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Sermon: Report of the Pastor

Sermon 1/31/10, Jeremiah 1:4-10, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

Report of the Pastor

In my preparations for our Annual Meeting today, I decided I would combine my report into my sermon. For practical reasons, it allows me to reflect with all of you about our first six months together, as we plan for the year ahead, even if you can’t stay for our meeting today. But I also want us to understand that there’s no separation between the ‘business matters’ of the church and our mission, ministry, and worship. Everything we do together in the life of the church is meant to be in service to God, who calls us. So where have we been, and where do we go from here?

Our official congregational mission statement says that our purpose is “Growing together in our knowledge and love of God through Jesus Christ and sharing this with others.” I shared with you in the last newsletter that Connie McEvers said that she could remember the core of the statement by its key words: growing, loving, and sharing. Her shortcut has been sticking with me, and I’ve been trying to incorporate those three words into what we do here, to give you an easier way to connect with a plan to deepen your faith. So, I also want to use these words to frame my report to you this morning. How are we growing, loving, and sharing?

Our mission as a congregation is to grow. We can say this in many ways. We want to grow numerically – I know I would certainly love to see this sanctuary filled to capacity each week. I’d love to continue to see growth in our youth program. I would love to see us grow in our giving. But in this context, when we’re talking about growing in love and knowledge of God, I think we’re talking about spiritual growth, discipleship. How are you growing spiritually? What are you doing to nurture your soul and how can this congregation encourage that growth in you?

Our Old Testament lesson today is from the prophet Jeremiah. At the start of the book, we hear about Jeremiah’s call by God. Jeremiah begins, as many of our biblical characters do, sure that he is unqualified for God to use him. He claims that he doesn’t know how to speak, and is only a boy. But God basically replies that no excuses are acceptable. “Do not say, “I am only a boy,”” God says, “for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” Jeremiah’s story is like so many of ours – we’re sure we’re not wise enough, or gifted enough, or special enough for God to be using us. But God promises to be with us, to give us words, and promises that we shall do what God commands. Jeremiah becomes one of the great prophets of Israel, without any special qualifications that we know of, except the ability to listen to God’s voice.

To me, that’s what spiritual growth is about – learning to practice a way of life that helps us to listen and respond to God’s voice. Our lives are so full of things that compete for our attention and energy. We have to learn, to practice, to be disciplined in our spiritual lives, so that God’s voice has a chance of finding us. So how are we working to grow spiritually? One way is through offering small-group study experiences. In the fall, the Parish Council completed a Healthy Church Checklist, in which we committed to increasing participation in small group studies by our leadership. To that end, you will notice that we have and will continue to have several options for spiritual study. I encourage you to make it a priority to find one of these groups to be part of.

The season of Lent is fast-approaching, and I urge you to consider it to be a time of spiritual reflection, rededication, and renewal. We’ll be having a midweek communion service during Lent that will focus on a deeper understanding of the meaning of communion. I will also be surveying the congregation to find out which small-group study topics would interest you and which times would best suit you. If a group study isn’t your thing, please, speak to me about ways you can work toward spiritual growth, and I will help you find something that stretches and challenges you.

Our mission as a congregation is to love. Love is a word we toss around pretty lightly in our culture except, when it comes to people. We love TV shows and movies, we love pets, we love a song. But we’re a little stingier with our love for one another. After a time of transition in this congregation, I feel like this is probably the most critical area of focus for us. We need to work on loving one another. Our reading from Corinthians this week is one of the most famous passages in all of Paul’s writing – the love chapter. You’ve probably heard this passage a million times, because it is the passage most frequently chosen for weddings. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Paul’s language is beautiful, but he’s actually not writing about romantic relationships. As I mentioned last week, Paul is in fact writing to a congregation in Corinth that has been struggling with conflict and disunity. It’s in that context that he’s talking about what love is. It is patient. It doesn’t demand its own way. It rejoices in truth, bears all things, and doesn’t end. Paul says that without this love, we can have all the gifts and graces imaginable and still be just a noisy gong.

We’ve experienced some brokenness within the congregation. But we’re called to an ethic of love that, if we follow it, will help us journey beyond our brokenness. As we talked about last week, we are all members of the body of Christ, and all valuable parts of the community. For the body to work, we have to work together, and we don’t get to cut each other off, or decide we’re going to go it on our own. That’s just not how the body works. We have over one hundred regular worshippers and many more members and constituents in this part of the body. Sometimes we will seriously disagree with one another. Sometimes we will have a hard time getting along. But do you love one another? Can we work on loving one another?

