Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Anatomy of a Church

1 Corinthians 12: 12-26
One thing that you probably don’t know about me is that I’m a watercolorist. I take classes whenever I can so that I make time to paint.  When I signed up for the Bird painting class through the Connecticut Natural Science Illustrators I was deeply disappointed, at first, to discover that we had to learn about bird anatomy before drawing and then painting a bird.

‘Why do we have to learn about the inside structure of a bird on order to paint it?’ That’s what I wanted to know and the teacher just sort of said, ‘Well you need to know what’s going on in the inside of a bird in order to make the form of the bird correct’. You need to understand how the skeletal structure connects with the structure of a wing. How the feathers are so delicately designed and laid out are as essential to your painting just as the color variations.

Well, of course she was right. Once I understood the anatomy of a bird my paintings and drawing were much more realistic.  What I grasped on a deeper level is that a bird wing is nothing short of a miracle intricately designed by a loving and creating God and it is essential that all of the feathers are aligned and working together.  This is how a bird can soar the heights with unlimited possibility.
Tufted Titmouse by Suzanne E. Wagner
Anatomy is the science of the shape and structure of organisms and it not only extends to birds and mammals but to organizations and dare I even say churches also.  The Apostle Paul knew that, he knew all to well that if the anatomy of the early church were off, there would be problems.

Paul writes his letter to the people at Corinth, a bustling urban community that was ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse. Corinth was the heart of Roman Imperial culture in Greece and it is more than likely that this small fledgling church population mirrored the larger community.  So you can imagine that there were clashes because of this diversity and also because of Rome. 

At this point he is writing as a mediator between the members.  Hear the words of the Apostle Paul in the 12th chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body.
And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?
But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’
On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.
But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
As only Paul can do, he illustrates his point in many ways.  In fact he just hammers that point in over and over again like a jackhammer on stone.  This passage sounds like Church Anatomy 101 doesn’t it?  The church body at Corinth was not working out so well, so he uses the metaphor of the body to illustrate how the body of Christ really should work.  They were a fractured church community and Paul tries very hard to bolster their confidence and remind them what being the body of Christ is all about especially when the culture around them was less than decent and who worshipped Greek gods.

Each foot, each hand, each eye, each ear is essential.  Not one part is superfluous.  One body, one spirit.  They all work in harmony with one another yet each maintains its special function within the body.  Every member is significant and every member is responsible for the workings of the church.  Every member has responsibility to tell his or her story of God’s love in their life.  Every member is dependent upon the other.  Every member brings gifts and resources that the body needs to be about the work of Christ.  A bird can’t fly without its wing and a church can’t be a worshipping community without each person and the gifts they bring.

And what binds this conglomeration of people together?  For Paul it is critical for the people to know that their baptism in Christ binds them together, it is their shared story of love and pain, joy and sorrow, laughter and tears that they hold in common.  And yet they are free to express their unique and diverse gifts for the good of the common weal.  I don’t think it gets any better than that.  'Unity and diversity are not incompatible; they are interdependent on one another'.[i]    

We, as a congregation, are embarking on a path that will take us over many types of terrain.  We will pose questions for discussion and see what ‘aha’ moments there will be.  We will reach a consensus that utilizes unique gifts and that ultimately will strengthen this church. 

Each board and committee has its area of expertise, its special interests and individuals bring their distinctive gifts and talents to each group, and that’s good.  We are all responsible together for the growth that will occur if we remember our baptismal ties in Christ and that we are all gifted by the same God. When Christ is the focus of all we do then we experience grace, acceptance, and love.  Then we can make decisions that are fiscally responsible, mutually nurturing, and Gospel focused.

The church exists for the world, not vice versa.  And it can because each one of us, with our quirks and our affinities, brings to the take a wealth of unsurpassed talent.  Talent that can be utilized for the good of the whole.

