Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sermon: "Turn, Turn, Turn", Ecclesiastes 3:1-7 (April 23,2013)


For context, this is the sermon that I was required to preach in class instead of the one about the Boston Marathon Bombings (which had happened the day before). It was extremely difficult to write because my thoughts were elsewhere, and because I had little emotional connection to the situation (it was fabricated for the assignment). The following is what resulted:

You are the senior pastor of a congregation. For the past twenty years, the congregation has had both a senior pastor and an associate pastor, and the current associate (Rev. Smith) had been there for five years--the longest tenure of any previous associate pastor. However, she has recently announced that she will be getting married and moving out of state in six months. The position will most likely be filled eventually, but the pastoral search process will take over a year. Not only will this mean that the ministerial staff will be cut in half, but the youth group, which had flourished under Rev. Smith’s leadership, will now have no one to run it. Although she is still serving the church through the summer, the impending loss is weighing heavily on the congregation already. You are searching for ways to ease the transition—not just from two pastors to one, but from perceived wholeness to loss.

Here we are again, at the end of particularly brutal winter, hoping that the consistently-above-fifty-degree weather indicates that we are finally at the cusp of Spring. And indeed, all around us we see signs of this inevitable reality. Trees are beginning to bud hopefully, birds are flying back to their summer homes en masse, and I haven't seen snow in a month (knock on wood). Yes, we say, Spring is on its way, and it is good.

One of my favorite markers of good weather is the butterfly. Even though they're not particularly common around here, when I see the first butterfly of the season, a feeling of relief washes over me, because it reassures me that Spring is really here. Admit it, there's nothing quite like a butterfly--their beautiful wings, each one a different iteration of the rainbow, the way they lilt about playfully in the air, as if daring you to follow it to a secret field somewhere, their annual reminder that the harshness of winter cannot last forever. In fact, I think that the butterfly would make a far better symbol for Easter than a rabbit. It emerges from its tomb-like cocoon in a resplendent new body, the same creature it was before, but somehow completely different. And at least butterflies actually lay eggs.

And yet, not all changes feel like the butterfly's triumphant rebirth from the cocoon. Some changes feel like this process in reverse--movement from the freedom and lightness of a butterfly to the darkness and immobility of a caterpillar in a cocoon. I suspect that many of us here in this room are feeling this way right now. Over the past five years, we have seen our congregation grow and blossom under the leadership of Reverend Smith, and now, as she anticipates the beginning of a new chapter in her life, we may feel as though we are losing an integral part of our family and being forced back into the darkness of our cocoon. We rightly should lift up the gifts that she has shared with our community, particularly her work with our youth, and we must acknowledge that her absence will be keenly felt. Surely, it is right and good to mourn the loss to our community of someone so dearly loved.

But I don't think that any of us want to be stuck in this cocoon. I don’t think that this is what Reverend Smith wants for us, either. And I don't believe that it's what God intends for us. I think that God wants us to take our time in the cocoon and use it, not as a dead end, but an opportunity for transformation.

Now, I'd love to take credit for this idea, but I am far from the first to think of it. As Christians, we are part of a long tradition of transformation. The people of God have always been a forward-thinking people, recognizing that change is inevitable in our struggle to grow closer to the divine. Indeed, God first claimed God’s people through a promise--a promise that had nothing to do with the past and everything to do with the future. All of the biblical prophets--before, during, and after the Jewish Babylonian exile--implore their people to reconcile with God so that they might anticipate the restoration of Israel. The Jewish people of Jesus’ day lived in the hope that the Messiah would one day arrive and turn the world triumphantly upside-down. These are not people marked by maintaining the status quo. No, time and time again they turned eagerly towards a new future, trusting in God’s guidance. Our Scripture reading from Ecclesiastes today could serve as an excellent, albeit relatively long, motto for these people, God’s people--our people. Transformation happens, and thank God for it!

“Whoa, slow down there, pastor,” I hear you cry, “I don’t much feel like thanking God for the transformation in my life. This feels less like emerging from a cocoon and more like...a magician sawing me in half!” Yes, I can relate. Not all transformation is as easy and natural as the growth from pupa to adult. Some transformations feel unnatural and forced; it can feel like changing from a whole being to something somehow less than whole. This, too, is part of our history. All you have to do is read the second half of Exodus, about the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, to see that we are in good company. Even though these people had the same faith in God, the same knowledge of God’s transformative power, the same proof of God’s goodness, they would. Not. Stop. Whining. At one point, they even questioned why they had left slavery at all, since the food was so much better in Egypt. I’ll just let that sink in for a minute. These people would rather have returned to a full day of unpaid, backbreaking, sometimes deadly labor in the Egyptian sun than risk the transformation that God was leading them through.