Now we need, first, to experience some forgiveness within the congregation. Healing doesn’t happen overnight, I know. But we begin with forgiveness. Each Sunday we pray to be forgiven as we forgive others. Are you forgiving? I’m asking you today, if you’ve experienced hurt and conflict, to begin forgiving, to let go of the past, and to move on. We cannot go forward as a congregation if we always holding on to what is behind us, because it will hold us there, and keep us from looking down the road where God is leading us. To that end, I encourage you, if you are experiencing disagreements or conflicts, to always speak directly with one another. It’s easy to let hurts fester and multiply when we talk about and around someone instead of to them. And if you are having trouble talking to someone about a disagreement, please seek me out, and I can help you.

We had some wonderful times of fellowship in the last six months, including a spaghetti dinner and cookie walk. I encourage you to take part in activities like that that just give us time to spend with one another. My own goals this first year focus heavily on building relationships. I’ve appreciated spending hours with you at Panera Bread or in your homes. My goal in the year ahead is to visit every member and constituent of the church. You can help me with that project by signing up for a time or contacting me to set one up. I’m interested in hearing about your hopes and dreams for this congregation, and I’m interested in knowing who you are and why you are here. I encourage you to also seek time with one another – with whom do you need to rebuild a relationship? Take a step towards healing in the months ahead.

Finally, our mission as a congregation is to share. In fact, we’re called to share it all, share in everyway: what we have, who we are, what we know – all of this is meant to be shared and given in love to those who so desperately are seeking purpose and hope in their lives. Our gospel reading today picks up again where we left off last week in Luke, when Jesus unrolled the scroll of Isaiah and read from it in his hometown synagogue. When he is finished reading, he sits down and tell the listeners that the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing. And we read, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words” he spoke. That might seem like a positive reaction, but Jesus doesn’t seem happy with their response. He certainly stirs them up with his reply: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town . . . there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’”

The people are filled with rage at his words, and try to drive him off a cliff, and we as 21st century readers are left wondering what we missed. Why did his words upset them? Well, what Jesus points out to the people is that God sent these prophets to work through non-Jews. Though the people saw themselves as God’s chosen, revered prophets of Israel Elijah and Elisha did God’s work not through Gentiles. God chose to use those who were outside the community, rather than those who were inside. The people of Nazareth don’t want to hear it. They want to wonder at Jesus, all grown up, and reading the scripture so beautifully, but they don’t want to be transformed by the scripture they hear, and they don’t want to hear that it’s actually all about someone else, not them, after all. Jesus read about good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, not good news for the middle class, release for the independent, sight for those who just won’t open their eyes, freedom for the comfortable.

As a church body, it’s very easy to slip into thinking that what we do here is about us, and making sure that we are happy. But the church is exists not for itself, but for those outside of it. When Jesus gave his great commission to the twelve, he told them “Go and make disciples.” That’s why the official mission of both our denominations is other-focused, not self-focused. Our primary purpose is outward-reaching, sharing God with others. That’s the primary reason for the church to exist. So if we aren’t doing that, we’re in trouble. So sharing is a key word in our mission statement. Churches that are vital and healthy are churches that are outward-looking, serving others, rather than making sure members’ needs are met.

How have we been sharing? We’ve been working to re-people and re-energize our Evangelism Team. The world “evangelism” means “good message,” and that’s our purpose: sharing the good message with others. Our Nominations Team has worked hard to find more people willing to help, who will soon be joining our currently small team. Karen Dunn, our chair, is very faithful in following up with any visitors who worship here. We also attended a training session this fall called “ReThink Church,” along with some of our Missions Team, and I think we all felt inspired with new ideas. Our Missions Team has worked hard to engage the congregation in mission work. We’ve had mission moments, collected blankets, food, scarves and health kits, we’ve sent kids to camp, we’ve supported local and global missions, we’ve CROP-walked together, and we’ve had an ongoing presence at The Crossings.

But we want to do more. We’re talking about sharing ourselves. I mentioned last week that our young people are already gifted at inviting others to attend church activities with them. But we can’t leave this work up to them. If we want to see the church grow and thrive we have a direct responsibility to act by sharing what we’re about, about this God we serve, and about God’s love, freely offered to us. I challenge you, this year, to focus on inviting someone to worship with you. More than any program or advertising campaign we might do, people come to church because someone invites them. We’re also developing our relationship with the Rescue Mission in the year ahead. We have so many gifts, and we excel at sharing donations and financial help with a number of organizations. But we are called to share our hearts. We’ve committed to pay special attention this year to hands-on mission – mission that involves building relationships with the people that we serve, so that we might understand how much they in turn are serving us. This year, I challenge you to spend more of your time in hands-on mission work.

I believe that we are blessed with wonderful people, gifts, talents, and resources here at First United. God has blessed us with such abundance, and such potential. I have dreams and visions about what we might be, and where God might lead us, if we’re ready to take the risk of following a God who is known for leading people to turn their whole lives around and upside down. I’m ready – ready for you to help me take those risks – ready to help you take those risks. The people of the First United Church of East Syracuse are called to grow in our knowledge and love of God through Jesus Christ and to share this with others. So let’s grow. Let’s love. Let’s share. And let’s go together. Amen.


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