I seem to have a sacramental theme going in my sermons here at St. Paul's. I talked about baptism when I was here in December. Last week and the week before I talked about both baptism and communion. Today I want to look in particular at the second of those: communion, the Lord's Supper, the eucharist, whatever you want to call it.
Now, while there's no use denying that I have a healthy respect for sacraments, let me assure you that I do talk about other things. As you get to know me, you'll learn that I go on these little kicks in my sermons. I'll pick up a theme and run with it for a while, then find something else to concentrate on. If it gets to be a bit much, you may tell me—politely—Hey, Pastor! You're boring me to tears!
(This is the part where you say: No, Pastor! We'd never do that!)
In any case, as I read the story of Peter and John and James looking upon Jesus's transfigured form, one of the things that popped into my head was the Catholic tradition of eucharistic adoration. That is, a consecrated host is placed in a special holder called a monstrance, and people will come to spend time with it, in prayer and meditation. Sometimes, for example, during Holy Week, a church will take part in a vigil called perpetual adoration, in which the host is attended around the clock.
This seems bizarre from an outsider's perspective. It's just a piece of bread, right? How could you spend hour upon hour in devotion to it? But that's just it. The people who take part in this practice don't see "just" bread. They see something living, Jesus in a different form. In the same way, Orthodox Christians treat their icons not as pieces of art, but as the still-present reality of the people they represent. An icon of Jesus might not be alive in the same way that you or I are alive, but it is living, if you ask them, and worthy of the same respect.
That in turn put me in mind of one of the big battles of the Reformation, which was the question of how exactly Jesus was present in communion. The Catholic church said that the bread and wine literally turned into Jesus' body and blood when the words of institution were said; that's "transubstantiation." Lutherans said sure, but let's not be crazy here: the bread and wine don't stop being bread and wine, even if they do become Jesus' body and blood. That's "consubstantiation." Then some churches like our own said look, it's just bread, it's just wine, that's it. Communion is symbolic, a memorial to Jesus' sacrifice. No change happening in communion. Finally, some others said: No change, but Jesus is present in the gathered body of believers at the communion table. I think that's probably what most of us believe, but you tell me. No, seriously—I'm curious to know what you all think about it.
I think you can see why my thoughts would drift this way. Peter and John and James see Jesus change somehow from just a guy like any other guy to something much greater. We hear some of the details: Jesus' face is "changed," his clothes become "dazzling white," he is surrounded by his "glory," which means literally the shining from the sun, the moon, or the stars. We hear all of those details, but it's difficult to define what exactly has happened. Something has changed, something beyond our ability to grasp or understand. Jesus appears in his final post-resurrection form, but it is impossible to say how exactly this comes to be.
We don't have to define everything in order to appreciate it, of course. I think most of us would agree that we can appreciate communion without understanding exactly how Jesus is present in it. He's there with us somehow, and that's good enough.
So the story of the Transfiguration is about change in some important ways, as is the story we tell in the communion service. Jesus was one thing; now he's something else. Glory be to God. But these stories are also about seeing the truth in some important ways. In communion, we affirm the truth God's goodness and love in creating, sustaining, and redeeming our lives, and we affirm—all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding—the truth that Jesus has triumphed over death, and promises us life in his continuing life. In other words, we teach ourselves to see that this is the way Christ truly is, and therefore, this is the way the world really is.
The story of Jesus' transfiguration teaches us the same thing, in a way you might find surprising. It's easy to hear about Jesus' radiant face, his dazzling clothes, the glory that surrounds him, and draw from those details the conclusion that Jesus is Lord and High above us and Powerful over us, who are just imperfect sinful little worms. But that's probably not the lesson we're meant to draw from this text, in my opinion.
The rest of the chapter in which this story is set goes back and forth between acts of ministry and discussion of Jesus' identity as the Messiah. Jesus sends the disciples out on a mission without so much as an extra tunic; Herod wonders who he is, and wants to meet him. Jesus feeds five thousand people; Peter admits he is the Messiah—to which Jesus responds with a warning about his death and resurrection. Jesus is transfigured; he heals a boy with a demon. He foretells his death again, then instructs the disciples to welcome children into their midst so that the least of them can be the greatest.
