How many of you like jigsaw puzzles? How many of you hate jigsaw puzzles? In my experience, every family has those who love them and those who are happy that others love them. Some of you know that a common strategy is to try to put together the frame of the puzzle first. One side is always straight, and thus connecting them is easier.
In my life as a pastor, I have found exploring the meaning of God, compassion, love and human frailty is like a putting together a large and complex puzzle. I don’t think I’ll ever finish the puzzle, but I think it is in part why we gather as a community – we want to work on these things together.
I begin a sermon series today in which I will share from some stories of my own experience as your pastor over 20 years that help give a little shape to the puzzle called faith. Through study and discussion, travel and music, formal and informal conversations – being in your midst has helped me bring more focus to this endeavor we all share. I’ve appreciated the chance to explore questions theologically and practically with you – drawing on the wisdom of both the ancients and current thinkers. But this fall, I am mostly going to dispense with other thinkers or other theologians and will draw upon our life together.
When I was a youngish seminarian, Tammy and I lived at a beloved retreat center in central Minnesota. I had the chance to do many work projects with Loren – my mentor, a seminary professor, and one of the co-founders of the retreat center. One sunny fall afternoon I spent several hours nailing cedar shingles on a new roof. It was a new venture for me, and I loved the view from up top. At one point, working side by side with Loren, I smashed my thumb with the hammer. Without any visible sympathy, Loren casually said, “you know, Wint, there’s a sermon in everything” (actually he said, ‘every experience is homiletical material,” because that’s how seminary professors talk! ).
But the reason pastors joke that you can find a sermon in everything is not so much that we have a pat answer for every occasion or clarity about ethical choices in all moments. Instead, we are trained to look for God – by whatever name we call that One – in every interaction. Therefore, every story, every situation, every challenge is an opportunity for seeing divinity and sacredness.
In that same period of my life, , I heard a beloved, story based preacher say that the role of the preacher is that of a SCOP. Scops in Medieval times travelled to Mead Halls around the Anglo-Saxon countryside to recite their poems to the warriors who’d returned from battle. As the warriors celebrated around mead and beer, the scops sang lines of praise and often accompanied themselves with a harp.
My preaching mentor commented that scops were important in Anglo-Saxon society because they 1) orally recorded historical events, both good and poor, for anyone to hear. But, even more importantly, they tried to bring shape and meaning to those events. Scop literally translates to “shaper” in modern English. They understood that how we frame the events of our lives often matters as much as the events themselves.
My takeaway, some 30 years later, is that the role of worship and preaching is to shape us. Sometimes that shaping is done by wondering aloud how shared, congregational story teaches us about our faith. It is to ask, “ is God a part of this story anywhere?” It is also to retell the stories of ‘our battles’ in ways that make meaning and bring hope. The agenda is not to prove the existence of God, so much as to introduce the possibility of hope, of connection, of community.
So one of the puzzle pieces that I put into place is the important role of community in congregational life. Community helps us put some of the other pieces together. In fact, sometimes community defines the pieces that might otherwise be missed or hard to understand.
As one of your pastors, I’m grateful for both the individual and collective stories that have given this puzzle of our progressive Christian some shape and definition. The definition and experience of the Christian faith we know here was established long before you and I came. At the same time, there are also stories yet to be told, yet to unfold. The process is always evolving and unfolding.
As I begin this series today, I would like to life up two stories of faith here at Orchard Ridge. The values they reflected long preceded my awareness of them. In fact, they were part of my early introduction to the ethos and faith I encountered upon arriving. I lift them up because they exist in this particular place, but also because they can and should help define progressive Christian faith for the wider world.
A couple of months after I arrived here in the winter of 1999, a fellowship group called “SAFE” – spiritually affirming friends everywhere – met in the home of Bruce and Cherie Olsen. It was a crowded gathering, with amazing potluck offerings such as Edith Arny’s dinner rolls and Paul Patenaude’s pie. After much meal conversation, we moved to their lower level for the evening’s topical discussion.
