Sermon – February 28, 2016

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyThe Ways of God

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, / so are my ways higher than your ways / and my thoughts than your thoughts.” — Isaiah 55:9.

Well, we are in the crazy season again. The crazy season— that’s what I call each year we have a national election— the crazy season. This one may be crazier than a lot of others.

My guess is no one else here has had an experience similar to mine when it comes to a national election. My experience starts with the fact that I was, as many of you have heard, a theater professional. As a consequence, I worked a lot of odd jobs in my time.

One of those odd jobs— a very odd job— was surveying potential voters for the Harris organization. I was one of those often spoken of but rarely spotted presidential poll takers. It was 1980, the year Ronald Regan ran against Jimmy Carter.

To be clear, I know I have told this story before, so I apologize to those who might remember it. Others will not remember it. And, since it fits the direction in which I’m going today, it’s hard to not reuse a good story. Now, in order to tell you this story about being a poll taker, I do need to let you know some items which are both standard and vital for professional polling.

First, there should not be too many questions. A good survey lasts no longer than five to seven minutes.

Questions need to be, therefore, short— multiple choice or yes and no responses. Multiple choice questions should offer no more than four possible answers. A good poll also gets demographic data: age, ethnicity, faith background, etc., etc., etc.

Paradoxically, it’s vital the individual with whom the poll taker makes contact gives their own answer, not an answer a poll taker assumes. You can’t put words in their mouths. That’s a paradox because the poll taker, obviously, offers all the answers— yes or no, A, B, C or D. But the person contacted must say those words, those answers, for themselves.

Last, all the questions need to be answered. If one question is not answered or answered with the words the poll taker supplied, all the answers are thrown out. They do not count. All these are considered industry standards.

Well, let me take you back to 1980 for a minute— Carter verses Regan. I dialed a random number. What makes it random? The poll taker is assigned an area code and the first three digits of the phone number. That locates the call in a specific region. What presumably ensures randomness is the poll taker makes up the last four numbers.

The area I dialed that night was in Alabama. One call stands out in my memory. The questions about presidential preference were successfully navigated.

That brought up the demographic questions. Using my best imitation of a nationally known televison broadcast journalist, I asked the standard question about faith tradition: “Are you Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or other.”

“I’m a Baptist,” was a response.

Now, as I said, the person being polled needs to say one of those four words I offered as an answer. I tried to rephrase the question. “Many people would say the Baptist tradition is a part of the group known as Protestants. ‘Are you a Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or other.’”

“I’m a Baptist.”

I said, “Some people think a Baptist should not be classified as a Protestant but should fall under the category called ‘other.’ ‘Are you a Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or other.’”

“I’m a Baptist.”

The consequence of that interaction is all the answers this person gave did not count. They were thrown out. The voice of that person was never included in the 1980 presidential poll taken by Harris. (Slight pause.)

These words are from the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, the second Prophet in the Scroll: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, / so are my ways higher than your ways / and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Slight pause.)

Vince Amlin is a United Church of Christ pastor. In a recent blog post he spoke of a parishioner who asked: “What do you expect of me as a fellow church member?”

Amlin said he loved this question, first, because it reminded him that he is a people, a church member— a member with a specific office— but a member. Therefore, this person was not asking a minister about expectations. This person was asking the people around her, fellow theologians— and like it or not, if we profess a belief in God, any god, we are theologians— this person was asking her fellow theologians who happen to also be churchgoers what they expected of her.

Now that very question about expectation begins, perhaps somewhat uncomfortably, with expectations. You see, if I am a people, a member of a congregation, a member of any group— not just churches, any group— it means others in that group make claims on me. Others make a claim on my time, a claim on my resources and, especially in a church, a claim might be made on my heart.

They expect me, a people, to pray for their father who is diagnosed with dementia. They expect me, a people, to be gracious to their children, perhaps buy some cookies to support a school activity or scouts of different flavors. They expect me, a people, to make soup or to bake for a potluck.

And this might be the most terrifying aspect— they might expect me, a people, to expect things of them in return. Others might expect me to need their care. Others might expect me to invite their concern. Others might expect me to partake of their casseroles— Vince Amlin a pastor with the United Church of Christ. [1] (Slight pause.)

All that poses a provocative question: to what is God calling us? Is it membership of some form or another? Doesn’t membership break out into tribes, as in “I’m a Baptist?” (Slight pause.)

Mike Flanagan, an Episcopal priest offers a reflection on this. “When I became clergy, I was all about the worship, the liturgy being just right and good preaching.”

Today, says Flanagan, my role is helping people discern their callings, their talents and connecting those to the needs of both the parish and the surrounding community. Says Flanagan (quote:) “Membership is a passive term. I can be a member and do nothing.”

This Episcopal priest no longer refers to parishioners as members. Instead, he refers to them as disciples. Disciples— that’s not a passive word. [2] (Slight pause.)

Poet Maren Tirabassi recently wrote a poem called Lenten reflection — I’d like a church – make mine double. These are her words.

I know a church / that only embraces prodigals – / tech industry nones / or folks who live in their cars, / those who identify as gender non-conforming, / formerly incarcerated, / in recovery, post-evangelical, / lapsed, doubters or inked.

I know a church / that only celebrates long-timers, / the ones who CROP walk, / or teach Sunday School, / the ones who are life-deacons, / chaperone mission trips, / shovel snow, / visit nursing homes, / get wax out of / Christmas morning carpet.

What I want is — / a church like / the completely dysfunctional family / Jesus told stories about – / with the designated lover / always out on the road / to welcome in or argue back — / someone staggering from / a hit-and-run, / someone stuck in their ruts. [3] (Slight pause) Lenten reflection — I’d like a church – make mine a double by Maren Tirabassi.

That brings me back to Isaiah’s proclamation that the ways of God are not our ways. In part, I think Maren’s poem is getting at a truth that may also be uncomfortable: God’s ways are not our ways, especially in church.

To illustrate that I think we need to realize the verse about the ways of God not being our ways actually refers to the first words in this passage (quote:) “I call out to all who thirst: / come to the waters; / and you that have no money, / come, buy and eat! / Come, buy wine and milk / without money and without price.”

God’s ways are not about a transaction, about what we can purchase, what we can trade, about how much we have. God’s ways are not about the tribalism of groups, not about who we know. God’s ways are definitely not about what we know.

Therefore, I think this reality should help us focus on the term disciple. This is a definition. A dictionary definition: a disciple is someone who accepts and helps spread teachings. (Slight pause.)

Some basic teachings are both clear and are found in this passage. God abundantly and freely pardons. We are forgiven in the eyes of God.

God’s economy is all inclusive. This really is a free market. There are no transactions. You do not pay.

God’s club is all inclusive. Everyone is welcome. (Slight pause.) So, how can we, as disciples, spread that word about the ways of God?

A disciple will incorporate these ways into their own lives. That is the method by which disciples really teach. (Slight pause.)

You have heard me say this hundreds of times. These ideals can be summed up this way: love God; love neighbor. These are God’s ways. These are God’s thoughts. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York.

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I want to leave you with a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “In the end it matters not how good we are but how good God is. It matters not how much we love God but how much God loves us. And God loves us whoever we are, whatever we’ve done or failed to do, whatever we believe or can’t believe.”

BENEDICTION: God’s steadfast love endures forever. Let us live our days offering thanks to God who feeds our souls. Let us go on our way with Christ as our companion. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.

[1] Adapted for this context.


[3] Posted on Maren Tirabassi’s Facebook page.

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