In other words, that this story shows us that Jesus only appears to be a humble carpenter who is revealed to be really God himself in his glory gets the truth exactly backwards. The truth is just the opposite: the glory of God is revealed to be present in the humble carpenter who heals a very sick young boy without hesitation. The glory of God isn't on the mountain at all, it's in the healing hands and loving touch of Jesus back down on the plain. The change we are meant to see is not Jesus' glorification; it is God's renewed commitment to human health and well-being. Jesus is harsh with his disciples because they don't grasp this truth. They are meant to be embarking on a new—and newly empowered—life, and they just can't quite wrap their heads or their hearts around it.
In a sense, that leads us back to communion. With all due respect to the people who take part in eucharistic adoration, the glory of God isn't in the bread or the cup. The glory of God, as St. Irenaeus put it, is a human being fully alive. The communion elements are the means—the ultimate means—to that glory. God wants you to be fed. God wants your faith to be strengthened. God wants you to be connected to him, and in him, to the body of Christians throughout time and space. God wants you to be fully alive.
And just as the disciples were meant to enter into a new life after seeing Jesus transfigured, so are we. The glory of God is a human being fully alive. Our glory is to take part in bringing them fully alive, whether that means actually giving birth to them, raising them, teaching them, feeding them, healing them, or just standing with them through thick and thin. Our glory, as it is Jesus' glory, to give of ourselves for the life of the world, without counting the costs. You don't have to believe that Jesus is really alive in the bread and the wine to understand that there's a point to the elements being broken and poured out. That is who Jesus really is, and it is who we are meant to be, really. Amen.
Any time a pastor leaves a congregation, there are some members of the church who believe they must have done something wrong to cause the departure. They may not recognize it consciously, but underneath their thoughts, where feelings dwell, it worries at them.
I am speaking, of course, of when a long-term pastor departs. For example, when someone who has been with the church for seventeen years moves on to a new position. I will never admit, no matter how good the time, that it's possible for a church to become attached to a minister who's only been around for a year-and-a-half.
Joking aside, I think you know what I mean. When I arrived at Bethany in June of 2014, you were scared, confused, and demoralized. You weren't sure what would come next for your congregation, how you would get through the time without a settled pastor, even if this community could continue. More than a few suspected that this was your own fault somehow, that you were being punished for not being supportive enough of your pastor.
Now look at you! You're flourishing, in your own quiet, steady way. You have a renewed sense of the joy of worship. You've picked up if not new members, at least some regular visitors who seem to be steadily integrating themselves into the Bethany family. You're seeing familiar faces becoming active again. Your relationships with one another have been renewed, as they have with the Northeast Association and the Wisconsin Conference. The process is not complete, but you do seem to be embracing a new identity as a giving church, one determined to welcome the greater community inside its walls. If nothing else, you've learned you can survive all kinds of pastors!
Who could have predicted how far we would travel in just eighteen months? I think most people who have visited Bethany, or joined it on the way for a little while, know that it's a diamond in the rough. But I don't think any of us knew just how much it would come back to life in this time.
I have to acknowledge that I have come some distance as well. Perhaps it's easier for you to see the development than it is for me, but I've changed, I know. My theology is surer and deeper. I have been able to practice new ways to lead. I've organized, or helped to organize, things that I never thought I'd be able to pull off. I earned a degree in Web Design and Development! None of this would have been possible without your grace, patience, and support, and for all of that I am deeply humbled and grateful.
(I am also just as fat as when I began, and quite a bit balder. Not all change is positive.)
None of this is to say that there are not challenges ahead for you. There are. I think you know them already: you're an aging congregation, you're a small congregation, you're a congregation with limited resources in location and funding.
Come what may, however, I will have no worries for you. I have always had, and still do, every confidence in you. Whatever your ultimate fate will be, you will meet it with faith, grace, and reconciled hearts. I have no doubts about this.
More important, I know that whether you live or whether you die, you belong to the Lord, and I know that the Lord is good. God says to us in the book of Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
That scripture was quoted to my seminary cohort on our very first day of orientation; it was practically the first thing anyone told us, other than where the bathrooms and the snacks were. But it applies to much more than the ordained. You too have been claimed by the living God. You too have a ministry to carry out. You too have a journey to travel on. God will protect you on the way:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Wherever you go, whatever may become of you, the Lord will be there with you. I am certain of that, and I know that this is your faith as well: that we need not fear, because God is with us. Because of that, I will not lose a minute of sleep worrying about your destiny after January 15th.
