WHAT I LEARNED ON MY SABBATICAL

Isaiah 43:16-21          
            Back in grade school, early in September, the teacher would ask you to write something about, “What I did on my summer vacation”?  Remember that?  Depending on your age and grade level it might be a few words or sentences or paragraphs.  How did you fill those long wonderful days since you last sat at those desks? Playing games, riding bikes, swimming, picnics, visiting grandparents.  Remember?

            Well this morning’s sermon is, “What I Learned on My Sabbatical”.  It was an opportunity that you gave me for which I am very grateful.  It was an opportunity to lift my focus from the day-to-day.  I know, for those of you who believe clergy only work one hour a week it must be astonishing how absorbing that can be!  But it’s true.  So the sabbatical afforded me the chance to ponder some big picture questions about our life together and God’s call to us to live in faithfulness.  As I said, I am very grateful for the opportunity — although you may be less so as I share some of my thoughts — cue the scary music!

            Back in the sixth century before Jesus’ birth the prophet Isaiah spoke to people who had grown comfortable in their situation.  After the empire of Babylon had crushed Israel in war a  big chunk of the population was taken away in exile.  Whole families, as well as individuals who represented the very best in just about every field of life and work, were taken hundreds and hundreds of kilometres away and forced to make a new life for themselves.  A tragedy on a national scale.  Human beings are remarkably resiliant though.  Over time, something which started out as unbearable becomes normal.  You settle down, find a job, have children, they grow up and have families of their own.  Soon you really don’t remember any other way of life.  Oh, you may tell the old stories and sing the old songs.  You may talk about the good old days when being part of the people of Israel meant something.  About when Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and God destroyed Pharaoh’s army when all seemed impossible.  You go to worship every week and read the same old stories and sing the same old songs but you don’t really believe that they will come true — not in this world anyway.  After all, the empire has chariots and cavalry and soldiers and all you have is faith in God.  What real use is that?

           

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Then this guy called Isaiah stands up and says:
           

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Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.
           

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I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

 

            What would you have thought?  Would you figure that it seemed too far-fetched to be true?  As I paused and prayed and reflected over the last few months I came to some important observations.  The first is that this congregation is made up of — and for an amazing number of years has been home to faithful, generous, hard-working, loving people.  If church life was a sport we have done everything right.  Everything that should lead to success, the pennant, the trophy.  But if we look at the things we can count and easily measure — membership, participation, money, age — we know that they are all declining.  Not in a very dramatic fashion, but slowly and relentlessly.  Those aren’t the only standards by which we think about our life together — but they aren’t irrelevant either.  It isn’t that we aren’t doing the right things and working hard at the game as we understand it — my only conclusion is that the game has changed.  Fundamentally and in its most basic form.

            In Ireland  I was introduced to a game called hurling.

XX  It looks like mass murder being conducted on a soccer field with blunt wooden weapons at astounding speeds. XX Imagine if you went onto the field thinking you were going to play croquet  and all of a sudden found yourself in the midst of that! XX

It’s more than just a change of rules – the whole game has changed.

            Now some of you may be upset by my suggestion that something as significant and spiritual as church be compared to a sport.  I get that.  But I also get that the way of doing church in which many of us were raised — the way in which I was raised and trained and became quite accomplished thank you — has changed.  Dramatically. 

            If I am right — and it’s quite possible that I’m wrong because I don’t have a crystal ball just the same powers of observation and conclusion that you have — we have some choices as individuals and as a congregation.  I believe that the Good News in Jesus Christ will always have communities of people who celebrate it and try to live it — call them churches.  But 21 centuries have shown us that the shape of this thing we call church can change drastically.  We wouldn’t even recognize some of the groups called church in different centuries and the form we have inherited is neither particularly ancient nor holy — regardless of how much we may love it. 

            When they heard Isaiah the people in exile had to make some choices.  If I am correct — and I’m certainly no Isaiah — we also have some choices.

            We can keep doing what we’ve always done, secure in our faithfulness, rooted in practice, and knowing that — unless the future is radically different than the present — we will gradually lose our ability to function and fully serve Jesus Christ in this community.

            We can walk away, saying “I am committed to the way church has always been and if it cannot be that way I am not interested.”  That’s fair.  That’s honest.