I am much more attuned to birds now than I have ever been; their beauty, their little habits, their unique color gradations, their feistiness, and their gracefulness.  But I mostly marvel at their wings.  There are so many feathers and each one has a purpose, not one is dispensable.
Blue Jay

[i] 'Rethinking Interim Ministry', Anthony B. Robinson.  Congregations Issue 4, 2012.

Monday, January 21, 2013

You Are Cordially Invited

John 2: 1-12
Wedding disasters!  I’m sure that you have witnessed at least one in your lifetime.  The bride slips on the runner walking down the aisle and lands on her bottom, the maid of honor becomes so inebriated at the reception that she weeps uncontrollably at the mic when she gives her toast to the bride and groom, or maybe the baker forgets to put the antique cake topper on the wedding cake that had been on the bride’s mother’s cake forty years prior, or the top tier gets dropped.  These disasters remain etched in your mind like an engraved silver frame.
Cake Topper*
The very first wedding that I performed began two hours late because the bride was taking her good old time getting ready at home.  And the groom had had immigration issues one week before the wedding, and so the entire wedding ended up without an actual change in martial status for the couple, but because she had her Vera Wang dress, and people were coming from out of the country so they wanted to go through the motions.  Oh yes, I’ve learned a lot since then and have tightened up on my instructions to the wedding party considerably.  PS: this couple did come back in a private ceremony about a year later when all of the paperwork had gone through and were, at that point, actually married.     

But none of these wedding disasters can compare with the one that happened that day in the sleepy little town of Cana in the northern Galil where the sunflowers bend over from the heat of the sun.  Imagine being invited to a wedding and you mosey up to the bar keep only to find out that he has run out of your favorite whistle whetter!  Oh the miscalculation of libations on the part of the host was grave calling for a miracle of epic proportions.
Sada Watanabe, The Wedding at Cana
Let us listen once again to the beloved story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus’ first public miracle was performed as recorded only in the Gospel of John.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it.

When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there for a few days.

Running out of wine was a very large error on the part of the host; he should have known better to stock up. You see hospitality was a very large part of the first century culture and weddings in that time and place lasted for at least a week where the merrymaking traveled from house to house and the food and the drink was abundant.  And we fret over a three-hour reception!  He really should have been prepared.  But he wasn’t.  Lucky for the host, or maybe as ‘providence’ would have it, Jesus, Mary and the disciples were among the invited guests.

When the vats of wine had been emptied and the guests got wind of this disastrous news Mary calls Jesus over.  ‘Psst, Jesus. Do something!’  Now their interaction was not so warm and fuzzy as you recall, it was not a ‘love your neighbor’ moment, yet Jesus obeys his mother and performs a miracle.  He takes six large jars that would have been used in a ritual of purification, fills them with water and tells the steward to pour out a glass. 

And when he did it poured out like rich, full bodied, aged to perfection wine.  Somehow, by the command or deep thought of Jesus, the water was changed into wine and even better wine than what was had before.  And with this miracle his power and compassion were revealed.  

He took the reception up to a different level!  But that’s what Jesus does, he kicks it up a notch so that water becomes wine, so that your life can be top shelf, haute couture, the best that you can possibly be.

Miracles are not occurrences that can be explained away.  They are only to be witnessed in awe and wonder and to bring you ever more closer to the God of power and love.  Jesus cordially invites us into his power of transformative love wherein the ordinary becomes extraordinary because you have a new lens in which to live your life.

Sometimes all you need is a fresh and innovative lens in which to view the world.  The old lens gets foggy or scratched and while you can still see out of it your vision becomes distorted; you just can’t see as well as you once did. When that happens you are in need of a Cana miracle. Cana miracles happen all of the time.  You just have to be open to the possibilities before you.

In the next few months we will be looking at things together as a gathered congregation.  We will look through the old lenses and try on some new ones to see what might give you clearer vision.  I understand that there are some deep issues that you would like to address during this interim time and we will.   

We will carefully, and prayerfully consider all aspects of these issues and make decisions that are in harmony with the vision and mission of Orange Congregational Church.  We will build consensus.  After all, your theme, as written in your worship bulletin reads, “Together, striving to know the will of God and to walk the way of Christ.”  Emphasis on the ‘together’ part.     