If you think about it, it makes sense to resist change. Change involves embracing the unknown, and sometimes, what we don’t know can hurt us. So, to protect ourselves, we cling to that which is steady, reliable, and real. But the problem arises when we mistake things that are actually temporal and fleeting for the things that are immutable. We’ve all done it at one point or another; sometimes we are even proud in our misperception. We say things like, “Our church building has been a landmark in our town for over three-hundred years!” or, “We have the longest-running Vacation Bible School in the state!” or even “Our pastor has been has been here for twenty years!” as if this is what makes our community unique and important. We place a heavy value on these things, calling them “tradition” and “legacy” and other such complementary names. This is completely natural and can absolutely be beneficial, spurring us to work hard to preserve that which we have come to cherish.

But my friends, we are mistaken if we think that these things are what make us the people of God.

What makes us the people of God is our willingness to undergo change, not for its own sake, but in the service of God’s will. We are called to be transformed and transforming. And now, as Reverend Smith begins a transformation in her own life, we begin the process of discerning how our community will be transformed.

This is not the first transformation that our church has undergone. I look around and I see the marvelous work that this congregation has done over the years--organizing social justice programs, hosting multicultural fellowship meetings, pursuing ecumenical dialog, sponsoring youth mission trips...and yet, none of this would have been imaginable to the founding members of this congregation, let alone the first Christians hundreds and hundreds of years ago. God has transformed us, and while the change has brought with it some difficulties and pain, it has also brought opportunities for renewal and blessing.

Being a Christian means living in this strange dichotomy between that which is true and constant, and that which is fluid and transformative. We worship a true and constant God, but we live in a world that is marked by change, and we are a people called to transformation. We are told in Hebrews 13:8 that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” and yet, “To everything there is a season...” It makes sense that we’re confused, it makes sense that we resist change, but then we must trust in the one who is changeless to bring us where we need to be.

Remember that magician? The one who, it felt like, was sawing us in half? Imagine the process of learning a magic trick. One doesn’t just decide to turn a handkerchief into a dove and then, poof! Instant bird! There is practice and hard work involved. Sometimes, there is anxiety, frustration, and distress. But if you stick with it, the results are miraculous. I like to think of God as the master magician, trying to teach us a new magic trick--how to transform a family soon to be missing one of its members into a new community, with new leaders and a new future. We may get frustrated with God, complaining that it’s too difficult and we will never be able to do it. We may consider throwing our top hat and magic wand away forever. But if we listen to the master, if we are willing to hear God’s voice and live God’s will, that’s when the magic happens.

The listening part doesn’t always come naturally. I can’t tell you how to listen, or even translate what God is saying to you--only you can do that. But I can promise that God will talk and talk and talk until you figure it out. The trick is to open your heart and not give up. In the words of Reformation-era theologian Thomas M√ľntzer, “Believe that God is more willing to speak than you are prepared to listen.”

Every change has the potential to be a traumatic upheaval or a miraculous transformation. A failed magic trick or a thrilling performance. A permanent cocoon or an ever-emerging butterfly. But change doesn’t happen by itself, and it doesn’t happen all at once. It’s not easy, either--there’s a reason they’re called “growing pains” and not “growing tickles.” But we are the people of a immeasurably loving God, one who is always good and always faithful. Once again, we are here at the cusp of change. We’re scared. We’re unsure about our future. Many of us are hurt. But we know that we are not alone as we undergo this transformation. We are accompanied by all who have gone before us, by all who will come after us, and by all who stand in this liminal space with us. Together, we will work to make our transformation one that demonstrates God’s love, whether that means welcoming new staff into our family with open and eager arms, stepping up to fill a role that requires your gifts, or spearheading a new project to keep our congregation faithful and hopeful. And we know that we can, we will come out of this transformation renewed and recommitted to God’s will. To everything, there is a season, and this, beloved, is the time to emerge from our cocoon, spread our beautiful wings, and fly. Thanks be to God. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment