The Sunday Sermon: 21st Sunday after Pentecost – October 9, 2016
Scripture: Isaiah 43:16, 18-21
It Springs Forth
So there’s not nearly as much decoration, and perhaps “a bit” less contemplation; there’s no special clothes to wear and not as much fanfare, but … We begin a special season in our annual church life this morning, nestled between the summer and Advent toward the end of Ordinary Time. Can anyone tell us what season begins this morning?
Stewardship Season, it is!
I joke every single year that at least one of you is offended by our calling this a “season.” Stewardship from members of any congregation – the giving of our time, talents, and money to the church – is year round, not seasonal! I imagine that at least one of you gets increasingly upset as you read our newsletter articles or visit our website and see the word “season” behind one of the most important disciplines we undertake as church members, up there with prayer and bible study. Is there anyone present this morning that gets that upset every Fall at this time?! (Well, it must be someone who couldn’t make it to worship, then …)
In any case, indulge me – indulge us, once again as October slips into November and our annual Stewardship conversation for the upcoming year, 2017, gets its own season again.
Let us pray …
So to begin Stewardship Season this year … I want you to forget. We began this way several years ago, you may remember. And, if you do, then forget that, too. A little selective amnesia. Remember that: forget. Okay? Remember to forget? Oh, forget it … No, seriously, forget it. And, with a cleared mind, listen for the Word of God. Read Isaiah 43:16, 18-21
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. This year, this season, I want to embrace this “prophetic amnesia” as we formally engage our season of stewardship for this church, raising our commitments of time, of talents, and of money. We will not forget stewardship itself (nice try). Rather we will forget the stewardship seasons of our recent past. 2015’s operating budget was set almost six thousand dollars less than 2014’s budget. And 2016 was over five thousand dollars under 2015. We’ve been on a downward trajectory these past three years and I want us to begin this year by forgetting that!
There is a form of “Divine Amnesia” going on in our passage this morning. In and of itself, that is a very unusual thing. You see, usually God – through the prophets – encourages us to remember, right? Remember the one who brings you out of your captivity, who is with you and provides for you in your wandering, who leads you at last to land of milk and honey. Every time Israel forgets their history, terrible things happen. Every time we forget, we become lost again. But there it is: Do not remember …
No matter how much we want to live in the past, allowing what we have done or left undone to define us, “God,” whoever, however, whatever “God” is, lives and works in the present and the future. Forgiveness and Grace mean nothing if we allow what has been to define what will be. God will remember our “sins,” our past transgressions, our former shortfalls, no more – forgiven and forgotten. There is only now and what may be for God. We too, then, must remember our separateness, our lack of engagement, our shortfalls, no more. So we will practice a form of amnesia in the weeks ahead.
It’s an interesting “state of mind,” amnesia, divine or mortal. We’re rightfully frightened of losing our memories, as a whole, but in these weeks, we’re engaging in the more attractive practice of “selective forgetfulness.” We all do it. And we all yearn for it, for some form of partial amnesia or another. A child yearns for parental amnesia. “Mom and Dad can forget that early bedtime they set anytime now.” Or that early evening hour when all electronic devices must be docked for the night, or the crumpled front fender of the family car. Parental amnesia would be convenient at times.
Some of us desire spousal amnesia. Anytime you want you can forget the day I left the oven on and left the house,” or “forgot to put away the leftovers that were part of the next three night’s meals,” or the day I forgot to pick up our daughter from school. (Sorry, those are my own scars!)
Many of us have wished for “bossal” amnesia. (I think I made this one up.) We should not have been party to the water-cooler gossip Thursday morning that our boss overheard, or expressed our feelings so clearly and so loudly about management. I know there’s one of you who probably still prays for “pastoral amnesia:” Dear God, may Pastor Joel forget the day when he walked into my hospital room as I was “cursing” a less-than-competent member of the hospital staff.” I have some hopes for congregational amnesia. I’m hoping you all forget the horrible hymn selection I made on the first Sunday of Advent back in 2010. (Does anyone still remember that? Matt …? We can all hope …
But, for better or worse, we are basically bio-chemical memory, you and I. We’re pretty literally “wired” to remember things. That’s why it is so scary to lose our memory and why dementia and Alzheimer’s is so cruel. But a bit of selective memory loss – parental, spousal, “bossal,” pastoral, or congregational amnesia – comforts us with some pretty self-serving advantages. Now, I go through all that because, again, I want us to practice a bit of “stewardship amnesia” this month.
