Sermon for the Installation of Daniel Hollis

First Parish Church, York, Maine


United Church of Christ

May 7, 2017

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Matthew 9:35-38

“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’

Matthew 10:16

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” 

New Revised Standard Version

For God’s Sake, Go!

Last week a package arrived for me in the mail, ordered up from REI, a wilderness equipment company. Our office manager and I were getting ready for our weekly meeting and I told her I’d give her $100 if she could guess what was in the box. She laughed, “You must be pretty confident if you’re offering that kind of money.” Anybody want to take a guess? No fair guessing if you already know.

Every woman’s dream. A bear proof food container. The National Park Service requires backpackers to prevent bear attacks by carrying and storing all food and trash in a bear proof container. Backpacking and mountain climbing may be exhilarating, but can also be serious business. The most rewarding journeys begin with adequate precaution and preparation, knowing that we are good news people in a bad news world.

 Jesus said to the Disciples, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Knowing how hostile the environment would be, Jesus urged his followers to be wise as snakes: get out of the way when threatened, avoid being trampled, know when to retreat over small skirmishes and when to stand your ground when your life depends on it. Be as innocent as doves: love without counting the cost, and soar boldly and unafraid for the sake of others and for the sake of Jesus, even when hunters are afoot.

It’s been a long time since we’ve lived in a culture so hostile to Christian faith but we are now in just such a time as this.

When Ernest Shackleton recruited a crew for an early expedition to the South Pole more than 100 years ago, it is said that he ran a daunting ad in the London Times. It read like this: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in event of success.” Sounds like pastoring a church in Maine to me.

Living as a Christian, let alone pastoring a church today is nothing short of treacherous business. It wasn’t like that fifty years ago when I grew up. Back in the day most people identified as Christian and no few of them went regularly to church. Around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960’s churches were packed, with men in suits and women in hats and white gloves. I still have the pair I wore on Easter in the fifth grade. But those days are long gone. I happened across a copy of the book “A Torch is Passed” about the life and death of John F. Kennedy on Amazon last week, and it was listed in the antique book section. It was likely written before you or your parents were born, Pastor Dan.

The kids I hung out with all went to church somewhere. The oddest differences among us had to do with whether we were Lutheran or Methodist or Baptist or Episcopal or Catholic. We’d never even heard of the complex religious web of American religious and non-religious life that included Mormons and Moslems and Mennonites, and for that matter, Atheists.

I won’t recount today all the ways the world has changed since then, you can do that as well as me. But today for the first time in American history less than 50% of the population identifies as Christian. In this state of Maine we share the dubious honor of being one of the four most secular states in the nation along with Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Only one-third of us in the northeast describe ourselves as highly religious and just 20% of us regularly attend religious services of any kind compared to more than 70% in some other parts of the country. Less than half of Mainers say that we are even certain of the existence of God.

Suddenly Jesus’ words to the disciples regarding the hostility of the culture in which they lived rings true for us:  “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

The culture in which we live isn’t just ambivalent about the church. Many are outright hostile. Just this past year I encountered a man attending a concert here on campus and I asked him if he had a church home. “Oh no”, he said. “Our family is in the business of raising responsible and healthy humans.” What did he think we were doing here, raising dragons?

When invited to be a part of a community-wide fund raiser, I worked hard with one our partners on how to talk about where the money would go because none of their friends would contribute to our mutual worthy cause if they thought any of the money would go to a church, any church. And shockingly, at least to me, most young families don’t see any need or purpose for the church, or a central role of faith for their children.

What once was clear to everyone who lived in one of our New England communities has now become our best-kept secret. In the United Church of Christ, we say that God is still speaking. One of our forebears in faith John Robinson who crossed on the Mayflower said it differently but the meaning is the same: “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word”. What we do with God’s light and truth matters immensely.

