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March 16th, 2014

For the installation of Joshua Moore as pastor of United Church of South Royalton, VT.

Hosea 6:1-3; James 5:7-9

March 16, 2014

In the grip of winter

Ah bring y’all greetin’s from the Westuhn Nahth Calina Association of the Southuhn Conference of the United Chuhch of Christ.  Ah know y’all Yankees are inclined to thank we suth’ners are behind in all facets o’ laf, that we are as slow as a ‘coon dawg on a summah porch.  But studies show yeah aftah yeah we in the South are very much ahead o’ y’all in at least one category.  We call it “spring.”

I start my sermon that way to remind you that this ubiquitous white and pervasive cold is not the end of the story.  I have come from the South where I have seen trees budding, grass greening, and spring breaking through in the form of daffodils.  I brought a basket of spring flowers as evidence.

For me, spring is a metaphor. Twenty-one years ago, when I started my pastoral ministry at Corinth Reformed United Church of Christ in Hickory, North Carolina, spring was the theme of my own installation service.  I thought it seemed appropriate for the beginning of Josh Moore’s ministry as well.

Josh you have started your ministry in the grip of winter.  I refer not only to the temperature, but the call of God to come to New England.  According to some recent polls, only 23% of Vermont residents are “very religious” (lowest in the nation), 34% claim “no religion” (highest in the nation), 54% believe in God (lowest in the nation).

A calling of surprises

For those of you who don’t know me – and that’s almost everyone – and those who don’t know Josh – or perhaps know only a little about him – I thought I might share a little of my story and my connection to Josh as context for this exhortation to hope.

I am among the least likely people you know to be a minister in the United Church of Christ.  My early family and educational background are evangelical.  Think Billy Graham.  Evangelicals take seriously the reliability and authority of the Bible, and the importance of personal faith in Jesus as the Son of God who died and rose again for our salvation.

After we graduated from Bible college in 1978, Linda and I went to a conservative UCC congregation in North Carolina to serve as their first Christian education director.  At that time we thought of the UCC like you might think of Burlington – the place to hop on a plane to somewhere else.  But God used that setting to redirect us.  Even though the UCC was uncomfortable for us even in the 70s, we were drawn to its racial diversity (especially in North Carolina) and its ecumenical spirit.  I began to take seriously Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17.  The visible unity of the body of Christ was Jesus’ passion, and it should be mine.  We also noticed that there were many congregations who would need or want more evangelical pastors like me.

As with all callings, ours has taken some surprising twists over the years.  First, I thought I was bringing something TO the UCC with my evangelical convictions on salvation and Scripture, and I still believe that.  The surprise has been how much I received FROM the UCC.  My faith is deeper, broader, and richer because of the UCC.  I am a much less judgmental and more compassionate Christian, especially toward gays and lesbians, than I ever would have been had I stayed in my evangelical cocoon.

The other surprise has been that I did end up being involved in the UCC on a wider level than just the local church.  In 2005, after the Atlanta General Synod endorsed marriage equality, there was a predictable backlash from more conservative or traditional congregations.  Hundreds of churches left, including one entire conference.  I had a part in founding a network of pastors and churches called Faithful and Welcoming Churches.  We call ourselves ECOTs (evangelical, conservative, orthodox, or traditional).  The primary purpose of our organization is to encourage ECOT pastors and churches to stay in the UCC, even though we feel like a small and often irrelevant minority.  I believe the UCC needs us, and we need the UCC.  Faithful and Welcoming is now the most visible network of ECOTs in the UCC, and I have served as its only President.

What we do is show up.  We don’t show up with anger or accusation or demands for power.  We just show up to visibly represent that ECOTs are still here.  We show up at our associations and conferences.  We have a booth at each General Synod, which is an interesting experience.  If you want to know what that feels like, imagine yourself staffing an Obamacare information booth at a Tea Party convention.  Yeah, like that.

But this is the UCC, the church that welcomes you no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey. As UCC General Minister and President Geoffrey Black said at our FWC dinner last year in Long Beach, CA, “That includes you.”  That’s overwhelmingly the response we get at our FWC booth.  People come up to us and say, “I don’t agree with you, but thanks for staying in the UCC.  I’m glad you’re here.”

Every General Synod seems to produce at least one interesting story.  When we were in Grand Rapids, MI, in 2009, a transgender woman named Lauryn Farris ventured out of the safety of the Open and Affirming booth to the Faithful and Welcoming booth.  Her friends said, “Don’t go over there, those people won’t like you.”  She went anyway, and met my wife Linda (I call her our “booth babe”), who is the epitome of grace and welcome.  Linda and Lauryn had a nice chat, and ended their conversation in prayer.

