2 Corinthians 8:7-15
My older brother is a great writer. He’s six years older than me, and when we were growing up, I always wanted to do everything he did. He was always entering the annual writing contest put on by the teacher’s association, and he won three out of the four years he entered. I loved his stories, and so naturally, I wanted to write stories too. So I worked really hard on my submission for the teacher’s association contest. I still remember my story. But I had a bad habit when it came to creative writing. I would have a good plan for my story - I knew the characters’ names and what I wanted to see happen, the plot. And I would have a great beginning, if I do say so myself - I set the premise up clearly, used a lot of details, and created the world for my characters. But then, I got kind of in a hurry. I didn’t give enough attention to the middle of the story, where all the hard work of plot development should be, and I wanted to rush ahead to the ending. I skipped over the conflict and wrestling, skipped over the details and subtleties, and moved straight to wrapping everything up before it had really even unfolded. Maybe you can think of a story like the ones I used to write - too rushed, not enough development, skipping important parts, a promising beginning that just doesn’t pan out? I was a huge fan of the Hunger Games novels, but I was let down by the final book in the series, because I felt like the author just suddenly was in a big hurry at the end of the novel. There was a big crisis - but it resolved almost “off screen” or “off page,” not inviting the readers into the messy details, skipping instead quickly through the last bits and getting to a kind of epilogue that was less satisfying because of the rushed pace. Personally, I like to think that I got better at writing over time, but I still tend to stick to other kinds of writing - sermons, for example - and leave the story writing to my brother.
I was thinking about this when I read some of Paul’s words in his letter to the Corinthians. He says to them, “The best thing you can do right now is to finish what you started last year and not let those good intentions grow stale. Your heart’s been in the right place all along. You’ve got what it takes to finish it up, so go to it.” One of Paul’s goals in his letter to the Corinthians is to convince them to continue in a process they’ve started but apparently abandoned. They were taking up a collection to provide financial support for their parent church, the church of Jerusalem. But somehow, they’ve gotten distracted from their intentions, and they never gave what they meant to give. Paul wants them to reclaim their purpose, follow through on their commitments, and do what they said they would do. The Corinths remind me of myself, starting out strong, but petering out along the way. But there are people counting on them. The church in Jerusalem needs them to be faithful to what they’ve said they would do. They’re depending on the resources the Corinthians have pledged. And Paul wants to inspire the Corinthians to finish strong on the goals they’ve set.
Maybe you can relate. I think a lot of churches might relate to Paul’s letter in this season. How many plans and visions did churches have percolating before the pandemic hit that came to a screeching halt? Churches are reopening in lots of ways as things finally seem to be getting better, but a lot has grown stale along the way. And then you compound the struggles with the pandemic with a pastoral transition? Exponentially hard to stay committed when it feels like everything is changing. I’ve been thinking about the strange time in pastoral appointments in the United Methodist Church when you know your pastor is leaving, but they haven’t left yet. For both pastor and congregation, it feels like a tenuous, liminal season, where you’re not really here or there, but stuck in between, not able to hold on to the past, but not sure where the future is leading either. I know as a pastor I worked hard in those seasons not to be a “lame duck pastor” with a “lame duck congregation” - just kind of coasting along until the next pastor came along. But wow, it was hard to fight the inertia, and I know that the challenges of being church in the midst of a pandemic only make it more difficult.
So here you are, St. Paul’s - gathering for worship in what are hopefully the waning months of a global pandemic, having said a farewell to Pastor Teressa, and not yet officially pastored by Pastor Beckie. You’ve had visions and plans and hopes and dreams that you were no doubt working hard on - as a congregation, as individual disciples, and in the larger Christian community. But how is your progress? Are some of your intentions stale?
Paul reminds us that the need is as great as ever. And we can just look around us in this world to identify places of great need. Our denomination is in turmoil and people continue to be excluded from full participation because of their sexual orientation. We’re wrestling with racism, and our unwillingness to confront white supremacy means that some don’t even want us to be able to teach and talk about racism in educational settings. We’re engaged as a nation in relentless acts of war and military aggression. The gap between the rich and the poor grows and grows. Our planet is sweltering under the weight of climate change and relentless consumption of finite resources. Oof, it’s a lot. The worlds’ need is great. Our need for the message of Jesus, for the promise of God’s life-changing, world-changing, limitless grace and love is evident. Can you find it in you to recommit to your good intentions to be disciples who are ready to give your all to carry through on the hopes and dreams you’ve already been nurturing?
