Sermon – October 28, 2018

Categories: Church,Sermons

Faith Is Vision

by Rev. Joe Connolly

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“Jesus replied, ‘Go. Your faith has saved you.’ Immediately Bartimaeus received the gift of sight and began to follow Jesus along the road.” — Mark 10:52.

I want to start my comments today with a word about the polity of the United Church of Christ. Polity— that’s a fancy word which means governance. Polity is the term used to describe how any denomination governs itself.

This is a given for us: the basic unit in the denomination known as the United Church of Christ is the local Congregation. Congregations join into Associations. Part of the idea is churches gathered in an Association can, in unity together, do things an individual congregation might not be able to do on its own.

But part of the idea is churches gathered in an Association should not do some things in insolation from other churches because it would be unwise. Quite specifically, one of those unwise things would for a congregation, on its own, to ordain pastors.

Pastors are ordained not just by the local church. Ordination is done in conjunction with and cooperation from the Association.

Why is this mutuality important? Pastors are, you see, ordained for the whole church. An act this universal needs be done in conjunction with others— in this case with the Association. Why? Ordination is an action for the good of the whole, not just for the good of the local church.

In forming Associations we rely on covenant, a word you’ve heard me say a couple thousand times. We are in covenant with other churches in the Association.

This covenant among churches is about honoring one another, mutually seeking the justice of God and, as well as we are able, striving to be a presence to the world concerning issues of justice. Similar to ordaining, seeking the justice of God in this world needs the intentional involvement of more than one congregational acting on its own.

So, how is covenant established, accomplished, maintained? Covenant is established, accomplished and maintained by listening in prayer and with respect to the other churches in our Association.

And other churches, to keep covenant with us, need to do the same. To be clear, Associations have been a part of our Congregational tradition since the early 1600s. It is part of our heritage, our history, our life as a church. To ignore this ignores our heritage, our history, our life as a church, ignores a bedrock piece of our tradition.

In my time in Norwich we have hosted Association Meetings and we have hosted a New York Conference Board Meeting. Right now I am a member of two committees of the Association and two committees of the Conference.

But this is not about me. We have lay delegates to both our Association and our Conference. Lay members from this church have served on Association Committees and on the Conference Board.

In my time in Norwich we have gathered for our regular Sunday worship with the United Church of Christ in Sherburne. We have gathered for our regular Sunday worship with the entire New York Conference in Binghamton. Each and every Conference Minister who has served us over this time has preached from this pulpit.

Now, there’s a word I’ve just used several times— Conference. What is a Conference?

Conferences are not an aspect or an appendage of Associations. This is not about hierarchy. Just like the process with the Associations, Congregations come together in a Conference, a larger gathering. And in a Conference churches can, in unity, do things together an individual Congregation might not be able to do on its own.

Indeed, churches gathered in a Conference can do some things it would be unwise for a Congregation to do on its own. It would be, for instance, unwise for a local Congregation to embark on pastoral search alone.

Again, in forming a Conference we rely on covenant, this honoring of one another, as we mutually seek the justice of God and, as well as we are able, seek to be a presence to the world on issues of justice. Seeking the justice of God is a task for which a Conference can be even better suited than an Association. It is, after all, a larger body.

To be clear, Conferences have been in the Congregational tradition since the 1800s, by far [re-dating the origins of the United Church of Christ. It is part of our heritage, our history, our life as a church, a bedrock piece of the our tradition. (Slight pause.)

As I said, we are in covenant with the Association and the Conference. I think one of the things we do not understand about covenant is the commitment, the intentionality, the mutual responsibility involved. Covenant does not somehow magically happen on its own.

I’ve said this before. Covenant is a commitment to growth, to change, a commitment to be intentional in relationship. It is a bedrock aspect of faith.

But really, who wants to grow, to change, to be intentional? Why can’t things be just left as they are or even go back to what they were? These are frequently asked questions, are they not?

