, to encourage those visions we have and to hear the words of hope we all want so badly to believe.
Isaiah’s promise is for us too – in the midst of all our fears and worries and concerns for the future, both as individuals and as this church community. God is faithful and God’s people are empowered to look ahead to their future ministry firmly based on the love of God and neighbor.
The joy, the hope, from Isaiah is tempered a bit by Jesus, though, as he assures his followers that the gospel is essentially divisive in a world where injustice, deceit, and hatred are so very plentiful. Not only does he tell us that “nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom” but also his followers will be persecuted because of his name. Jesus words still speak the truth to contemporary Christians – to us, don’t they. We all still struggle with how to pursue the gospel amid the reality of sin. But Jesus tells us, by your endurance you will gain your souls – stick with it! I am with you.
Endurance - that’s a tough one, isn’t it - we hate to wait for anything. The endurance of sticking to something – we get tired, frustrated. We wonder what we can do. We wonder what’s the use. We wonder how we can make a difference in this world. We wonder where is God in all of this sadness, this misery, this unsettledness, this fear some of us are feeling. How much more can we take of the horrible news we hear every day? Is this gospel message of hope still possible?
Parker Palmer, a well-known Christian educator, wrote, “I remember talking with a friend who has worked for many years at the Catholic Worker, a ministry to the poor in New York City. Daily she tries to respond to waves of human misery that are as ceaseless as surf in that community. I asked her how she could keep doing a work that never showed any results, a work in which the problems keep getting worse instead of better. I will never forget her answer: “The thing you don’t understand, Parker, is that just because something is impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”
Just because something is impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
We, each of us, must, with God’s help, and with the help of each other, encourage those dreams, the vision, of a new world, a new beginning where God’s hope, where God’s presence, will reign. Isn’t that God’s call to each of us individually? And isn’t that really the mission of the church? Isn’t that really the mission of this church? What are the dreams we all carry on our hearts? This is the time to dream, to come together, to move toward making those dreams become reality, one step at a time! We’re called to step up and become part of the new heaven and earth that is coming!
Jimmy Carter is the face of Habitat for Humanity - but he’s not the founder. After he failed in his re-election bid, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were lost, faced with an uncertain future. They were simply two more people who were searching for a purpose in life and found it with Habitat – still do today in their 90s! Why? Rosalynn says, “God trusts us to make the best use of the time we have, to try to live like Jesus, and to make our lives meaningful and beneficial to others no matter where we are.”
Well, God trusts us too! What’s your dream, your vision for the future of our church?
Martin Luther King had a dream - that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
Some tried and continue to try to steal that dream – we see that too often today - but a new era was born in the 1960s - a new era that will bring us to that day when all of God’s children, black and brown and white, Jews and Gentiles and Muslims, Protestants and Catholics, men and women, gay and straight, young and old, will be able to join hands and walk together in peace.
What’s your dream, your vision for the future? For your own, for our country, for our world? For our beloved St. Paul’s Congregational Church? Let them come to the surface! Now is the time!
To make them come true, God calls us to action - to proclaim God’s presence, to do God’s work, to awaken the dream, the vision of a future where the lion shall lie down with the lamb, where sorrow and hunger will be no more, where we will all join hands and walk together.
Yes, this is a time in which there is much uncertainty, anxiety: there are so many things that seem to be coming apart in our lives, in our church, in our society, in our world.
Jesus told his disciples that their distressing time was a time to “bear witness”. Now is that time for us too. What is the witness we are to bear in our times? What is our Word for the future?
It’s the same word that Jesus gave his disciples - God is love. This world is God’s. We are preserved and given hope, not by anything we try, but by the preserving, sustaining love of God. Love always trumps hate. Let us, let each of us, no longer look for signs of the end of times, but for new beginnings.
May we allow God to work with us and through us to create that new heaven and that new earth. And remember this: God will not fail to hold us night and morning. God will not fail to win and work the good of all creation. God will not fail to be God. God will not fail. Amen!