A few weeks later, I had an e-mail from Lauryn.   She said the ONA group in South Central Conference was having their annual retreat.  The subject would be “Sacred Conversations on Difficult Subjects.”  She said something like, “The problem is, all of us who go on these retreats tend to agree with each other, so the conversation isn’t very ‘difficult.’  How about if you come down to San Antonio?  We’ll give you an hour on our program to tell us what you believe, and then we can practice on you!”  Linda and I went down there in January 2010, and had a great weekend hanging out with ONA folks, including two dinner conversations with Lauryn and her partner.

The 2011 General Synod in Tampa produced another serendipitous conversation, this time with a Vermont Associate Conference Minister, Pam Lucas.  I think you know her!  She came up to me and said, “We have a congregation in Vermont that wants a pastor more in line with Faithful and Welcoming Churches.  I’m afraid if we can’t find someone for them, they might leave the UCC.”  Well, that’s right up my calling alley – encouraging churches to stay and providing pastoral leadership for one church at a time that wants an ECOT pastor.  It took us a couple of years, but the short story is that’s how Josh and Megan Moore and their four children wound up here at South Royalton.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be here.  It sends chills up and down my spine every time I think about or share that story.  It represents springtime for me in the UCC.  Maybe there’s still a lot of frozen tundra, but there’s a warming trend.  I’ve seen my share of cold, hard hearts through the years – on both ends of our theological spectrum in the UCC.  The majority of ECOT churches and pastors I’ve known personally have thrown up their hands and left the UCC.  And far too many progressives in the UCC have seemingly had the attitude, “Good riddance!”  I’d like to think March 16, 2014 will be remembered as a day when little streams of water emerged from under snow banks.

Exhortations

With that introduction behind us, I want to turn to a few minutes of exhortation based on our readings from Hosea and James.  I didn’t choose that word to describe what I’m going to say, but I like it.  Exhortation is “emphatically urging action.”  It expresses urgency.  Hosea himself uses the language of exhortation twice in these few verses – “Let us return” (v. 1) and “Let us know” (v. 3).

As we anticipate the return of spring to our congregations, to our conferences, to our beloved United Church of Christ, I offer these exhortations.

First, let us listen.  Hosea and James are both exhorters.  They plead for God’s people to listen to God’s word.  As if his motto were “God is still speaking,” Hosea begins this particular passage, “Come….”  In the first chapter of his letter, James exhorts, “Let everyone be quick to listen….”

Josh, I exhort you to listen.  There is no higher priority for a pastor serving your first congregation than to open your heart and your ears to the people of the Red Door Church.  It took me a couple of years in my first church before I knew I wasn’t listening.    Listen to their history.  Listen to their personal stories. Listen to their pain.  Listen to their longings.  Let your sermons and your pastoral priorities emerge from listening.

Members of the United Church of South Royalton, listen to your pastor.  He’s already admitted to me that he’s asking you to listen to longer sermons than you’re accustomed to.  It’s just one of many ways you and he will give and take as you begin this journey together.  He’s young, but God has called him as your pastor.  Listen!

Those of you in the wider church family, I encourage you to listen to Josh.  For many of you, his way of approaching the Bible, faith, and church will sound strange to you.  Do what you would do with anyone else whose story is different from yours. If you give him a chance, he’ll be eager to hear your story even if it’s different from his.  Give him the opportunity to listen and be listened to before you judge or dismiss him.

Brothers and sisters, I exhort you to listen.

Second, let us confess.  Hosea’s exhortation begins, “Let us return to the LORD.  He has torn us to pieces, but he will heal us.”  Hosea prophesied during the final years of the Assyrian crisis in Israel.  It was a time of political instability as well as military vulnerability as the nation careened toward its destiny of defeat and Diaspora.

Hosea wants the people to admit the justice of God’s punishment.  They have been unfaithful to God, and Hosea’s marriage pictures that spiritual infidelity.  They have oppressed their neighbors, exploited the poor, and will get what they deserved.

Hosea’s exhortation for the people to return to God requires an admission that they have been disobedient and unfaithful.  Nobody likes to admit that; we would rather excuse ourselves or blame others.  The word “Lent” implies spring (when the days lengthen).  Now is the season to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit  and focus not so much on the faults of others as on our own while we assess the church.

Brothers and sisters, I exhort you to examine yourselves and confess your sins.

Third, let us pursue.  One of the many reasons I love this text in Hosea is that when my wife Linda and I married 36 years ago this year, we chose Hosea 6:3 together as a “life verse,” a biblical motto for our marriage.  We committed it to memory: “So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord.  His going forth is as certain as the dawn, and he will come to us like the rain, like the spring rain watering the earth.”

