Sermon for Rally Day, September 11, 2016

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Text: Genesis 2:4-7, 15-17 and 3:1-8

Reading of Scripture Genesis 2-3 (NRSV)2: 4 In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.”


     “Skin in the Game”

No great thing is ever risked without sacrifice. It never has been. When British explorer Ernest Shackleton attempted to traverse the Antarctic continent in 1914, his ship the Endurance became trapped in ice and the following two years became a struggle for survival for the crewmen, but they risked it all for the sake of what they believed. The ad he posted in a London newspaper said this:


“Men wanted for hazardous journey.

         Low wages, bitter cold.

         Long months of complete darkness.

         Constant danger. Safe return doubtful.

         Honor and recognition in event of success.”

         Signing on for this God journey can prove equally daunting. We live in an uncertain and anxious time. The path forward seems risky if not dangerous, the losses potentially great. We feel this in our families, we experience this as a church and we observe it as a nation.

         We do not know what the future will hold, but we know who holds it: That one and the very same God who created heaven and earth and the first creatures who walked upon it from the time of Eden. One has only to listen to the morning news or read the business page to sense anxiety. Some financial advisors urge those nearing retirement to place their funds under a mattress or dig a hole in the back yard and bury their resources. We have become a people driven by fear of what we think we have to lose.

         From the beginning, God has tried to reveal to humankind a more excellent way. This way requires trust and sacrifice. We know that when we risk acting in the world in a Godly way, some people will disagree with us, others will get mad at us, many may get off the boat. We will miss them. Sometimes when we change directions at God’s initiative, there will be those who keep going the way they’ve always gone.

         We may not experience loss of family, starvation, injury, or the threat of imminent death as did the early explorers of the Arctic, we may not personally have known a firefighter or office worker or investor who lost their life on 9/11, but make no mistake, following the path of faith requires commitment and sacrifice. From the time God first asked Adam and Eve for their ultimate trust, we human creatures have had the tendency to turn away and rely on our own wisdom. No sooner had God asked them to stay away from the tree of good and evil than they decided to take a bite. No sooner had Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake with him in the garden of suffering and keep him company and pray with him, than they fell asleep or fled into the night.

         No great thing is ever accomplished without total commitment. We know what it takes to be successful at something we’re passionate about. We know if we want to be successful we can’t just sit on the sidelines and hope things turn out well. We can’t dabble at life. We have to be all in. A colleague of mine, Mary Luti recently told a story about what it takes to succeed at impossible things.

She describes a boy in the park outside her apartment window, a teenager, lanky and brown, hair streaked Smurf blue, feet as big as his skateboard, who relentlessly practices tricks. “He's here every day,” she said, “wreaking havoc on the soft bricks of the sidewalk trying to nail a fancy move.

It's eluding him. He keeps flying up, falling off, and screeching bloody murder. Where did he learn those words?

He tries again, misses again. With every miss, the board hits the sidewalk with a hard slap, sharp as the report of a rifle. He misses a lot. Slap, slap, slap.

I go to the window and watch him, tempted to shout at him to go away. I half-admire his persistence, but I'm getting annoyed. (by the intrusive noise)

Just then he pulls it off. He does it, cool and elegant and clean. He runs a hand through his electric hair. Oh baby, he cries, baby, baby, baby!

Now at the window I'm cheering, grateful to have seen it, that perfect move, the nailed landing, the flash of his jubilant grin as, in his mind's eye, the anthem plays and the gold is looped over his head.

Like this adolescent boy relentlessly practicing slick moves in the park, God needs us to be all in if we’re going to succeed at God’s Kingdom plans. Getting it right is both simpler than we imagine and harder than it looks.

For example, last week Ellis and I happened to worship in a southern city where an African American Methodist Episcopal Church sits across the street from all white Presbyterian Church. Both churches are in conversation about issues of racial justice, and how to respond to hate motivated atrocities like last year’s shootings of African American Christians in a Charleston Church. There’s a lot of conversation about Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter and how we, as people of faith can lead of our nation in healing and reconciliation.

It struck me then as we chose the all-white church that those of us who wear the name badge Christian need more skin in the game to live God’s vision of heaven on earth. We have to talk less and walk more. It occurred to us too late on a Sunday morning that a more faithful response to prayer alone might have been simply to walk across the wide street, tree lined and dripping with Spanish moss, to sit in the pew with our African American neighbors and share a hymnal with our African American brothers and sisters and break bread at communion with those whose tradition and practices may differ from our own but who bear the same family name.

There are times ahead that will test our faith.

Our tendency as human creatures will be to follow the easiest path. We will be tempted to go along to get along. We don’t like change. We avoid conflict. This isn’t so tough to understand. Turmoil makes us uncomfortable. Jesus invited us to embrace life’s difficulties when he said in Matt. 7: verses 13 and 14:“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

         It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance. We all have a tendency to prefer that things stay the way they have always been. We’re more comfortable with the familiar. We like knowing what to expect. We’re more comfortable when we’re in control. Change is be difficult. Surprises can be joyful, but they can also seem fearful.