To be clear, recommitting to your purpose and vision doesn’t mean you can just stick to your previous plans without any adjustments. I don’t think that’s what Paul’s trying to say, and we know that to be true from experience, too, even if we forget to draw on that experience sometimes. I’ll give you another example from my writing life. I’m currently back in school - I’m working on a PhD at Drew Theological School. I do a lot of writing these days, but more academic and less dramatic storytelling. Still, academic writing needs to flow and develop and have a clear beginning and middle and end too. And you have to have your thesis statement, your focus, your purpose, and then you have to make sure the whole rest of the paper keeps tying back to that thesis. I was writing a paper this spring, and I felt like I had a great illustration, a great example of what I was writing about, drawn from one of my other classes. I was a teaching assistant this past year, and the course I worked with focused in part on Wikipedia - what kinds of knowledge are on Wikipedia, and how knowledge is shared, and how it can be improved. It was fascinating. And I thought I could use a great example from what I learned about Wikipedia in the paper for a class I was taking. I wrote it all out, about 3 pages of my total paper. I really liked it. But there was a little voice in my head telling me it didn’t fit with the rest of the paper. The rest of the paper went a different direction and it didn’t fit. The Wikipedia example didn’t really add to my thesis. It was kind of a distraction. Still, I stuck with it, committed. And then I had my friend edit my paper, and they said to me, “This stuff about Wikipedia doesn’t fit.” Sigh. And then I did something I hate doing when I’ve already worked hard on a piece of writing: I deleted it. It wasn’t working. It was off topic. Interesting, but irrelevant. Maybe eventually it will work for something else, but it wasn’t right for this thesis in this paper this time around.
A post-pandemic or nearly post-pandemic church under the leadership of a new pastor doesn’t necessarily require a new thesis, a new mission, a new vision. Your commitments of discipleship, of changing the world, of being a voice for justice, or sharing the boundaryless love of God in Christ - those are the good intentions Paul doesn’t want to see grow stale, the intentions that Paul calls you to nurture to a good finish. But a post-pandemic or nearly post-pandemic church under the leadership of a new pastor is probably going to require some changes to your strategies. You might have to refine, and refocus. You might have to hit “delete” on some things if you find they’re leading you away from your purpose. I think the church - not just this one - but Church with a capital C - is going to have to adapt, adapt, adapt in the days to come. Certainly, the early faith communities to whom Paul wrote did a lot of adapting, too, in their rapidly changing world.
But Paul has advice for that too, naturally. He encourages the Corinthians to bring out their best. He says they do well in many things. They trust God. They’re articulate and insightful. They’re passionate and loving. They’re generous. And they have a lot of material resources. They’re well equipped, spiritually and materially. And with all those resources and attributes at their disposal, they have all they need to carry out their purpose. What do you have? In these days when you are preparing for ministry with Pastor Beckie, I encourage you to be thinking about that - not abstractly, but concretely: What gifts, assets, talents, resources - spiritual and material - does this congregation have that will help you stay committed to your mission and ministry? What tools do you have at your disposal that will help you carry out all that you’ve planned to do, despite the enormous challenges facing faith communities? What blessings, what abundance, what surplus do you count up that can be put to work for God, and help you keep coming back to your thesis, your reason for being? I know that Pastor Beckie will be delighted to see the fruit of the ministry Pastor Teressa had among you, to see your faithfulness to the work already begun among you, and to hear about the gifts you have to use so that you can be ready, in spite of all the challenges, to nurture good intentions to even better realities.
As you prepare for this new season in your life together, may God be with you, reminding you of the hopes and dreams you have together, calling you to carry on with the work of the gospel for the sake of the waiting world. Amen.
Benediction: The amazing grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, the extravagant love of God, the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit, be with all of you. With love, the Apostle Paul.