Let us, together, see what abundance lies hidden within your sacred walls and age old traditions.  Who do you want to be six months from now? Six years from now?  Who do you want to be in all areas: spiritually, missionally, worshipfully, and financially?  What do you perceive as water, that with a Cana miracle, could be transformed into wine? These are the deep questions that we will explore and you will be pleasantly surprised where you will end up. This is the work of discernment.

It’ll take some time to work through it all, remember we are not the miracle-worker, only Jesus is that!

Jesus was and still is today all about transformation.  His miracles, his healings, his death and resurrection speak of making the old, new; the dull, shiny; the sick, healthy; and lavish life from fallow fields.  When Mary pushed Jesus that day at the reception to reveal his gift she unleashed his power of transformation for us all to drink up.   

Let him transform your life from water to wine.  Allow him to work miracles in your midst where all might be fed and given fine wine to drink.  

*This cake topper was used on the wedding cake of my mother and father, Richard and Loretta Warner c. 1938.  It was to be on top of my wedding cake in 1976 however the baker indeed DID forget to put it on.  Since then the ceramic bride and groom have stood on top of the wedding cake for my daughter, Christine and her husband Nick in 2009, and most recently at the wedding of my son John and Danielle Wagner last November 2012.  The veil on the bride was replaced in 2009 with tooling from my wedding veil.  Mazel Tov!

Monday, January 14, 2013

And So Begins Our Baptized Life

First Sermon Preached at Orange Congregational Church, Orange, CT
Luke 3: 15-17, 21-23
St. Jude Catholic School - Baptism of Jesus
Not long ago I had the baptisms of two tiny cousins lined up.  They were infants around 13 or 14 months old as I recall.  One of the infants lived with her family in town and her cousin’s family was from Massachusetts.  Neither family, to my knowledge was passionate churchgoers, if you know what I mean.  But rather than turn them away I decided to plant some seeds and opted to baptize them.

So we got to the time in the service for the baptism and I called the families up to the front.  The deacon was with me and I began.  The mothers were bouncing the girls and everyone, dressed to the nines, looked very sweet.  Successfully the girls were baptized, we walked through the congregation for introductions and then convened back on the dais.

Then it began.  I started the final prayers and the congregation began snickering.  I looked up and the cousins, being held side by side, began to play with one another.  It was cute, but distracting.  They were trying to hug and kiss one another practically falling out of their mother’s arms.

Then the unthinkable.  (Or maybe not)  One of them took her little fist and bonked the other in the face.  The assaulted had one of those delayed cry reactions that only infants can do and of course the congregation was now in an uproar!  Immediately I ended and said ‘go in peace’ of course which I had my doubts. 

And so began their baptized life. These girls now have their lifetime to make good to one another.  It has once been said “Baptism is a once in a lifetime event, but it takes a lifetime to complete”. That’s because once baptized we are called to a different life, a life transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit to envision a creative path that always lies wide open before us if we only open our eyes to see.

John the Baptist knew all to well of the call upon his life and the power of baptism.  As soon as he became an adult he put on those itchy-scratchy camel hair clothes, packed up some yummy locusts and sweet honey and took to the wilderness.  His out of the box life-style began, his life of preaching and teaching, his life of baptizing folks, and his special calling to pave the way for his cousin Jesus. 
Hear now our scripture from the Gospel of Luke, the third chapter.

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. 
He Qui-The Baptism of Jesus
Up until now Jesus had been living his life in the region of the peaceful Galilee and he comes to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John.  John had been sojourning in the wilderness of Judea just about where the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea.

John baptized many people that day and after he baptized Jesus the heavens broke open.  The Spirit of God, sort of like a dove, alighted on him.  And a voice from heaven reassured Jesus, ‘you are my son, you are marked by my love, I am delighted in you.’

