We Walk in the Footsteps of the Faithful (Winton Boyd) 11.4.19

We are all a product of our own collection of saints.  Our greatest sin would be to deny their faith and to suggest we’ve created our particular lives on our own.

Hebrews 12 The Message (MSG)

Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!

This is the 7th in the Series, The Puzzle We Call Faith

When Tammy and our children moved here in 1999, Madison was foreign to us, and Orchard Ridge UCC was a very different kind of church for me.  The bumper stickers around town on the cars were more to our liking than in the conservative bible belt of California; and the simplicity and lack of pretentiousness of the congregation refreshing.

If there is any consistent piece of advice given to people starting a new ministry in a congregation it is ‘go slow.’  Don’t change things all at once.  Spend a year learning the routines, and most of all, building relational trust.  But another, far more important truth lies at the root of this advice.  No matter how gifted one is as a pastor, no matter how brilliant and outstanding we are in our own minds, the central truth is that the Spirit of God has been present long before any of us showed up.  God does not enter the building because we – any of us – have a new idea, a great vision or a heart for mission.  If God is present everywhere all the time, our task is ALWAYS to ask, ‘how has the Spirit been working in this place before I arrived?’  And just as importantly, God isn’t leaving this place because any one of us leaves.

This truth was brought home to me in the same period I was announcing my resignation earlier this year.  In January and February, I was called upon to officiate 3 funerals. I had never met 2 of the deceased, and had met the third person only once.  I was called upon to do the service because each of them had a previous, historic connection to this church and its ministry, even though they’d never attended in my tenure.  Connections that, in all cases, preceded me.

One of the great gifts of this intense stretch was the opportunity I had to hear powerful stories of trust and faith at Orchard Ridge before my time.

I heard a young adult, whose grandmother was buried here, say that in her heart and mind, Tim Kehl would always be her ‘pastor.’  She had attended often until she was 8 years old.  Even though she’s lived in Iowa since that time (she’s now in her early 30’s), the impression this church made on her is powerful and poignant.  To an 8-year-old.

I heard a middle age woman from that same family talk about how her family had dinner at the home of Dan Apra at least once a week for over a year when she was a teenager.  Her mother had died young, her father and Dan were close, and his ministry of presence and companionship had a powerful impact on her ability to process that loss.

I heard a young adult male, about 30, whose mother had died, say how important it was for he and his sister to have the funeral here at ORUCC, because ‘our church’ is so open and welcoming and he knew that his mother would feel welcomed even though she no longer professed the Christian faith.  I was struck that someone who hadn’t stepped foot in this place more than once in my 20 years (at the funeral of his grandmother), still referred to this as ‘our church.’

Not too much later, I got an email from our founding pastor, Norm “Jack” Jackson.  He wrote, “What had potential in 1956 seems solidly missional in 2018 at Orchard Ridge… I feel like an old great grandpa beaming at the maturity and mission of ORUCC.”  What a blessing to have a founding pastor, now close to 90 years old, still praying for us, celebrating with us, embracing our ministry all these 60 years after his departure.

It was a profound gift to be presented with the deep, All Saints Day truth.  The ministry of this church has comforted the grieving, given space for those spirituality moves outside orthodox Christianity and touched the imagination and wonder of a child.  God has been with us, all the time.  Our task today is to do our work faithfully and lovingly, building on the God before me and trusting the God who follows me.

We walk in the footsteps of the faithful.

We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, the great text from Hebrews proclaims.  Or as Eugene Peterson’s version says, those great pioneers and veterans cheering us on!

The question for us today is not ‘do we have saints who’ve walked before us?”  It is, “who are the saints that have journeyed ahead of us, even if they are now part of the spiritual cheering section, the mystical gathering of spirits.  We’ve named some of them today.  We benefit from their spoken and unspoken wisdom.  We benefit for having watched their lives, read about their lives, or absorbing stories of their lives.  Our work for justice today, hope for tomorrow are a continuation of their efforts.  Their work.  Their sacrifices.

Who were those ‘someones’ who taught you about compassion – with their lives and their words?

