Sermon for February 21, 2016

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

O sing to the Lord a new song; 

sing to the Lord, all the earth.

Sing to the Lord, bless God’s name;

tell of God’s salvation from day to day.

Declare God’s glory among the nations,

God’s marvelous works among all the peoples.

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised…” Psalm 96



         The school system in a large city had a program to help children keep up with their schoolwork during stays in the city's hospitals. One day a teacher who was assigned to the program received a routine call asking her to visit a particular child. She took the child's name and room number and talked briefly with the child's regular class teacher. "We're studying nouns and adverbs in his class now," the regular teacher said, "and I'd be grateful if you could help him understand them so he doesn't fall too far behind." 

The hospital program teacher went to see the boy that afternoon. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly injured from an accident and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the hurting boy, she stammered as she told him, "I've been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs." When she left she felt she hadn't accomplished much for his education but worse, had failed to participate in his healing. 

She came again the next day to try to do better, but she was caught in the hallway by a nurse who asked her, "What did you do to that boy yesterday?" The teacher began to apologize. "No, no," said the nurse. "You don't know what I mean. We've been so worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He's fighting back, responding to treatment. It's as though he's decided to live." 

Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He expressed it this way: "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?"                    (Bits & Pieces, July 1991.)

         We’ve been spending a lot of time trying to get our adverbs and verbs right lately around here. The proposed governance update, incorporation of the church and By-Laws we consider this Sunday after worship may seem as thrilling to many as a seventh grade grammar lesson. But hear this. God wouldn’t send the Holy Spirit to help us work out a new covenant in our daily affairs unless we’re a living, thriving church. Archeological ruins don’t need by laws. Abandoned churches don’t need by-laws. Museums don’t need by-laws, or at least not twenty-three pages of them.

         Governance has always been important wherever people gather, and the community of faith is no exception. Paul encouraged the early church at Ephesus to govern themselves in this way, with Christ as the cornerstone of faith:   

 “I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,one Lord, one faith, one baptism,one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said…

“he gave gifts to his people.”…

The gifts Jesus gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.

         The head of the church then as now is not the proposed Church Council but Christ. Our purpose is not to more effectively run a small business, but to mutually share the good news of the gospel of Christ, transforming lives and caring for all God’s people and the world.  

         When we invite people to participate with us as followers of the way of Jesus here at First Parish, we extend a wide welcome. On our church Website we communicate the purpose and identity that distinguishes us from the good work of the Library or the Land Trust or the Rotary or the Hospital.     

"God is still speaking" is our way of saying as a church of the United Church of Christ that no matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here. We practice extravagant hospitality through First Parish Church.

         Where God is all-loving and inclusive.

         Where the church of Jesus Christ welcomes and accepts everyone as they are.

         Where your mind is nourished as much as your soul.

         Where together we:

                  Strengthen in faith,

                  Serve our community, and

                  Support a just and peaceful world.

Drawn together by the Holy Spirit, we are a distinct and diverse community of Christians that come together as one church, joining faith and action, according to the commitment towards unity of The United Church of Christ ‘That they may all be one.’ John 17:21”

God calls us to “Sing to the Lord, a new song, all the earth….” This song will be different from the familiar refrains of the past, a new lyric and tune for our time, built on the cornerstone of our common faith. When first written, this invitation marked a renewed commitment to one God, in a world that worshipped many gods and idols whose power extended no further than the fragile clay or glittering gold from which they were made. Psalm 96 calls all people of the earth and indeed the earth itself to sing praise to God and to worship God, turning away from all that is false.

         The new song we sing here at Our First Parish Church carries the familiar refrain that God is still speaking through Christ for us and for the world. We haven’t yet heard the whole song it in its entirety, but we’ve heard the refrain sung through the breath of the Holy Spirit. It sounds like love and it looks like this.

         We will sing a new song by claiming our mission:

 to create a fellowship

that celebrates and reflects the presence of Christ…

 sharing God’s love in word and deed,

within our community and throughout the world.

The new governance we will consider at our Annual Meetings this coming Sunday will widen the conversation about how God is calling us to fulfill our mission through this church. Under our current structure, we work in silos: Deacons here, Assessors there. The various Committees function in loose relationship with the silo to which they relate, but not organically to one another. The first order of the new Church Council will be to engage our Conference Minister Deborah Blood to help us discern how to proclaim and live into our mission as a church in fresh ways for our time.

         After we’ve begun a conversation about mission that starts with the new Church Council and includes all of our Boards and Committees, then the Council will appoint a committee to consider staffing needs for our congregation to fulfill our mission. This may include hiring a new associate pastor, or several part-time people for ministry. It may include ordained clergy or it may include trained and equipped lay people who are gifted for particular ministry. These decisions will require prayerful discernment about the way God is calling us to go.

         The months that follow Pastor Rachel’s departure on March 20 for her new call to Southington, Ct. will be the first time in sixteen years that you have had one sole Pastor. When churches have one Pastor, ministry is shared in a different way. This can be a good thing, a God thing. I invite you to pray about how God will call you to sing a new song through this church.

         Specifically, I want you to know that I have a new job. No, I’m not leaving First Parish Church. I have a new job here, and so do you. Beginning March 1 our office manager Betty Roker will work full time instead of part time, alongside the capable office volunteers who provide hospitality, welcome and assistance to all who come to the church office during the week. This will free me from a measure of administrative work so that I may spend more time fulfilling our church’s mission in care for you and in outreach with the wider community. You will find me in the office Monday through Thursday mornings, but you will not generally find me there in the afternoons as I will be out and about engaged in ministry, with you.

         Christian Education will be better supported by restoring the Church School Director position to ten hours per week starting April 1, staffed by Janet Cassidy.

Pastoral Care will grow further as partnership between us, with training offered for Caregivers by Pastor Vivan Martindale. Some of you have the gifts of listening and compassion and spiritual care. You may join me in expanding our already capable caregiving ministry led by Carol MacDonald who currently calls on persons in nursing homes, the hospital and shut-ins. Let me know if you feel called and are willing from time to time to participate in a widened circle of care to members and friends of First Parish.

         Worship and Music will expand and diversify in the weeks ahead. We will begin a once a month Worship Workshop on Saturday mornings to prepare and equip those of you called to lead worship for scripture reading, testimony and lay preaching. Some of you have the gifts for leadership in worship, encouraging others in faith through your testimony and witness to what God through Christ has done in your life. If your life has been transformed by faith and you have a message to share, let me know.

         Some of you have the gifts of music not currently offered in worship. Maestro Wendell and I will expand opportunities to share your gifts. If you have a song to sing, an instrument to play or an expression of faith through music, please see Wendell, your Music Committee or myself as we create opportunities for wider expressions of faith through music. At the same time we will continue our commitment to the current music ministry of our choirs and musical ensembles.

         Even as I share your grief at the departure of our Associate Pastor, I’m energized at the new song we’re singing here at Our First Parish Church. I anticipate a new ministry with you whose verses are still being written.

In 1620, when our spiritual forebears prepared to leave Europe for the New World, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them off with this historic commission: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of God’s Holy Word.” God continues to illumine our faith in fresh ways, so that together we proclaim our faith in the Still Speaking God. 

“O sing to the Lord a new song;

           sing to the Lord, all the earth.

Sing to the Lord, bless God’s name;

                  tell of God’s salvation from day to day.

 Declare God’s glory among the nations,

God’s marvelous works among all the peoples.” Amen