With this, Jesus begins his ministry and a short lifetime following the precepts of God.  With the words of the prophet Isaiah in his heart and mind Jesus begins a life of servant hood, gratitude, and prayer to God.   God’s grace and Jesus’ mission was conferred on him that day in the fresh waters of the Jordan River.   

Baptism called him and set him apart to be about the work of God, which ultimately is the work of change and transformation.  Jesus never points to himself, he always points to God as the source for all of his living.  And once aligned with the powerful and almighty you can never fail.

Today begins our baptized life together as congregation and interim pastor.  I will walk with you these next couple of years or however long it takes and help you to be the best that you can possibly be, to peer into what the future might hold, and to unearth the ways in which you want to change and grow.  I am here to follow in Rev. King’s good and large footsteps, to expand and build upon the ministries that were begun under his watch and to enable you to create and enact a vision of hope for Orange Congregational that your next settled pastor will yearn to be a part of.

But we are not there yet, we are just beginning.

Transition can be sad, scary, disconcerting, tenuous or maybe even a bit tumultuous.  Do not be anxious and do not worry.  With God’s guidance we will walk together remembering the past, negotiating the present, and embracing a great future.  We are in for the time of our lives with hard work and lots of humor to offset it.  That’s the way God intends us to be indeed that’s the way God wants us to live fully.

This interim time is one of the most exhilarating, affirming and exciting times in the life of this congregation.  Because you are not bound by ‘should’s’ but surrounded by ‘what if’s’.   It may not be easy, never is.  We might, like those infants, bonk heads and hearts as we walk through this discovery process and sacred journey together.  But it is essential work and ministry that we will perform during this time and with Christ leading us we can do great and wonderful ministry together.  It is a part of bringing our Baptismal promises to bear at this time and in this place.

You are a strong church, a good church, I have that from the best authority!   Yet you can be even stronger if you allow the Spirit of our creating God fill your hearts and minds from this day on.

The seeds of a Christian life are sown at our baptism.  It is up to us to nurture them and grow them into a full life together.

Let us love God together.  Let us create a powerhouse of ministry that Jesus Christ would be proud of.  Let us breathe in the power of the Holy Spirit so that our lungs are filled to the capacity with love, hope, and transformation.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Past As Prologue

Final Sermon preached at Wilton Congregational as their Interim Senior Pastor

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 1, Verses 1-11
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem , asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem , saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.

Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

A familiar story; wise men, a star and a wicked king.  It adds a sense of mystery to the infancy narrative of Jesus, not that it needed any more mystery than a virgin birth.  Maybe intrigue is a better word because the story of the visitors from the East brings us deeper into what will unfold as the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   

Much has been preached about this piece of scripture.  Finding your way home sometimes by a different route, letting a star remind you that the light of Christ is here, the inclusion of Gentiles into God’s plan of salvation, gifts that we can bring to the Christ child or gifts that we can offer to the church and to the world.  There are good nuggets that have been mined from this story.

Epiphany is a transitional moment in the church calendar year where Christ’s glory and divinity is revealed beyond the stable walls.
The Three Wise Men by EKDuncan
I’m not going to talk too much about that story today because you and I are at a transitional moment in our lives as pastor and congregation too, and I’d rather talk about that because that is where my heart and mind are this morning.

Interim ministry has a beginning and an end and it is hoped that the work in between is fruitful, revitalizing, spiritually energizing and that it would be a period of growth.  I believe that we have achieved all that if not more.  And so, my work is done!

There is a wonderful children’s movie called ‘Nanny McPhee’.  It’s about a nanny who comes to take care of a slew of horrid little children. Nanny herself, had warts, a huge tooth protruding from her upper lip, and was very unkempt looking at the beginning and was overly strict to the point of being mean.  Now don’t make the connection that you were horrid children.  You were not!  And don’t go thinking that I had warts.  I did not (or not many!)  
Emma Thompson as Nanny McPhee
So as the movie progresses the children become well behaved and each time they do something nice a wart magically disappears off of Nanny’s face. 