The word “press on” is radaph in Hebrew, and it implies exertion, effort, persistence.  Let us pursue the knowledge of God.  For ECOTs like Josh and me, it’s very important to pursue the knowledge of God in the Bible.  I have been critical of the UCC’s “still speaking” campaign because it seems to replace the authority of Scripture with the subjective feelings of an individual or a generation.  ECOTs believe that today’s church must still pursue the knowledge of God in the writings that Christians for two thousand years have agreed are inspired by God and our only trustworthy guide for faith and life.

The older I get, however, the easier it is for me to see that I have often been arrogant in my own interpretation of Scripture, in what I thought I knew well about how God thinks.  I have realized that it is just as easy to be subjective and blind with a Bible in front of me as it is without one.  I still believe this Book is my only trustworthy guide, and I still get mad sometimes at those who ignore or displace it.  But I’m more willing, even more eager, to re-examine my assumptions about how I read the Bible.  I want to keep reminding myself that it’s not knowledge of the Bible that I need – it’s the knowledge of God – God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s invitation, God’s wisdom.

Brothers and sisters, I exhort you to pursue the knowledge of God.

Fourth, let us wait.  Both Hosea and James use farming as a metaphor for this life of faith.  Both refer to seasonal rains.  Hosea calls them “winter” and “spring” rains (v. 3).  James refers to “autumn” and “spring” rains (v. 7).  The agricultural analogy is more powerful for many of you than it is for me.    I don’t do much planting or harvesting except in a figurative sense.  You or your neighbors pay attention to seasons and rains for your dairy farms and maple groves.

Palestine, the land of the Bible, has only two seasons – wet and hot, corresponding to our winter and summer.  The winter is their agricultural season.  Farmers depend on early winter rains (what we call “autumn”) to germinate the crops, and on late winter rains (corresponding to our “spring”) to ripen the fields to harvest.

A good bit of agricultural success depends on circumstances well beyond the farmer’s control.  Whether winters are long or short, whether springtime is wet or dry, whether rains are too light or too heavy or just right – these are all factors no farmer can predict or control.  The farmer’s only option is to wait for the “valuable” crop (v. 7).

And so it is with this church or any church.  We are called to do our part, but we are called to lay down our need to control.  Our primary goal is not to bring more factors under our control.  The primary goal is to develop patience.  It’s never a bad thing to be in a place where we acknowledge our need for God to do what only God can do.  This brings us to our knees in prayer, the healthiest place for our souls and for our churches.

Brothers and sisters, I exhort you to wait and to pray.

Finally, let us hope.  As people of faith, we know our waiting will not be in vain.  James says, “The Lord’s coming is near.”  Commentators have battled over whether James was mistaken – as in, he missed the Lord’s return by about two thousand years or more – or whether he just wants all of us in any generation to live in light of the nearness of the parousia (coming of the Lord).

What is clear is that James wants us to live in the certainty that Christ will come.  Likewise, speaking of God, Hosea insists….

  • He will heal…he will bind up
  • He will revive…he will restore
  • He will appear…he will come to us

 

This chapter of our story is never the last.  There is the hope of the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, at the end of the age.  Meanwhile, he shows up with spring in hand just when we think the winters of our lives will never end.

Twenty-one years ago, it had been a long winter of conflict and decline at Corinth Reformed Church.  Two decades later, a strong Wind has created unity, vibrancy, mission, growth.  Where there were empty pews, and the heads present were mostly gray or bald, now there are literally hundreds of children and youth, hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours given to mission work, a thriving community for Christian education and mutual support.   Summer is in full bloom.  God is never done with his church – not in Hickory, not in South Royalton, not in New England not anywhere.

Brothers and sisters, I exhort you to hope.

Green ahead

I did some readin’ up on Vermont before I came up here to see y’all.  I know all I read was true ‘cause I found it on that there Inner-ney-at.  Espesh-lee I love that most wunnerful source of all factoids reliable and verifiable – that there Why-ky-pedia.

The single fact I liked the most was that although no one seems to be sure of the etymology behind the name “Vermont,” the best guess is that it sounds like French for “green mountains.” This means that the early pioneers of this area, who doubtless lived through some winters like the one you have just experienced, nevertheless wanted to name this colony – then the independent nation – then the state – in honor of spring.

No matter how long or cold or white the winter, “Vermont” is a tribute to hope. This day, this church, and every church, is a tribute to hope. “So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His going forth is as certain as the dawn, and he will come to us like the rain, like the spring rain watering the earth.”  Amen.

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