Change Is the Church's Promise of Continuity, Old First Sermons 11.10.13 (preached at Lincoln Congregational Temple, UCC, Washington, D.C.)

Change Is the Church's Promise of Continuity, Old First Sermons 11.10.13 (preached at Lincoln Congregational Temple, UCC, Washington, D.C.)

Proverbs 3:1-6; John 21: 1-11; Hebrews 11:1-3

A word of thanks to begin with.
To your Interim Minister, Dr. Tendai, an old friend from our shared NYC days.
And to his wife, Dotty who I am glad to see. I think she’d rather not be referred to as the First Lady,
but I do hope you reserve a special place in your heart, church, for their presence among you.

And to the rest of the saints who are Lincoln Temple today. And perhaps a few former members, now guests, back visiting today.

I know a bit of your history. But more I know some of your storied former pastors. Particularly Shelby Rooks from his reknown in the UCC and Channing Phillips who was still at Riverside when I became a member.

Even better, I know the Morrow family– Delilah and Greta and her kids, Mark and Gabby. They are my parishioners at Old First. Besides all your history, fruits of the Spirit shown in a family like that… all I can say is that if a church can have even just a small part in producing Christians such as that, I’m impressed and thankful.

So, giving thanks to the Homecoming Committee, and the whole church, I begin with gratitude and next add how humbled I am by the invitation to preach this morning.

Will you pray with me…

Lord God, get us out of the way, that your way may

My Sermon title today is “Change is the Church’s Promise of Continuity.”
That may not sound like good news.
Churches tend to be traditionalists.
Especially historic congregations, such as this one.
Even more so on Anniversary and Homecoming Sundays.

So let me try this:
How many of us is the same person today that you were yesterday?
I mean, hasn’t something happened?
— even in the last 24 hours —
that has caused you to think of yourself, or the world or God
at least a little differently?

Not to mention, since last week,
last month,
last year,
or 5, 10, 20 or more years ago?

Oh, I’m still the little boy who grew up in St. Louis, Mo.
And in my case, I even look enough the same
that people from grade school walking past me on the street might still recognize me.

But a lot has changed since I was 8, 18, 38 or 8 months ago…
It doesn’t always show. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.
Or to be overlooked or forgotten.

Beginning to see what I mean?
That the change we accept and take for granted in individuals,
— as individuals, we’re always in flux —
because God’s not finished with us yet…
Because every day God gives us,
there’s something still to learn or to get done.
So though we have undeniably continuity with our earlier selves,
we’re always changing — hopefully growing and adapting and bouncing off the dynamic world around us.

I want to suggest that same is true for church,
Even if we often don’t want to give congregations the same wiggle room.
Even if we don’t like to see or admit the ways our church is always changing.
People are always coming and going.
New babies born.
Children going off to college.
People moving away. And also folks passing on.
As surely as newbies show up, well, if all is going well with church, new folks show up.

We want to pretend that church has always been the same.
But here we are today,
and I bet if I had you all turn to a neighbor,
Everyone could tell someone how Lincoln Temple is different today
than just a few years ago.
Not to mention how different from a generation ago,
Or say, when Rev. Rooks or Rev. Phillips were the pastors.

And clearly the church in North America in 2013 isn’t like it was in 1983 or 1953.
And the American church isn’t like the churches in Europe it mostly derives from.
Or the church’s at the time Luther began the Reformation.
Or the churches Paul founded in disapora across the classical world.
And none of them were like the first Christian communities in Palestine after Pentecost,
or like the followers that Jesus attracted during his earthly ministry.

Do you see where I’m going with this?
The church has always been changing,
developing alongside of and sometimes in reaction to the world
in which it is called to serve,
To which we are to minister.

The church, like every other living body, survives as it adapts and changes.

The Scriptures your Homecoming Committee has chosen point to that:

We may well want things to stay the same;
All the flux is hard to keep up with.
It gets to be a little much sometimes, to be honest.
But Proverbs reminds us that we cannot insist on our own way,
if that means we would be rejecting God’s will for us.