Throughout the movie there is something beautiful that happens to all of them.  With patience, understanding, searching, and a whole lot of love they become beautiful together.  The transformation is magnificent.  Of course when this happens, then it is time for Nanny to take her leave.

The best line in the movie is one that Nanny utters when she comes to live with the family, she say’s,

“When you need me, but do not want me, then I must stay, when you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go.”

You no longer need me and so I have to go.  There are so many plusses to interim ministry but saying goodbye is not one of them. However that’s what we will do today because you no longer need the type of ministry that I can provide for you.  I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner in ministry.

We’ve done some fine work together over these 18 months.  We’ve weathered some storms literally, and we’ve laughed, cried, prayed, worshipped, studied, sang, and ate together.  My goals when I came here were to calm everyone down and to steady the boat when Brigitta got off.  You were pretty anxious whether you know it or not.  I sought to lead you through a process of discovery and unearth you from pretty some fairly stagnant waters. 

I endeavored to instill hope and to help you envision a path to your future.  I prayed to love you as a congregation of dedicated people who try very hard to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I prayed to just love you, which I’ve come to do.

We have so much to be thankful to God for as a pastor and congregation.  Blessing upon blessing God has given us the ability for forge ahead with confidence in a period of transition.  I thank God for your care and concern, for your reception of my ministry and friendship among you, and for a talented staff to work alongside of.  Doug, Ken, Richard, Marilyn, Nancy, Max and Jim.  I thank you.    

But you no longer need me, I recognize that.  And it’s not because I need to be needed, it’s because you are ready to launch!  That’s the bittersweet nature of interim ministry.  You are ready to embark on a new journey that will be exciting and fruitful with a new pastor in the pulpit, a different pastor who will bring his own experience, his own love of God, his unique call to ministry to bear here at Wilton Congregational.  You are ready to embark upon ministry with a marathoner!!!    

And you see, that makes me really happy.  I feel, leaving here, that I have done my best to honor God and to be the pastor that you needed me to be at this time in the life of Wilton Congregational.  We are severing our relationship on very good and gracious terms knowing that the best is yet to come.

Be open to the endless and exciting possibilities of how you will move forward, God called you into existence in 1726 and God will safely see you into the future.  It is a marathon of grace, gratitude, love and forgiveness.
Wilton Congregational Church photo by S. Wagner
So I want to leave you with a charge, or maybe a couple.  Three to be exact since this is the last time that I will address you as your pastor and in a position of authority under God.

The first charge I leave you is challenging but essential.  I charge you to always be about the work of Christ, that is why we are here and that is why men and women discern a call to ministry, because we want to be about the work and ministry of Christ.  It is for no other reason that the church exists.  We’re not a country club or a social service agency, or a hierarchical vessel to pour out our power hungry selves.  We are here solely to witness to the strength and salvation of God through Jesus Christ.  Please, always remember that, if you stray too far from that it will lead you onto rocky terrain.

Your second charge is to pray.  Pray often. Pray always.  Your new pastor is human and will, at times, need your prayers of support, your prayers of love, your prayers of compassion.  He is human in all ways and the demands of a congregation upon their pastor can be great.  Be gentle, be loving, be forgiving, be kind as I have experienced you to be. 

And your third charge is to be a beacon of hope in this community.  Our world needs hope, this community needs hope.  Not that we are in a bad way, but the demands of life are huge and people need a place of complete acceptance and unconditional love.  You can be that place for people, you can be that non-judgmental haven for people to experience God when the rest of the world is saying something else, when the rest of the world is condemning rather than commending.  Shun no one and let the community know it explicitly. 

My dear friends, I will miss you.  A lot.  But I leave here knowing that I have lost my warts and you are the best that you can be.  Together we have honored and loved our Lord, Jesus Christ and that’s what it’s all about. 

Rejoice fully in the pastor to come who is ready and willing to be here for the marathon, who will love you in all of life’s circumstances, and who loves God with all of his heart. 

God is good all of the time, and all of the time, God is good.

Amen, and Amen!
Thank you to Rev. Cynthia Robinson for the reminder about Nanny McPhee!