         God’s assignment for us is too important, our mission too great, our purpose too essential to give in to anxiety. Feel the fear and do it anyway. No great thing is accomplished without sacrifice. No great thing is achieved without commitment. Through faith all things are possible. Whatever it takes, feel the fear and do it anyway.

It takes courage for those of us who have grown complacent in our faith to embrace the risks of a faith- driven life, resisting the temptation to what we might call anxiety-reactive behaviors. Theologian Todd Wynward talks about our challenge in this way. He says: “No matter what you’ve been taught, know this: God has always desired for us to be conspirators in God’s dream, collaborators in redemption. What is this God project? Nothing short of heaven on earth. From the beginning, God has dreamed of an ideal society, something that Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’: human community embodying covenanted right relationship with each other and all creation. So why hasn’t God’s dream yet been fulfilled? The wild truth is that God needs us, and we humans have yet to do our part.” (From: “Re-Wilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God.”) 

We have to sacrifice. We have to commit. We have to be all in if we choose to participate in God’s dream for creation and all herein.

 God invites us to be all in like the nearly forty or so youth and adult sponsors who gave a week of their life and a lot of dirt, laughter and tears through the recently completed youth mission trip. They will share their stories of commitment and faith next Sunday during worship.

God invites us to be all in like the eleven adults and youth who went to Guatemala through Common Hope three years ago, or those who will go this coming January, or the six adults who went to Cuba two years ago on behalf of our church at a time before the opening of relationships between our peoples.

God invites us to be all in with those who teach Sunday School or lead Vacation Bible School or sing in the choir or sort stuff in the basement to raise money for the work and outreach of the church. Your First Parish Church supports twenty local missions, ten regional and five international missions, we’re all in, providing a hand up for people in need both near and far.

Make no mistake. We live in a hard and difficult world in an increasingly mean-spirited and dangerous time. God wants more for us than this, God reveals to us a more excellent way, and God invites us participate. There has never been a more important time than this. There will never be a greater need than now.

         Starting this month, we will embark on a daring faith journey to discern God’s path for our future. We will prayerfully create together a new Vision and Commitment for First Parish Church. You learned about what we’re calling the 20/20 Initiative through a recent letter that came by mail to your home, and through the church newsletter. God is looking for people willing to be all in for the sake of the kingdom of God.

We will sign up between September 18, next Sunday, and October 1, during worship to participate in six, small group gatherings here at the church or in the homes of our neighbors. Members of this church who are sitting with you in your pews will facilitate these six, one and a half hour conversations that will help us dream God’s future for this church. Yes, that means you will be asked to generously give nine hours of your time over a six-week period from the first week of October through mid-November to dream God’s dream for your life and to shape the future of your faith community.

         Following our weekly discussions and mutual praying and dreaming, we will pass the baton to a visioning group who will work with our church consultant to form a new vision and commitment for First Parish Church based on your work. We are the people God has been waiting for from the beginning.

         As God walked through the Garden of Eden at the dawn of human history seeking that which God has created in God’s own image, God seeks us still. You are the woman God has been waiting for. You are the man God has been seeking for such a time as this.

         I believe God is doing a new thing now through First Parish Church. I believe God is calling us to a daring kingdom life as followers of the Way of Jesus for a future we now barely imagine. If we want to please God we will have to be all in, all of us, shoulder to wheel. We will have to resist the temptation to sit it out, to take the wide path, the easy way and let somebody else figure it out.

         We’ll have to take risks like calling friends we haven’t seen for awhile in church to invite them to join us in this kingdom life. They may tell us a story of how the church has disappointed them or let them down, or how busy they’ve become with family things. We get that. We’ve all been busy raising families or engaged in meaningful and consuming work. And if you’ve been in any church for any period of time you’ll know that as Christians we have had ample opportunity to disappoint one another. We’ll disappoint one another again.

Fortunately, the faithfulness of this church does not depend on that. Fortunately, the faithfulness of this church doesn’t depend on me either. Church isn’t a personality cult around a charismatic leader. My personality isn’t that great and as you know, I’m not always that charming. But that’s not actually the point, is it? We’re not here to entertain one another. We’re here to equip one another for discipleship, to learn together the joyful practices of love, hope, forgiveness, mercy, peace, compassion, generosity and justice that are the marks of God’s kingdom. I didn’t come here to invite you to follow ME. I came here as your pastor to invite you to JOIN me in following the Way of Jesus for us and for our children, for God’s sake and the sake of the world.

We are the people God has been waiting for. We won’t be remembered for how we cherished the past, but for how we responded to the opportunities God set before us for the sake of our future.

(How will you respond to God’s invitation as daunting as Shackleford’s uncertain arctic journey. “Men and women wanted for hazardous journey.

         Low wages, bitter cold.

         Long months of complete darkness.

         Constant danger. Safe return doubtful.

         Honor and recognition in event of success.”

God says, “Now it’s your turn. This is our time. ”  Can I get an Amen?