There’s some good congregational polity in that, people:
we’re free — not to do whatever we want,
but free so that we have to do nothing less than God’s will…

It’s only in following God
— in ways,quite frankly, we might not want to go,
to places we never expected to experience,
much less to have to make our home
— it’s in submitting to God’s will —
that the path opens up before us.

And the Hebrews text, which reminds us
that in faith,
our hopes will be met,
albeit in ways we cannot yet see.

What’s the guest preacher talking about?
I’m suggesting, humbly, as the outsider, that I can imagine God’s inevitably calling you to some changes
in order that you might,
continue disciple-ing and serving for a new day,
carrying forward the faith, hope and love of this church.

Beloved, sometimes we church-folk get all this stuff turned around.
In our anxiety and fear, we get all panicky
that the church isn’t going to continue to be there for us.

Not that we might be that far from the truth, but
a better understanding of the role of the church
would call us to another account–
the possibility that
if we don’t let go of the way things have been,
the church is going to fail,
but the failure happens before the church won’t be here for you anymore…
the failure we’ll be held responsible for is that church’s being unable to share God’s love further.

The point of Lincoln Temple and every other congregation surviving all these years,
The purpose for continuing on in ministry
is to show God’s love to more people.

But, these days, in admittedly hard times for many churches,
Congregations are often just trying to hold on to the way things used to be,
while waiting for God to send back a crowd.

But what if, while we are waiting on God,
God’s waiting on us to figure out how to do something new,
So we can reach people who aren’t being engaged by
the ways we are and have been doing things?

God’s waiting on the church to welcome a whole new generation
into fellowship and service.

So I want to add one more Scripture lesson to our celebration today:

John 21: 1-11,
in — not surprisingly in a sermon like this,
…in the new language of The Message
goes like this:

After this, Jesus appeared again to the disciples,
this time at the the Sea of Galilee.
This is how he did it:
Simon Peter,
Thomas (nicknamed “Twin”),
Nathanael from Cana in Galilee,
the brothers Zebedee,
and two other disciples were together.

Simon Peter announced, “I’m going fishing.”
The rest of them replied, “We’re going with you.”
They went out and got in the boat.
\They caught nothing that night.

When the sun came up, Jesus was standing on the beach, but they didn’t recognize him.
Jesus spoke to them: “Good morning! Did you catch anything for breakfast?”
They answered, “No.”
He said, “Throw the net off the right side of the boat and see what happens.”
They did what he said.
All of a sudden there were so many fish in it, they weren’t strong enough to pull it in.

Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Master!”
When Simon Peter realized that it was the Master,
he threw on some clothes, for he was stripped for work, and dove into the sea.

The other disciples came in by boat for they weren’t far from land, a hundred yards or so,
pulling along the net full of fish.
When they got out of the boat, they saw a fire laid, with fish and bread cooking on it.

Jesus said, “Bring some of the fish you’ve just caught.”
Simon Peter joined them and pulled the net to shore—153 big fish!
And even with all those fish, the net didn’t rip.

(At Old First, after we read scripture, we always say:
For the word in Scripture.
For the word in and among us.
For the word lived and shared.
We give thanks to you, O God.)

Why do I offer you that text on Homecoming Sunday?
Because, I think it offers us the faithful motivation we need for ministry
in times such as these.

The Good News leads inevitably to the church’s mission to the world.
Jesus’ call for his followers to share his love with all the world,
to become the community of faith by which
~ the lost are found,
~ the sick are healed,
~ the oppressed are freed, and
~ many are led to abundant life.

This “fishing story” at the end of John’s Gospel
foreshadows the on again / off again career of the church
when it comes to sharing God’s love effectively.

And, more importantly, it’s Jesus’ promise to be. nearby to help
in good times and bad.

We should be able to understand the disciples this time, church.
After all they have been through
Are a bit confused as to what to do next.
Or too tired and hopeless to continue on in ministry.

What happens when we loose our mission, loose our hope,
we do what we’ve done before.
It’s a reflex or a protective habit.
They go fishing.

But trying what they’d done before.
What THEY thought that was right!
following their own ways,
they experienced utter failure.
They caught nothing.

The turning point comes with the dawn of a new day.
Jesus is there on the shore,
watching them on the lake.