But why? Why would God promise us such protection? Isaiah answers:
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you.
The Israelites were unique in their time in claiming that their God was not limited by geography, or by the power of those who honored him. They claimed their God as The God, the creator and sustainer of all that was. Other deities were phonies, so the claim went. Even more audaciously, the Israelites claimed that out all of creation, out of all the rich and powerful nations that this God—the Lord—could have claimed, he chose Israel, a small, weak, obscure people to be his own, to be his love. In the same way, I believe, God chooses churches like Bethany. Out of all the well-endowed, popular, large churches that God could have claimed, he chose you, a small, aging, just-barely-scraping-by church to be precious, and honored, and loved by him.
It should go without saying that I agree with this, but apparently, I just said it. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. I will miss you all terribly. Nothing against the people gathered here this morning, but I think the worst part of leaving will be saying goodbye to the homebound members, and not hearing the Mom's Day Out kids across the hall. I was just getting them to give me high-fives. My new office is going to be much quieter and sadder. (On the other hand, it's next to a large pond, so maybe I'll soon have some ducks to distract me.)
As I say, I'm confident that you will be okay after I leave. As I said in the newsletter, keep moving forward and God will take care of the rest.
In the end, I have to echo the words of John the Baptist:
one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.
I often say to churches I serve that I hope the next pastor will be better than I am, not as an insult to myself, but simply out of hope that God will continue to bless you more and more richly. But in quoting the gospel, I do not refer, of course, to my successor in this pulpit. I'm convinced it will be a woman, for one thing, even if it's not the same woman the Search Committee might be thinking of!
No, I am speaking of course about Jesus himself. Whatever happens to me, whatever happens to you, whoever you have to lead you here; they are all insignificant compared to the coming of the Christ to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Your journey, your destination, is to meet the Messiah when he comes again. All of our journeys, all of our comings and goings, all of our lives, have to be set in the light of that much greater story.
If we live, we live to the Lord. If we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord, who is the Lord of both the living and the dead.
It will be sad to say goodbye to all of you, my friends, even after so short a stay with you. But we live and we die to the Lord. Keep that in mind, and no matter who your pastor is, you're going to be okay. Amen.
I know that today's lesson from Ephesians must seem confusing, and by "confusing," I mean "I wouldn't blame you if you went actively, horridly cross-eyed halfway through it." There is a lot going on here in not very much space, all jumbled together in some kind of insanely twisted knot. Unbelievably, it is one long and very convoluted sentence in the Greek. How the scholars ever parsed it out, I have no idea.
Once you have disentangled your eyeballs, however, and read the thing a few times, you start to pick out the themes. What it boils down to is Paul talking about two interlocking mysteries.
The first of these is that Christ has brought us near to God through himself. More precisely, God the Father saw fit to draw us near to himself through Christ:
He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.
You've heard me talk about how the early Christian church attracted pagan almost-converts to Judaism, and this is indeed what Paul's talking about here. The people this letter is written to have been adopted into the Jewish family, overcoming the alienation, hostility and sin that have kept them separated from the Jewish God:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.
God has bought all people back from the Devil. In Christ's death on the cross, all our sins and failings are cancelled out, and we are given the free gift of a new relationship with God.
Note two things about this mystery that Paul names: one, it is not to you as individuals, but to us as a shared community. There is no drawing near to God without drawing near to one another. Two, as it turns out, God had a plan to make this adoption happen, and he set that plan in motion a long time ago:
He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.
Even before the creation of the universe, God knew who he wanted to make his people through and in Christ. The plan is just now getting into action, according to Paul. Perhaps you can spot the connection to this morning's gospel lesson:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Christ is an intricate, intimate, and necessary part of God's pre-existing plan of salvation. That infant whose birth we celebrate at the Christmas is Emmanuel, God with us. He builds God's presence into the very fabric of creation and directs that creation toward the long march of the fulfillment of God's plan. Before there was anything, there was God's love drawing the universe in, little by little.
That declaration reveals in turn the second of Paul's mysteries: God has a plan to save us! He's had it all along! And not just us, but everyone, and everything:
He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
So it turns out that although God had a plan to win us back, we're just the start of a much larger plan:
In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.
