Wow – so it’s been a while since I last posted anything. But I have a new gig now, first time as a senior pastor, so the preaching-every-week thing is about to get real, and I think blogging and having a regular spot for posting sermons will lend some structure to the process and be helpful.
It’s finally a properly cold winter day, overcast with faint bits of sleet and snow sprinkling the rooftops. It’s Martin Luther King Day – a day on rather than a day off, but a federal
holiday nonetheless; there’s a fire blazing in the fireplace, dogs snoozing nearby, Piph the cat is birdwatching through the frozen window, and it’s quiet, except for the sound of the bluejay Piph is watching, who is screaming his predator alert back at her, and David’s sneezes (allergies) echoing through the house. He’s been rummaging around in the dusty attic and repurposing storage bins.
Yesterday was my first official Sunday at Western Hills UMC in Little Rock, AR. I’d put in quite a bit of time on sermon prep, trying to find the right balance of introductory stuff and an actual sermon that wasn’t just stuff about me. I had whittled it down to what I thought would work ok, but I was afraid if I just read it, it would sound stiff, and if I didn’t read it but talked it, I would get myself off track and start tangential blathering. And I was nervous – nervous about the sermon, nervous about this whole new chapter in my life, nervous about so many changes all at once and whether I would be up to the challenges before me — just….nervous.
Turns out the cure for that kind of nervousness is to discover 10 minutes before worship begins that you have actually left your sermon at home and not brought it at all. Not on the pulpit, not in the folder, not on the desk, not by the paper cutter, not in the car…It’s like a bad dream come true. But after that sick feeling hits, and you realize you are still going to have to do SOMETHING, with or without notes, you’re not nervous anymore. It’s actually sort of freeing.
So for better or worse, what I am posting here is not what I actually preached. Parts of it are close. Parts of it are and were blather. But I’m pretty sure I did no harm. So, onward!
January 17, 2016
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.
You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
“The Gifts of Pilgrimage, a Guy Named Rick, and Western Hills”
When our Central District superintendent, Richard Lancaster, first called a week ago Thursday evening, I almost didn’t answer the phone because I didn’t recognize the number, and had been receiving a lot of those “Hi! This is Veronica!” calls telling me how I can lower my mortgage interest rate or consolidate loan debt or whatever (you know how there will be a whole spate of them from time to time…). I had resigned from my job(s) both as Administrator and Associate Pastor of Quapaw Quarter effective the end of December and didn’t have another appointment or a job of any sort, actually. I was overdue for a long vacation, and was playing with the possibility of reinventing myself again with a “real” job outside the UMC, but I really wasn’t sure WHAT I wanted to do or what options might be available to me. And for UM pastors, it’s the time of year when forms have to be filled out and turned in regarding official “stuff” – I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Earlier that day, I’d had coffee (well, tea, actually) with Phil Hathcock, who is a retired UMC pastor, former DS, former instructor, and ongoing friend who will tell me the truth about things as he sees it, even if it’s not what I want to hear. That’s really valuable. After spending an hour or so with Phil as a sounding board with a wise echo, I had decided I would send Richard an email and just say, hey, I’m here – if you end up having something somewhere that sounds interesting and compatible, give me a call. Otherwise, see you around.
That was my big plan its entirety. I had no expectation that he would call with anything I would be interested in, not in January, anyway, and probably not ever. But still –I had a sense of peace about that decision and felt more like myself than I’d felt in weeks. It felt good to have made a decision – for about 40 minutes, and then the phone rang – the call I almost didn’t answer but then did, and it was Richard Lancaster, telling me there was an opening at Western Hills, and a bit of the sad saga of what you have been through over the past year, with Sylvia’s stroke and then Holly’s health issues.
It was weird. I hadn’t emailed him. Phil had not contacted him. It was like when you’re playing an old vinyl record and the needle suddenly skips and skitters all the way across on a scratch. Or like those Twix ads when the voice says, “Need a moment?”
David and I talked that night, and after a lot prayerful tossing and turning and restless dreams, I sent Richard an email the next morning telling him I was in if y’all were. And I have to say those of you I’ve actually had a chance to meet so far could not possibly be warmer or have made me feel more welcome. Thank you so much for that!
I met Loyd and Ruth first off, in the office. Discovered Loyd knew my mom, discovered I know Ruth’s daughter, Anna. Met Faye in the parking lot – she’d been up here getting things set in the Gray Building for the meal following the memorial service for Brenda Quick. I thought maybe I could lend a hand as kitchen help with some of the meal prep on Friday, so I came, and met Teen and Bud, Faye, Ruth and Loyd again, Wanda, Tammy, Tom, Barb, Todd, Michael, Brenda, Rudy, Kathleen, Karen, Karen/Diva Lee – a bunch of folks, actually, and I hope you’ll be patient with me while I learn people’s names, and remind me if I forget! I hope to be able to visit with all of you over the next few weeks and months as we get to know each other. I’m not sure yet the best way for that to happen – I’m certainly open to suggestions! But I want to know YOU. Everyone here has a story. And we’re all connected in more ways than are apparent on the surface. Some of you remember my brother, Roger Armstrong, from when he was pastor here. More overlapping circles of connection.
