Sermon – March 1, 2015

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyCovenant, Part II: Openness to….

by Rev. Joe Connolly

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“God said, ‘…your wife Sarah shall bear you a child, who, since you have laughed, shall be named Yitzhak, Isaac, Laughter. I will establish my covenant with Yitzhak as an everlasting covenant and for all the descendants who shall follow.’” [1] — Genesis 17:19.

In our church newsletter just mailed on Friday so you may not have it yet, our historian, Pat Evans, tells some of the history from the 1950s when the Rev. Mr. Avery Post was the pastor. One of the participants in the Installation of Post was Rev. Mr. James A. G. Moore, Associate Minister of the New York Congregational Christian Conference— the New York Congregational Christian Conference being the body which was the predecessor of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ, this structure to which we belong, the denomination.

The Rev. Mr. David Gaewski, our current Conference Minister, has preached here in Norwich twice. Upon arriving in the Conference, one of David’s projects has been to help get the Conference into the 21st Century, as least in terms of computers and communicating to the churches of the Conference and individual members of those churches— communicating by computers.

One significant way that has happened is the Conference now sends out a weekly e-mail newsletter. Anyone can sign up for this missive on the Conference web site. And please, I ask each of you to sign up for it. We should all be getting it.

Most weeks David authors a column called My Thoughts for the newsletter. What follows is some of what that column contained this week. (Slight pause.)

When the conversation begins about “the church of tomorrow,” I often become bored with how narrow the thinking can be. There is no single blueprint or template of what the church will look like in five, ten or twenty years. There never has been.

I also yawn when the conversation includes the phrase “this is a unique moment in church history.” Give me a break.

Every moment has been unique since the last supper. Corinth could not have foreseen Westminster Abbey in London. Thomas Aquinas could not have envisioned Old South Church in Boston. Salem could not have imagined Riverside Church in Manhattan. And it seems unlikely Martin Luther could have ever anticipated the entity we call the United Church of Christ.

Let me paraphrase Saint Paul since there is only one thing of which I am certain, says David in these comments. One day we will see face to face, but on this blue orb, the mirror will always be a dim reflection of the perfection of the Body of Christ.

Indeed, there will be no fewer “forms” of church in 2060 as there are in 2015. There is no single template for faithful witness. And we will struggle each day we have on earth to more fully reflect the image in which we are made.

So, at least let us change our terminology and use not “the church of tomorrow” but let’s use something like “the churches of tomorrow”— plural. Anything else is, in my humble opinion, at best arrogant or self-aggrandizing and in its worst iterations, it is an attempt to sell snake oil— the Rev. Mr. David Gaewski.

I think among the points David was trying to make some are quite obvious. Change not only happens, it is unpredictable and inevitable. It will happen in ways we cannot now foresee. We need to be open to the movement of the Spirit. [2] (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as Genesis: “God said, ‘…your wife Sarah shall bear you a child, who, since you have laughed, shall be named Yitzhak, Isaac, Laughter. I will establish my covenant with Yitzhak as an everlasting covenant and for all the descendants who shall follow.’” (Slight pause.)

First things first: if you were here last week and read the sermon title— and speaking of communicating in a 21st Century way— you did not have to be here last week to know the sermon title. You can read or hear the sermon from February 22nd online. But, if you were here last week, you know that sermon title last week was Covenant, Part I: Presence.

Today is Part II. Now, some of what I said last week is: a covenant is not a contract, since a contract is an agreement between parties. God gives the covenant as a free gift without expectation of anything in return.

Here, in Part II— and as we progress through Lent there will be more on covenant, more parts— here in Part II, nothing contradicts that idea of God giving a free gift. Again God takes the initiative. The Hebrew word used in expressing what happens in this reading says God gives a covenant, God speaks promises with Abraham and with the descendants of Abraham. Nothing is expected in return.

The promises made by God, however, are challenging. The challenge is not found in the details of the promises made. The challenge is found in the essence of those promises.

Indeed, I want to suggest we pay by far too much attention to the details. In this passage the details of these promises can be summed up as one: fertility— (quote:) “…I will make you most fruitful, exceedingly fruitful;…” and two: land— (quote:) “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations…”

But the essence of these promises, what lies underneath these promises, is not found in the details. What lies underneath these promises is something which probably frightens us all. It’s the idea that change is inevitable. Change will happen.

And, in case you have not heard, none of us really likes change. Further, in terms of this passage it seems pretty clear that Abraham wants to resist change. (Quote:) “Then Avraham fell on his face and laughed,…” That’s meant to be irony. He doesn’t really want change.

That leaves us with a very serious question. We all know this: with or without God change is inevitable. Therefore, how can not just change— but the change God offers us— how can that change be incorporated into our life? (Slight pause.)

For me there is a simple one word answer: faith. That’s the one way we can be open to the inevitably of change. And I am not talking about just any kind of faith. Mature faith is necessary to cope with change. Which leaves us with yet another question: how is a mature faith cultivated? (Slight pause.)

Jesuit James Martin says this (quote:): “An adult life requires work. Think of it this way: you would not consider yourself equipped to face life with a third grader’s understanding of math. Yet people often expect the religious instruction they had in grade school to sustain them in the adult world.”

He also says, “…faith isn’t something you just have…. faith is like a garden: while you may already have the basics— soil, seed, water— you have to cultivate and nourish it. Like a garden, faith takes practice, persistence, even work.” [3] — James Martin, S.J. (Slight pause.)

Earlier I mentioned what David Gaewski wrote in the weekly Conference e-mail Newsletter. (Quote:) “When the conversation begins about ‘the church of tomorrow,’ I often become bored with how narrow the thinking can be.”

How do we, how can we avoid narrowness? How can we be open to not just change but the change God might have in store? I want to suggest a prime way to avoid narrowness and to be open to the change God might have in store is not just to have faith. It is important to have a mature faith, a lived faith, a studied faith.

I think a prime way of moving to a mature faith is to cultivate a lived faith, a faith in which we see everything through a prism— a prism which says God walks with us. In fact, the entire history of the church, all its 2,000 years worth of change tells us one thing.

In the words of James Martin, if we want to walk with God we need to treat faith like a garden. And that takes practice, persistence, work.

I think when we treat faith like a garden it’s not that change will fail to happen. We certainly won’t prevent change. It’s that we will be ready for all the colors of the flowers and all the nutrients of the edibles in that garden. Change will happen. And we will be ready for change. 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: “Coming back to our history in this church, as you probably know Samuel Scoville was the Pastor here from 1861 to 1879 and was the son-in-law of Henry Ward Beecher. Just this week I came across a quote from Beecher. ‘Every tomorrow has two handles. We can take hold of it with the handle of anxiety or the handle of faith.’”

BENEDICTION: Do not be ashamed to question all that denies God’s reign. The promises of God are for all. Let us trust in the promises of God. Let us understand, believe in and hold to God’s covenant. Let us depart in confidence and joy knowing that God is with us and let us carry Christ in our hearts. Amen.

[1] It should be noted that when this passage was read the Hebrew pronunciations of the names were used. Additionally, it was explained when the passage was introduced that the meaning of those words would be offered and that those meanings were not a part of the original text.

[2] Note: I slightly edited what David wrote for this medium. Hence, I have not placed these words in quotation marks. I do not believe I have changed the meaning of what was written.

[3] Page 32-32. The Jesuit Guide to Nearly Everything: A Spirituality for a Real Life, James Martin, S.J., HarperOne, New York, New York, 2010.

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