The more accurate way to put this is that Paul's listeners were the first to set their hope on Christ. We're 2,000 years down the chain. Either way, the point remains the same: we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. The only thing grander than God's plan to save us from ourselves is God's plan to save the cosmos, to "to gather up all things in him" in the primal unity that has been missing ever since Adam and Eve decided to eat that stupid apple.
I find it difficult to put the staggering scale of this project into words. God intends to gather all things in him: everything from the smallest atom to the furthest star millions of light years away, and everything in between. Every blade of grass, every snow flake, every person, to be united with God to live to the praise of his glory. It is incomprehensible.
Or all but. A friend points me to Psalm 84, which reads in part:
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.
Compared to the cosmos, let alone to God, we are really not much bigger than a sparrow. Yet even the sparrows and the swallows find a home in the temple of God, where they can live in love and through love, the love of God for all of creation. The point is not to dwell on the details—how are all those sparrows and swallows going to get into the temple, and who's going to clean up after them?—but to recognize the power, the scope, the sheer overflowing abundance, of God's love. God loves everybody and everything, and for that, we should give him thanks and praise, says Paul.
So there are the mysteries Paul lays out for his audience: in Christ, God means to save us, and that salvation is only the beginning of a bigger plan to save creation.
There is a promissory character to this passage: Paul says that we were "destined" for adoption, according to God's purposes. We are the first (or almost the first) to "set our hope on Christ." We are "marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit," which is "the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people." God has made a lot of promises to us, some of which have come true, others of which we are still waiting on. We have been brought into God's family, but as yet, not all things have come together in unity.
And here we need to remind ourselves once again that the promises are made to us, not you and me and the rest of that lot as individuals. There is no drawing near to God, there is no participating in the life of God, that does not involve community. In community and through community we receive the promises of God to be reunited with humanity and with creation itself. To participate in community is itself salvation, and to live to the praise of God's glory.
Because we are purposed for drawing one another and all creation closer to God. This is why you have been saved; this is why your life matters. Without you, God could not accomplish his plan to heal and reunite the cosmos. That's right—the plan that began before creation and involves life, the universe, and everything, comes down to this: your willingness to sit here in church, to take communion, maybe stay for coffee hour, maybe go to see a homebound member. The grandest cosmic mystery of salvation begins with the smallest of steps, namely yours, the step you take today to come closer to the people you encounter.
That is indeed a mystery capable of crossing your eyes permanently if you think too hard about it, but it is also indeed apparently what God wants for us. And blessed be God for that. Amen.
A colleague of mine had a useful reminder last night about the birth of Jesus being anything but a big hoopty-de-doo, as we say in Wisconsin. The arrival of our Lord and Savior, King of the Cosmos, was to two humble people so marginal they could not even find a place in traditional lodging. Joseph and Mary are too poor or too late or too much in a family way to stay in the inn, and so have to secure the best option they can for Jesus' birth.
The only announcement of that birth, as my colleague points out, was to "certain poor shepherds in the fields where they lay." If Mary and Joseph are marginal characters, the shepherds are off the page entirely. They were all but outcasts in their day, dirty, suspiciously independent, ritually unclean. Shepherds couldn't give testimony in court, and were often thought of as "liars, degenerates and thieves." Yet there they are, celebrating with the Holy Family. Again as my colleague said, the first Noel didn't smell like ginger bread or a Yankee Candle. It smelled like wet sheep and sweat and—though she was too polite to say it—probably that other "s" word that sheep and oxen have a habit of dropping all over the place.
But then she had a wonder: "Did the shepherds' dogs bark when the angel appeared?" I joked that the angels threw them bones, but it's a good question: just how much of an interruption of ordinary life was this event?
It's a question worth asking in more ways than one. I probably need not remind you of all the barriers to the celebration of Christmas, but I will: violence at home and in the Middle East; the ongoing refugee crisis, the presidential campaign that's already shaping up to be one of the nastiest in recent memory. Even the warm weather reminds of the climate change that threatens the Earth and brings to mind the violent storms that swept through the South yesterday. And this is even before we get to those things that weigh us down personally: our health and the health of our family and friends, stress about finances, overwork, the business of the season. I buried June Miller on Monday; grief is no way for any husband to spend Christmas.