The future of humanity depends on our willingness to share God’s Good News with a world that may not think they need it. Theologian Tony Robinson wrote about this in our daily devotional this past week. He quoted the gospel of John: ”The Truth will make you free”, but he went on to say that before the truth makes you free, it’s likely to make you mad. When we think we don’t need good news, our life is just fine the way it is, thank you, people bristle at religion. That’s for other people, weak people, troubled people, but not people like us.  

         The truth will set us free, but first it will make us mad. We know that we’ve got some stuff to work through. We know we’re not always as generous and kind and loving as we could be. We know we fail to act justly on behalf of others when we’ve got our own needs covered. We know we tend to withhold forgiveness sometimes because holding a juicy grudge is just so much fun.

The truth is that we inside the church like the 70% who remain outside “are all in need of God’s grace, captives in need of liberation.”

            Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Who will God send? Today we celebrate the call to First Parish Church of our new Pastor Daniel Hollis who was ordained to Christian Ministry about a month ago. Clearly God has called you, Pastor Dan, to an expedition worthy of Shackleton’s trip to Antarctica or a backpacking trip into bear country. You are increasingly rare, as fewer and fewer gifted women and men respond to a vocation of long work days, historically low pay, and few weekends off. God has prepared and equipped you for some time, and you are ready and able to serve. But you are not called to serve alone. In our polity, in the United Church of Christ as part of the reformation movement, we affirm the priesthood of all believers. Everyone gathered here today has been called by God to labor alongside you. We join together as mutual ministers of love and justice: with your family and friends, members and friends of this church, colleagues serving sister churches in the York Association and Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ, and in partnership with other church bodies of believers in our wider community.

Jesus equipped his followers while he was still with them for the arduous and difficult challenges they would face on the most rewarding journey of their lifetimes. He knew that not everyone would have the love, the courage or the faith to stay the course. But he also knew that once his followers experienced the power of God’s work in their lives, setting them free from all that hindered a full and abundant life, there would be no turning back. No work is more challenging than the Christian ministry we share. No calling is more rewarding.

Given our culture increasingly hostile to faith, our thinking necessarily shifts. There’s an urgency and pointedness to our work. This isn’t 1960. We can no longer be casual about our faith, assuming in social conversation that everyone around us shares our views. Increasingly we are minority people. This changes how we practice our ministry.

We can’ t afford to pick at each other or criticize one another. Lay ministers and pastors aren’t a dime a dozen. If our churches are to survive and thrive, we have to watch each other’s back at every turn, standing by, for and with one another. We disagree in private like beloved family members, working things out for the sake of the family so that we can still share Thanksgiving, the Feast of life with one another for the rest of our lives.

We support one another’s vision, mission and commitments. We take seriously our covenant with one another. Though each of our churches might express this differently, our York Association Covenant affirms that:

God creates, redeems, and calls us together into one fellowship where we are accepted, and find identity as members of Christ’s body.” Among other things we covenant today to support and mutually care for one another, assisting one another in times of difficulty and sharing with each other in times of joy.”

When the Spanish explorer Cortez reached Veracruz in what is now Mexico, he ordered the boats dismantled so that there could be no retreat. The less than 33% of us who experience and express a faith, any kind of faith at all in New England, are rather like survivors of a shipwreck on a deserted island. We depend on the Good Shepherd to guide our path, we depend wholly on one another for our capacity to survive and thrive. In such circumstances we can do no other than advocate and champion one another, helping one other succeed at whichever part of kingdom work God has appointed for us.

In such a time as this we straddle both Jesus’ great commandment to love one another and Jesus’ great commission to go out into the world and grow some disciples. Our work is both urgent and powerful.

Writer Annie Dillard wrote: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?” God’s power is so great we should all be wearing crash helmets instead of what we were once known as, the church of white sneakers.

So let’s pray over Pastor Dan today, and bless him, and call on the power of the Holy Spirit to reign down flames upon him so to equip him to fulfill his call. And then let’s all grab our bear proof containers and our crash helmets and get out there, as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Amen?