Somehow, they don’t recognize him,
even when he speaks to them.

(I often wonder how often we miss or fail to hear Jesus?)

He already knows their situation.
“Doing what you’ve done before, have you caught no fish?”

He knows the answer:
Try something different!
Throw the nets a new way.

Give up on how you’ve done things before.
And you’ll start to catch fish again!

Here’ a crucial difference to grab on to:
The abundance of the miraculous catch,
it’s not about how many people our church can grow to
so it won’t have to change!

Instead, it’s about how many people,
— changing —
we can still share God’s love with.

Do you get that difference?
Between people we want so we won’t have to change,
and people we have to change in order to engage?

Too often our churches today recognize themselves in the pre-miracle part of the story.
Like disciples who fished all night and caught nothing,
We feel like we’ve tried everything and nothing worked.

What then could Jesus’ direction to throw your nets on the other side
mean for Lincoln Temple today?
What are the new ways Jesus is calling you to?

I got to Old First four years ago,
and we’ve learned it’s not enough to say that you want to serve more people.

You have to make some changes in order to serve new and different people.
Otherwise, they’d already be at church!

We found the needed changes aren’t that radical.
And sometimes I think it’s more of attitude and outlook.
Remember, that difference I spoke about?
The difference in wanting church to stay the same to be there for you,
or desiring that it changes in order to more effectively share God’s love with others?

Let me try this.
Surely everyone of you can think of someone this morning,
someone you care about,
who you’d like to be able to help feel the love and acceptance and presence and call of God?

You friend going through a divorce.
The parent who doesn’t know how to raise their child anymore,
or the child who’s never really know a parent.

Someone without a job for so long she’s getting desperate.
A person facing a bad diagnosis, or a difficult treatment, or an unlikely recovery.

Surely, each of us has someone at the top of the list that we’d love to give God’s love to.
But it’s hard, right?
To know how to say it, show it? Make it real?

What if you didn’t have to figure out or try and do that alone?
What if the church really picked up its mission and was on board,
was doing a better job at communicating and convincing people
that they are loved, precious, capable?

What’s the evolution,
innovation or
— that is not so much a break with your tradition,
but it’s continuation —
and that can help you begin to speak in new ways that new people can hear and make sense of?

I’m almost done, but I want to leave you with a suggestion
For how to think about throwing your nets in a new way…

It’s almost as if these days — right here in Washington —
You are having to think of your church work
as Christian missionaries to a foreign land:
our increasingly secular and consumer-driven society is that different
from the promises and the responsibilities of the Gospel.

Most of our neighbors don’t understand what the church offers.
They are that unfamiliar with the Christian story and the church’s faith and practice.
What we do: what we say,
It’s all unintelligible to them.
Like the teachers voice in the Peanuts tv specials: whaaa, whaa, whaa

If we don’t develop a new proficiency so we can speak meaningfully to them.
If we can’t figure out how to translate God’s promises
so our neighbors today can understand what they mean, what they offer, how they transform…

Just as Paul undertook a translation of the Gospel from the Aramaic and Jewish setting of its birth
in order to deliver it to the wider ancient Greco-Roman world…

And the Reformation translated the Bible into the language of people’s daily lives,
and Luther borrowed music from the beer halls of his day
As some of the steps toward
preparing a Christianity for the rising, industrial West…

It’s our vocation to teach and preach,
to live, serve and share
So that the people of this time can receive and believe the Good News.

It may not make sense to our druthers,
We might want to maintain all our sacred traditions
Just as we have known them
as the only solace we think we can count on.

But in God’s revelation in history,
it makes perfect sense:

Our congregations need to change in order to remain faithful messengers,
Conveying Christ’s promises to each new generation.

To share a love we know
with strangers and friends alike who need to know…

Will you pray with me:

Lord God, this is your church.
For so many generations, touching so many.
Take us now in your hands,
like clay to be remolded
that we can again be your vessel,
filled with the spirit,
carrying the refreshing drink of your grace
to those with a thirst they fear has no quenching.
Remake us now, Lord.
Tarry now, do not delay.
We are ready…