Let us not remember the former stewardship seasons or consider the stewardship seasons of old, but let us do a new thing! Our God is in this scripture passage. We’ve heard this passage, and particularly verse nineteen so many times in our lives. It’s a favorite for all kinds of reasons. But I read and explored something a little different this week as I prepared for this morning and this message. It has to do with the bodies of water. In our day and age it’s easy to forget the power that bodies of water had in the ancient world. Bodies of water served not only a “conveyor” of life, but as a much more daunting barrier to life. Wide seas and raging rivers. To proclaim that there is a reality in their lives that makes a pathway though the most formidable barriers they face is a profound statement of faith. We don’t think much about that as we read of God “making a way in the sea” or a “path in the mighty waters.” I mean, we have airplanes and bridges for that. So, our question as we (always) seek to bring the ancient scripture to bear on our lives today is this: What are the barriers that stand in the way of this congregation? The path God provides, known most fully for us in the Way of Jesus, a life of Love that is always calling us to worlds larger than our own, is always doing “a new thing,” and is always hoping against hope that we will “perceive it.” What stands between us and this new thing?
The prophet/poet Isaiah is asking us to experience the reversal that God is constantly introducing into our lives, but his allegation is that those who should be listening and responding are not. Do you not perceive it?! Do we not? And why not? What barriers, what seas and mighty rivers, stand between us and our future?
I’ve been wondering how the past ten generations, or so, have done that in this church, this community, this congregation. I’ve been wondering how those who came before us have responded to one of the greatest barriers any congregation ever faces, the phrase “We’ve never one it that way before,” sometimes called the seven last words of the church. Only one year after a war that was civil in name only, a small group of men and women came together to perceive something new – a Presbyterian church in South Oldham County. Through the turn of the century, the invention of the automobile, two World Wars that sandwiched a Great Depression, the telephone, the television, civil rights movements, denominational mergers, economic booms and recessions, computer and internet connections that paradoxically separate us further into categories and parties that more deeply divide us, this congregation has perceived something new at every turn. Not without turmoil, not without confusion, not without some division. Our own generation can attest to that. But for one hundred and fifty years, somehow and in some way, we have finally been able to forget the barriers created by our own human schemes and failings to perceive the way in the wilderness and the life giving river in the desert.
As always, I shy away from making moments such as this too dramatic, but we must not make them too mundane, either. In this year of Anniversary celebrations and memories and visions and promises, we must try to perceive why we are here now in this place and what we must do to ensure that the next generations will be open to perceiving what God continues to do in and through this congregation. So, as we begin this year, we ask: What are the barriers that stand in the way of our congregation’s following God’s lead toward the future? What will keep you from pledging more – more of your time, more of your talent, more of your money – to the mission and ministry of this congregation?
Is our larger denomination a barrier for you?
The PCUSA is a leader in religious communities, indeed in any community, in this country and around the world in breaking down the barriers to equality in all its expressions: racial, LGBTQ, socio-economic, religious, and more. You must know, as we begin another Stewardship Season, that I embrace all this denomination’s efforts to break down any attempt to limit the radically inclusive love of God has for each and every human being, but I know that is not a universally shared conviction for all who gather here. The PCUSA is too liberal and too socially involved. Is our denomination a barrier to your giving? Or can it be the “river in a desert” that so quickly dries out our hopes?
Is this congregation itself a barrier for you?
After all, we’re small in number (at least compared to Southeast or Northeast, or choose your Christian) and we’re limited in mission (for financial or motivational reasons, you decide). Honestly, what good does my giving to this congregation – time, talents, and especially money – really do? You must know, as we begin another Stewardship season, that I believe with all my heart in this “small” community and its potential to impact the world around us through our very simple presence in and openness to the village, the community, and the counties around us that are oh, so easily lured into self-centered pursuits of individual comfort and family-only concerns. But, I know that this conviction is not universally shared by all who gather here. We’re too small to make any real difference. Is our humble congregation a barrier to your giving? Or can it be the “path in mighty waters” that seeks to drown us in complacency?
How about the general sense that any congregation, any religious community, even Presbyterian ones, are increasingly irrelevant and superfluous to “real life?” I rarely get through a day without reading or remembering that the “Nones” are the fastest growing group in almost any poll and questionnaire – those who check “none” in front of religious affiliation questions. You must know, as we begin another Stewardship Season, that I “give my heart to” a reality in this world (and beyond it) that is not tangibly identified, but is powerfully experienced and positively engaged in all that is good for creation. I most commonly call that reality “God.” I find “God” most fully revealed in the life and love of Jesus, and I believe that that life can most effectively be set loose on the world through communities of faith, large and small, who minister in his name. Is religion as a whole a barrier to your giving? It’s all just supernatural hocus-pocus. Or might it be a “way in the sea” of meaninglessness that surrounds us?
I’m not naïve. The Presbyterian Church USA is not perfect. Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church is not unflawed. And religion as an institution has a poor track record throughout history. But it is through this institution, through this denomination, through this congregation that we have traction in history. It is through this community that new things have been perceived and have come forth for 150 years. And it is through this community that we are called again to “forget the former things and the things of old” in service to a future of hope and promise that extends way far beyond our own lives.
Look at the year ahead for you. Continue to pray, or begin praying, about how you will provide for this church in the year ahead and for the future ahead – your time, your talents, and your money through your pledge for 2017 and the next 150 years.
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters:
I am about to do a new thing … Do you not perceive it?
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / October 9, 2016