St. PAUL’S CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
NOVEMBER 21, 2021 – Thanksgiving Sunday
Joel 2: 21 – 29; Matthew 6: 25 – 33
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I have to admit: this reflection, this meditation may be the hardest one ever. After 28 years of serving God in pastoral ministry, this is my last Sunday, not only here at St. Paul’s, but anywhere serving as either an interim or settled pastor as I retire from active ministry. And as I pondered this decision, I couldn’t help but remember and relive so many sacred moments I’ve been blessed to have these past years – it has been truly an honor to walk with people and churches on this journey we share of trying to figure out what it means to be a disciple of Christ and how that affects our daily lives. Daily lives filled with ordinary things, routines, but also filled with the lowest lows and the highest highs we humans can ever experience.
And the sacred opportunity as a pastor to share these experiences with so many people and families – so much happy stuff: births, adoptions, baptisms – both babies and adults, weddings, anniversaries, promotions, new jobs, new homes, confirmations, reconciliations of all sorts, vacation Bible school sessions, the joy of a child realizing that God loves her no matter what, the smiles of a child as he proudly gives me a picture he’d drawn. The wonder of children as they experience communion and offer their own heartfelt prayers for the first time.
And so much pain and sadness as well: gathering with families in their homes to plan funerals: hearing secrets, sharing memories, dealing with the shock of suicides, gratitude and relief that their loved one is no longer suffering but still the pain of loss. Ministry with recovering addicts and those who have relapsed. Hours with families and patients in intensive care units, emergency departments, hospital rooms, nursing homes. Listening to a man just released from jail with a restraining order to stay away from his wife and children because of allegations of abuse. Taking in a woman and her children as they hid from an abusive husband and father. Phone calls in the middle of the night when a family member has a heart attack at home or has taken a turn for the worse in their illness. Candle light vigils for a young person tragically killed in an accident, and ministry with his friends and family.
So many opportunities to serve: at Food Banks, Soup Kitchens, collecting coupons from the congregation for cereal, going grocery shopping, and delivering bags and bags of cereal to the local Food Bank, sending chickens and bees around the world through Heifer Project that families may have food they can share with their neighbors, delivering Christmas gifts and Thanksgiving dinners to families in need, participating in demonstrations for justice for all, meeting with congressional representatives to make our thoughts known, taking a knee on our front lawn here, ringing bells to remember those who died of COVID these past two years.
The list goes on and on. But as I look back on each and every one of such experiences, both the good stuff and the really hard stuff over the years, I humbly savor the honor, the sacred trust that I have been blessed to share with so many people.
And I have been grateful for congregations including me in their prayers over the years, for townspeople who have gone out of their way to offer support when our towns have been rocked by tragedy, my colleagues in ministry everywhere who have reached out to check in and offer whatever help they can, to those who have walked with me through the deaths of my parents and my brother, other family members, and now these days, to those who have been such support to me during my current health crisis – the soups, the meals, the prayer shawl, the cards, the letters and emails, the phone calls, the cases of ensure!
Friends, our love and care for each other – people we know and people we will never know - is what makes us church! And ministry is not just for the ordained – you’ve all heard me say so over and over again, God calls each and every one of us to a ministry; we all have gifts and talents to share and we are called to do just that!
What else makes us church? Of course, loving God, loving neighbor – that comes first. Our scripture passages chosen for this Thanksgiving Sunday tell us:
From Joel: 26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And the promise: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men (and women) shall dream dreams, and your young men (and women) shall see visions.
How are we doing here at St. Paul’s dreaming dreams and seeing visions? Today is a new day here! We have so many opportunities to enhance our ministry right in front of us – what are our dreams? What visions do we see? But even before that, how are we doing praising the name of our God through our worship?
And the words of the psalm: don’t they too speak to us?
Our flooding disaster will be restored – we don’t know how yet, though do we. And it’s going to take hard work to discern the “how” and “what” of restoration – and that work starts with asking God for direction. Be like those who dream! We will know that God has done great things for us – and we will rejoice. But only if we put God first – listen to the words of the prayer offered in the psalm: Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
We’ve all shed tears over this devastation: it’s time to seriously consider our ministry and start in prayer, in hope, in openness to what a new future might bring. We know the church is not the building – it’s the gathered people of God! There are hard questions to answer in our time of limited resources, both financial and volunteers: what is God trying to say to us? What ideas give you joy in your very center? What seeds will you sow? These questions are ever so much bigger than perhaps we realize: how does our building become a garden, tended by God’s people that others may know they are loved and cared for.
Then the passage from Matthew that touches something in each one of us deals with – do not worry! The bottom line is this: we are called to strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to us as well. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it – be we all sure know better. These days that wonderful song, “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God” runs through my head so much of the time – knock and the door shall be opened unto you; ask and it shall be opened unto you. Seek and ye shall find.
And then come the alleluias!
Remember the Sunday after the flood when we met outside on that beautiful September morning – the first time we were together in person in 18 months – we compared the waters of Noah’s flood that brought death and devastation to all but a few – we compared those waters to the water of life at Jesus’ baptism when the Spirit came from the heavens like a dove and alit on Jesus and a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Friends, thank you for the honor of serving among you these past 5 years, through all the good stuff and the hard stuff as well. I wish you all things good as you do the work of identifying your ministry in this time, in this community – it will not be easy – we all know that – but putting God first, asking God to be a little clearer – my favorite prayer – and then listening for the answers that will surely come – going forward with creativity, in courage and with the assurance that God is with you every moment of every day.
Bless you all today = thank you – and keep the faith!
Ask, seek, and knock – I promise you, the alleluias will come! Amen.