Each Christmas we are tempted to ask how dare we rejoice in such a time as this, marked as it is by poverty, indifference, injustice, and suffering. It seems implausible at best and offensive at worst to take such pleasure in life when the world around us has so much pain.
The Christian ability to proclaim a message of joy only makes sense when we understand that, in the words of Jürgen Moltmann, "Joy is the power to live, to love, to have creative initiative."
We rejoice in the birth of Jesus because in it we are reminded that God has the power to create new life out of nothing, out of death, even in the dead of winter, when life seems impossible. We rejoice in new life, and we rejoice in this new life. Mary sings, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior" while she is pregnant, and certainly she rejoices to welcome her son into the world. Not because he is special, though she treasures the shepherds' words about him, but because he is a baby, her baby. God enters into the human world in the very ordinary, very human, joy at new life. In this baby is reborn the whole human race; he is the new Adam. Even if he weren't, we ought to have the same joy. Every child deserves to come into life with the world's heart open to it.
Joy is the power to love. Moltmann says,
The secret of life is love. In love we go out of ourselves and lay ourselves open to all the experiences of life.
This includes being open to sorrow and loss, which is why Simeon warns Mary "a sword will pierce your own soul too." But through joy we find the ability to live in love and solidarity with one another, come what may. The alternative is to live in flat, emotionless indifference to the fate of our fellow humans. When the angel tells the shepherds "I bring good news of great joy for all the people," it means that in this newborn child, God will find a new way to rejoice in humanity, and they in him. A new line of connection has opened between God and humankind.
Joy is the strength we need to protest against the pain of the world, to witness to a different possibility. The birth of this child and his mother's love for him demonstrate that the world could be other than what it is. Rejoicing with them, we gain the power to rebuild the world in their image: tender, mild, at peace and radiating peace.
The best and most secret part of joy, however, is its absolute uselessness. God looks upon creation and declares it good; Mary looks upon her son and declares him good. Jesus, the ultimate judge of our life, looks upon us and declares us good. Joy reminds us that life has value for no other reason than itself. Our lives need not point to anything larger than themselves, they need not produce anything larger. They are simply good in and of themselves. This child, this Jesus, is a sign of God's pleasure and his ultimate benediction. In new life, God gives new life. That is reason enough to rejoice.
So yes, I think the shepherds' dogs barked. I think they howled, not in recognition of a threat or a disruption to their lives, but in joy, in the wonder, love, and praise that we, like their masters, are so often eager to talk ourselves out of. Amen.
If we are to be honest with one another—which seems like a good policy—I must confess that I cannot say with Paul that I have "longed" for this community. I am excited by the prospect of becoming your pastor, yes, but "longing"? Shouldn't we get to know one another first?
However, I can and do endorse the rest of Paul's message in the letter to the Philippians, mostly. He writes to them with gratitude, for example. I too give thanks every time I think of you. Every single pastor and layperson I have met who knows of you has told me what a neat church this is, how lucky I am to be coming here. Six months ago, I never would have guessed that I'd find such a place practically in my back yard. Two years ago, I wouldn't have believed I'd be working a church at all. So yes, I am deeply grateful to have been led to you, and I hope with all humility that I will be a good enough pastor to cause you to feel the same way.
On the other hand, I do not "constantly pray with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you." (Probably Paul is exaggerating a little.) I try! Sometimes I forget. When I do pray for you, it is with joy. As I said just a moment ago, you share in the gospel, and you share the gospel with the world. That is a great joy for any pastor to behold.
Again, like Paul, I am confident that "the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion," because of course that one is Jesus Christ himself, who will bring all of us, and all of our work, to fulfillment by the day of his return. This phrase, "the day of Jesus Christ," is of course one of the reasons we read this text in the season of Advent, as we prepare ourselves once again to receive Jesus in the second coming. I know that you all hold me in your heart already, and that you share in God's grace with me, which is where any ministry should begin. The important thing about your church is and will be not what your pastor brings to the table, nor, frankly, what you do. It is what Jesus does with and through us.