            Or we can listen to that strange message of Isaiah who declared, as God’s voice: “Behold I am doing something new, even now it is springing forth.  Can you see it?”  And maybe if we can’t see it fully formed we can catch a glimpse of it through the mist.

           

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Over the next few weeks I plan to sketch out what I think that means:
  • May 22nd – – Pt 1 what I learned on my sabbatical
  • May 29th – Pt 2 — The Church must Change
  • June 5th – Pt 3 — Contagious Christianity
  • June 12th – Pt 4 — Mission
  • June 19th – Pt 5 — Stewardship
  • June 26th – Pt 6 — Fellowship

            I believe that God is encouraging us now.  It is easy — it even has a ring of truth — to say that the time is not right.  There’s not enough money, not enough time, not enough energy; we’re too old, we’re too young.  People in Isaiah’s time said those things.  God kept saying, I will make a way.  Walk by faith, not by sight.  Those things of the past to which you assign so much worth — will be no more, except as treasured memories.  I believe that Knox United Church — or something very like it — still has a role in making this neighbourhood, this community and this world a better place. 

            We are free — you are free as a beloved child of God, as a brother or sister of Jesus Christ, to choose.  I recognize that talk of change provokes many reactions.  In some it brings out our stubborn streak: we’d choose death over disruption every time.  In  others it brings fear, and in others greater and lesser degrees of excitement. 

XX One of our greatest challenges as followers and disciples of Jesus is to deal with our fear.  We live in a world with an astounding variety of possibilities.  And we know from the bible and from the story of the church that our God is astonishingly adapatable.  No matter what sort of situations we get into, God is there.  No matter what sort of holes we find ourselves at the bottom of, God is there.  When we hit the end of the tunnel and all the doors seem locked and bolted God is doing new things: “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. 19

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”  But often we grab onto one thing and take it to extremes.   You know how it works:  I have a small cough and immediately assume that it is lung cancer.  Well, it could be, but if we assume that it is, believe that it is, act like it is and fear like it is then we are conforming to a very narrow possible future.  A fellow named Paul, some of whose words we have in the bible and who knew a lot about the radical ups and downs of life — a lot — wrote: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may understand what is the will of God—whatever is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)  If we take on fear as the only possible response then we are conforming to this world.
            Webster’s dictionary defines fear (in part) as “an emotional response to

a

possible future.”  There is a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear in churches generally today.  That’s another thing I learned on my sabbatical.  There is a whole lot of worry from people who see statistics like one church a week closing.  They get scared.  Are you scared for the future of our church?  I want you to look deep and ask yourself that question.  Certainly there are challenges ahead.  I can’t offer you a clear road map forward.  That’s for us to work out together for we are all beloved children of God and we are all part of the Holy Spirit picture of the future.  And, like a jigsaw puzzle, you have a piece and you have a piece and you have a piece and together we build God’s future. 

            I do know a couple of things for sure — and in the week ahead I want you to ponder these.  Do you believe in scarcity or generosity?  For instance, do you think God doles out love and care like individually counted grains of rice?  Everything that we know of God, from the bible through the history of Jesus’ followers tells us that God is extravagant, pouring out love in incredible abundance on anyone who is willing to receive it.  But me telling you that isn’t going to make a difference until you accept it in your own life.  So, do you believe in scarcity or generosity?  Is it better to be generous with your love and  faith and compassion or careful and even stingy? 

            We get constantly hammered with scarcity. Our economy is based on scarcity.  If you get something I won’t.  Whatever we’re talking about, there’s only so much to go around.  So the ads shout at us to “get it before it’s gone.”  We’re warned to watch out for people taking advantage of us and getting them before they get us.  Sort of a Donald Trump approach to life.  And that breeds anxiety.  Because if there’s only a limited amount of something maybe I won’t get my fair share.  Anxiety is unattractive.  Anxiety freezes our responses and our creativity.  I know that when I’m anxious and fearful I don’t think nearly as clearly or creatively as I might. 

            So there’s your question:

XX is God like Donald Trump?  Tight-fisted, narrow, angry, constantly dividing between them and us?  Or is God like Jesus — open, compassionate, loving, supportive, welcoming?  You are a child of God, which image do you believe is accurate?  Which vision of God do you want to take with us into an uncertain future? XX18 Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. 19

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?      I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. “

            Let those with ears hear the Spirit’s surprising word to the church.  Amen