This was the third Open and Affirming congregation in m career, but what I saw helped me see, in the words of the musical Hamilton, a world that had indeed turned upside down. A church that was on the forefront of changing the way faith was defined and experienced.
I don’t remember what we discussed, but I still remember the strong feeling I had that evening that the commitment you had made 6 years earlier to become and Open and Affirming – publicly welcoming LGBTQ folks into our common life – was profoundly real. This gathering included LGBT folks and straight allies. It included folks brand new to the church and founding members. You were living into this commitment seamlessly. On the one hand, you offered a simple without making a big deal about it. On the other hand, you were offering a welcome you knew was part of a new world vision, the beginning of healing and hope for so many who had previously had none. In the name of God, all are welcome here.
I have come to believe over time that this church has lived into this Open and Affirming commitment as smoothly and joyfully as any church I’ve known or seen. We’ve had issues to fight together and new definitions to explore. We’ve offered education, and fellowship and now, legal weddings. In the search and call of Ken Pennings 10 years ago, we never talked about the implications of calling a gay man – only because we knew it would not be, and has not been, an issue.
I once thought this stance of Open and Affirming was no longer as relevant today as it was in the 1990’s. Life has taught me, however, that the welcome and defense of the right to express our love and gender identification is a never-ending claim to the power of God’s love. Our commitment to it has, and must continue, to evolve to meet the intolerance and hate that will keep emerging from those who are afraid, wounded and angry and find it acceptable to take it out only some of God’s children.
So, living into our commitment to be an Open and Affirming congregation is part of creating the puzzle we call faith. It’s one expression of the ancient call to hospitality.
But there was another early experience that told me something important about this congregation. In fact, it was in what is called a candidate sermon. That’s church parlance for the Sunday when a recommended pastor comes to preach, followed by the vote of the congregation to call a pastor. Truth be told, the search committee does all the hard work ahead of time. One is rarely voted down on a Candidate Sunday. But in my sermon I was trying to be clever, including about this open and affirming commitment. I said something to the effect that open and affirming means many things to many people. “You will have to affirm me,” I said, “as a Minnesota Viking fan.”
But what happened next delighted me. You booed! Loudly.
And I thought, “Wow, this group likes to have fun!”
(On a side note, I learned two important things that morning. The first is that what I thought was a clever joke is a joke virtually every new hire tells when they come into Packer country. There was absolutely nothing unique about that joke. So that you still laughed was a good sign.
Secondly, I learned the real difference between me, as a Viking fan, and ardent Packer fans is not about who we root for, but the passion we exhibit in our allegiances. I learned over time that the real issue is I simply don’t care about football – Viking, Packer, Badger or otherwise – nearly as much as some of you. )
I can’t tell you whether faith is greater than football, or football greater than faith. What I can tell you is faith can be, should be, and in our midst here, is fun! But again, I don’t know if we always realize how unique and important this quality of our shared life is to the world around us. I can’t tell you the number of times visitors comment on the sense of levity, non anxiousness and community they experience here. Laughter and tears co-mingle seamlessly in our worship service. Both are real and both are needed.
Two stories. Two pieces of the puzzle we call faith here at Orchard Ridge: a deep and abiding commitment to open and affirming hospitality and a spirit of laughter and joy that permeates the air we breathe, prayers we offer and the hugs we share.
Thus, as we begin this fall’s journey, I’d raise a couple of questions.
What are the stories that give shape to your faith?
How do your personal stories integrate with the communal and corporate stories of this faith community?
What attitudes and practices help you – as a faithful puzzle maker – stay engaged even when the picture is still so fuzzy?
Let’s journey together. Amen.
Texts for today’s sermon
“Do you think you can explain the mystery of God? Do you think you can diagram God Almighty? God is far higher than you can imagine, far deeper than you can comprehend, Stretching farther than earth’s horizons, far wider than the endless ocean.
1 Corinthians 13
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.