So, with Paul, I can pray that "your love may overflow more and more," with "knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless," because I am confident that the work Jesus has begun in you will come to its natural fruition. That's the other reason we read this text today. We must determine our best course of action, knowing that some day we will have to answer for it before Christ. As John the Baptist reminds us, to welcome Jesus, and much more so to anticipate his coming into the world, involves a choice. We can walk in the ways of righteousness, or not.
"Righteousness" is such a loaded word that I feel a need to explain it a bit. We usually take it in English to mean the quality someone who does what is just or moral: if you do the right thing, you are righteous, you possess righteousness. In Greek, the meaning is similar, but it's the character of someone who has been judged righteous by God. That's how Paul uses it: he hopes that the Philippians will make all the right choices so that when they are judged on the final day, Jesus will decide they are righteous, worthy of eternal life. But the Greek word in turn translates a Hebrew term, tzedekah, which is a much more complicated concept. That righteousness is an all-encompassing state of things as they were meant to be. The creation was righteous before sin entered into it. When the Kingdom of Heaven arrives, it will be righteous once more. For us, it means being whole, being healed, being as we ought to be, who we are intended to be, the person God knows we can be. It means to be a stand-up person, to have integrity and virtue. Of course a person like this does the right thing—she can't help it!
That's the sort of person God wants us to be when Christ returns to Earth, and Paul tells the Philippians that he hopes and prays they make it to that goal. The question, of course, is how this can be done. It's easy to tell people to be righteous, it's difficult to tell them how it can be done.
Paul has some ideas. At the start of his letter, he identifies himself as a "servant of Christ Jesus," the only time he ever does so. Throughout the letter, he refers to the Philippians' "sharing," as though to reinforce one of their primary virtues. And in chapter 2, he drops the famed Christ hymn, telling the church:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Paul, of course, is the patron saint and namesake of this congregation, which is indeed known for its sharing, through the Holyland Food Pantry among many other ways. And you too face a decision, as do we all. No, not whether to call me as your pastor. Whether to accept baptism for the repentance of your sins and prepare the way of the Lord in the world before his coming, or to live in the ordinary way that is filled so often with loneliness, emptiness and aimlessness.
I cannot think of a better way to begin a ministry here among you than in imitation of St. Paul and responding to his call to the Philippians and through them all Christians to be humble servants, as Christ humbled himself. You too should respond to that call. It is the way to connected, fulfilled, and meaningful life.
For myself and my ministry, to be humble is the very core. Or at least I would like it to be. This is not to make myself out to be a worm or worthless, only to think of myself as no better, no wiser, no smarter, and no more right or righteous than anyone else. As the Search Committee has already discovered to their frustration, when you ask me "What should we do?" the answer you will often receive in return is "I don't know. What do you think we should do?" It's not that I don't have ideas. It's to open up the space for us to proceed cooperatively, rather than to make me the expert and you the passive beneficiary of my knowledge. The last thing I want to do as your pastor is make decisions on behalf of the community. Where we go, we should go together. What we do, we should do together. The faith we hold, we should hold together. And all that we say and do and decide together should be in a spirit of service, to one another, and to the world outside our doors. As Pope Francis says, we are called as Christians to reach out to the margins of the world, and to draw them near to us, to the Christ who loves them so much.
The ministry of this church belongs to you, not to me. My ministry, as I understand it, is to make it possible for you to do your ministry, to help you determine what is best.
Someone will no doubt want to ask me what my plan is to "bring the young people" in to the church. I have no plan. Not for that. The only plan I have is to show you the mysteries of life in Christ, and to encourage you to do the same. That is far more important than any Sunday School or Youth Group activity could ever be. Whether they join our community is up to them. Our job is to show them what it means to be loved by Jesus. The only way to do that is through a life of righteousness, which is to say, one lived with humility, love, mercy, acceptance, and service. You give the young and the old Christ, and let the rest take care of itself.
The Search Committee declared in its profile that this was an "imperfect church searching for an imperfect pastor" to lead them. I will make no comment on the former, but I can assure you the latter is accurate. I am an imperfect man, and will need to be called to self-improvement. Occasionally. Once in a while. Often.
In any case, it is up to you to decide if I am the sort of pastor you want and need in this congregation. What you see is what you get, for better or for worse. So vote for me, don't vote for me. Whatever you decide, my prayer for you will be the same: "that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight…so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless," or as close to it as any of us get these days. Amen.