I even have some connections to this church that have been important in shaping my own story. I was born in 1960 and grew up attending Winfield Methodist/United Methodist in downtown LR. When I was in the youth group there, back in the day, church youth groups had district and sub-district events that worked in varying degrees of success in terms of
getting churches to come together for activities. I have 3 clear memories of Western Hills from those formative years: sub-district volleyball and softball league games that involved a picnic here, complete with swimming in the pool. And then, two concerts in your fellowship hall in the Gray Building (magical at the time!): one with Rick Bonfim, a Brazilian guy who is now a UM pastor in the North Georgia Conference, and the other with a group called Pilgrimage, which is now defunct, but whose front man is now a music producer in LA and lives across the street from Natalie Portman.
I still have the albums. Signed. Autographed on the front of one and the back of the other. I used to lie on the floor and listen to them over and over and over. Even transcribed some of the lyrics on a napkin once that I kept in my jewelry box for years because they were of holy significance to me. These guys were all forerunners of the current contemporary Christian music industry. They were part of the Jesus music movement. I don’t still have the napkin, but I still remember the song some forty years later. I probably can’t tell you what I did last Wednesday, but I remember old song lyrics! Hooray for connections… 🙂
When I looked at the lectionary for today’s scripture passages, I was blown away by how relevant they all were to our current setting here today. In the OT passage from Isaiah 62 that you heard read earlier, Isaiah says:
You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.
Isaiah is delivering God’s message to the Israelites who are shell-shocked at returning to Jerusalem after a hundred years of exile in Babylonia to find their beloved city in ruins – the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar had decimated it in 587 BC. Even though so much time had passed in exile that probably none of them had ever seen Jerusalem it firsthand, they had believed in it and been told the stories all their lives. Jerusalem represented the center of hope for whole culture. Quite a shock to discover it blasted and destroyed. There would be no returning to the glory days of yore.
The Israelites are sad and grieving, frustrated, dejected, just as you folks must have been, may still be, having struggled to keep the church going through this past year. It’s not easy even under ideal circumstances. But the voice of the prophet is clear that God stands by God’s promises. Our God is a covenant God – and not just for ancient Jerusalem, but for us. “You shall no more be termed Forsaken. Your God will rejoice over you.” Because THAT’S WHAT GOD DOES! Not just thousands of years ago, but here and now. Everyday. God is forever starting over, creating, weaving new stories from the most surprising threads. Let the healing begin. God is working. God is working with us, and through us. There’s a new story starting.
In the other scripture passage, Paul is talking to the people of Corinth:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.
We are the threads God is using in weaving this new story. You all know the gifts you have better than I do – I just got here! But there are some things I do know already.
From scant time I’ve been here, I know you are people with roots and a heritage here in this place. This is home.
The church celebrated its centennial this past fall. You don’t get to be a 100-year old church without a lot of stories. Like Natalie Sleeth’s Hymn of Promise says, “from the past will come the future…” Of course, you have to LOOK for it, and move toward it, but it always helps to know where you’ve come from and who you are!
The church looks like people care about it. It looks well-tended. There’s a sign up by Col. Glenn and the marquee sign outside here. There’s a parking lot and cool-looking lamp posts. There are bulletin boards with recent things on them, and tables with recent and useful things on them, and a gathering spot for coffee and conversation. There’s a fully-functional office area, and Sunday school rooms, and there’s the Gray Building that’s a veritable treasure trove of potential.
You’ve got some gifted musicians, and administrative help who CARE about the church. You’ve got some great cooks, and people who have gifts for hospitality and making strangers feel welcome. You’ve got people who are proud of their church and want to put its best foot forward. You’ve got people with compassion for the homeless, the marginalized and disenfranchised. You’ve got people who want to share the blessings of what they have here with other people who aren’t here, not just to “grow the church” but because knowledge of and experiencing the love of God, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life can make everyone’s lives BETTER.
And you know what? We didn’t even read the Gospel text this morning, which was from the 2nd chapter of John – the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. Further confirmation and reminder that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are forever turning things upside down, always full of surprises.
There is so. Much. Here.
I know it takes time to build relationships, and that will come as we worship together as a family of God and work together as a church. Heck, you can learn a lot about someone just washing dishes with them or cutting up apples in the kitchen! I’m looking forward to sharing lots of activities with you.
Over the past few months as I was trying to discern what I needed to do to move forward with my own life, John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer became my mantra. You’re probably familiar with it. I’ll probably be referring to it a lot in coming weeks, both publicly and privately, because there is SO much here, SO much to do, it’s overwhelming, and this prayer helps center me. It reminds me that it’s ok to take baby steps, one at a time. It reminds me that being blind and walking by faith is not only ok, it’s what we are all called to do from time to time, which means none of us has to have all the answers all the time. It reminds me that we are not necessarily guaranteed tomorrow, or a happy Disney ending, or a time-line that matches our own wants and desires, but that what we ARE guaranteed is that we never, ever walk alone. The same God who made us all and transcends all time and space and human understanding is always with us, every step of the way. That God is with Sylvia, with Holly, with each of us. Would you join me please in this prayer, as we begin our journey together:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,
you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it also be made in heaven. Amen.
Thanks be to God!