However growth, change and intentionality are important. These empower real, substantive faith. And, oh yes— a commitment to growth and to change and to intentionality is necessary in seeking the justice of God. (Slight pause.)

Something should be obvious about this story we heard from Mark. There are many obstacles with which Bartimaeus needs to deal.

The text notes a large crowd surrounds the Rabbi. And so, at the side of the road, unable to see, needing to carefully listen amid what was probably something of a tumult surrounding Jesus, is where Bartimaeus starts.

It also seems the crowd is moving along the road. Again, for someone unable to see, probably unable to move too far, this makes perception of what’s happening difficult.

This is also clear: Bartimaeus is a beggar. In that era a beggar cannot be compared to someone in poverty today. This is a station in society. So it’s unlikely people will help. In short and to reiterate, there are many obstacles with which Bartimaeus needs to deal.

So, what does Bartimaeus do? This is also clear. Bartimaeus seeks Jesus. Bartimaeus seeks change, growth. Bartimaeus is intentional.

But this may not be clear. When Bartimaeus calls out the writer of Mark uses a title (quote:) “Heir of David.” This is the first time in Mark we hear a Messianic title.

Therefore, Bartimaeus is intentional about seeking the Messiah of God. And to do that Bartimaeus overcomes the aforementioned obstacles. This poses a question for us to consider: how does faith become empowered? (Slight pause.)

Many churches in the Reformed tradition celebrate this Sunday as Reformation Sunday. Of course, Martin Luther’s theological premise was justification by faith. This is what Luther said about how the substance of justification by faith happens.

(Quote:) “This life is not righteous but growth in righteousness; is not health but healing; not being but becoming; not rest but exercise; we are not yet what we shall be but we are growing toward it; the process is not yet finished but it is going on; this is not the end but it is the road; all does not yet gleam in glory but all is being purified.”

Luther’s contention says life, indeed, the Christian life, is forever an unfinished product. That did not sit well with the power structure in Luther’s time which believed a lack of growth and change was beneficial to power. Nor does it sit well today probably for the same reasons.

Why do the ideas of Luther not sit well today? We live in a society which believes in some kind of magic. We believe things will be just fine when stagnant. Lack of growth, lack of change and an unwillingness to be intentional about growing and changing are rampant in the world in which we live. (Slight pause.)

As was said earlier, after the service today we shall gather to look at some budget numbers. We will decide nothing. That’s for a later date. [1]

But when it comes to finances, for us solvency is not an issue. Indeed, logically our solvency should afford us the freedom to be intentional about covenant. And we do constantly need to be intentional about covenant. We need to intentionally strive to see the world as God might see the world— a place of change, a place for growth, with our eyes intentionally fixed on the justice of God.

And yes, we do need to trust God. Therefore we should not, to use the old fashioned word, trust Mammon.

Why? Trust in Mammon inevitably turns people of faith away from growth and change and intentionality. Mammon inevitably turns people of faith toward the false feeling of safely being stagnant. People of faith are intentional about growth and change.

How do I know that? Please just look at the actions Bartimaeus took. And then look at what happens. The words we heard in the Gospel today say this (quote:) “Jesus replied, ‘Go. Your faith has saved you.’ Immediately Bartimaeus received the gift of sight and began to follow Jesus along the road.” 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 Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The late famous poet Maya Angelou said this about being a Christian: ‘I’m working on trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s not where you think like, Oh, I’ve got this done. I did it all day— hot diggity. The truth is all day long you try to do it…. And then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself an say, Hmmm— I only blew it 86 times today. Not bad.’— Maya Angelou. Covenant— the basis of faith— it’s about intentional growth and change.”

BENEDICTION: Go out in the strength and love God provides. Praise the deeds of God by the way you live, by the way you love. And may the steadfast love of God and 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] After the service the Congregation gathered to look at the first and preliminary outline of the 2019 budget. This Congregation’s solvency stems from an endowment that is around $14,000,000.

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