  • Who sparked an imagination in you that has evolved into your adult faith journey?
  • Who’s love for beauty, grace and God caught your attention and held your heart?
  • Who demonstrated how to gracefully hold the challenges of raising families and pursuing meaningful work in the world?
  • Who stood beside you in your darker hours, when you needed more compassion, more openness, more space to figure out how to focus your own life?

We are all a product of our own collection of saints.  Our greatest sin would be to deny their faith and to suggest we’ve created our particular lives on our own.

Just as importantly, every church has a collection of saints that blazed a trail for ministry today.  Most of them were not pastors.  This truth, and this gift, was at the root of our “Next Generation Initiative” between 2007 and 2010 – when we revamped our staff, our program and our building.  The generations before us stepped out in faith to start this church.  In celebrating our 50th anniversary, we asked, “what is our call into the next generation?”  The presence of this cloud of witnesses is evident in every song we sing, every text we read, every prayer we utter.  We were taught, we were guided, we were even endured, by someone before us.

We note this every time we bury ashes in our garth; how comforting it is to sit in an area where the names of faithful people are present.  Some of us remember those folks, but even if we don’t, they speak of a longstanding stream of faith into which we have stepped.  Indeed, it might be a good exercise for all of us, when we are feeling discouraged or overwhelmed with life to take 5 minutes to sit in that garth.  To absorb the ordinary and unassuming faith present in those lives.

We walk in the footsteps of the faithful.

And maybe most importantly on this incredibly challenging and significant election week in our country, our work for the common good and for justice and equality and for EVERY social cause we care about, builds on the faith and grit and tenacity of those who’ve gone before us.

Most of you know that a group of 23 of us traveled through the south last weekend on a Civil Rights Bus Tour.

Sometime soon, that group will offer some sessions to share reflections and impressions from the trip.  But one of my takeaways was seeing anew how any of us who care for justice, who seek to live faithfully, and who desire to make our communities places of equality and hope can never forget those pioneers who’ve gone before us.  What the civil rights movement called the ‘foot soldiers.’  Ordinary men and women; and frankly children also, who believed in God’s strength, trusted each other, and gave their time and their hearts and in some cases their lives to make this a better place for us all. And in many cases, the goal was quite simple – to assure people the right to vote.

The beauty of taking a trip like this is there are role models of every sort imaginable.

  • Yes, orators who filled pulpits with soaring rhetoric and passion. But so much more.
  • College and high school students who sat at lunch counters day after day for months for the right to be served. And business owners who did what they could to allow such sit ins to continue because they believed segregation laws were wrong.
  • Children who marched from Selma to Montgomery on behalf of their parents so that those parents wouldn’t lose their jobs.
  • Musicians, black and white, who made both joyful and passionate music together in Memphis and other small towns, transcending the segregation laws with the language of the soul.
  • Politicians and organizers who read the culture and the media with savvy, planning events for maximum publicity locally and across the nation. Those marchers in Selma knew that the blunt and aggressive tactics of state troopers waiting on the other side of the bridge would help communicate the brutality of white resistance for the larger nation.
  • Teachers and coaches who mentored children of all colors, who believed in the profound importance of education despite awful conditions by anyone’s standard.
  • White activists in the south and across the country who left their families or their studies or their jobs to support voting rights efforts, to attend trainings, to offer logistical wisdom.

So, we who long for justice, we who work to get out the vote, to oppose legislation, to offer sanctuary, to save the planet, to teach children of all ethnicities – we walk in the footsteps of the faithful; the many, many, who’ve gone before us.  And even more poignantly as we sit here on the eve of yet another critical national election day – those who walk before us remind us we are much stronger than any force that opposes us.

Who are those ‘foot soldiers’ for justice that have inspired you?  Were they public figures or people you’ve known personally?  What issues and relationships animated them?

You can’t sit in a church in Montgomery and not realize that the generations of prayers and pray-ers faced their own version of intense, hate filled culture wars.  We still wonder how to hold the tensions of a bold faith and a comfortable American life.  We pray for courage.

You can’t stand outside a small hotel in Memphis where King was shot and not sense a level of despair that rivals any concern we have today.  At each turn, we are trying to learn how to be more faithful, bolder in our ally-ship.  We have a long way to go.  We pray for strength.

You cannot walk through a lynching memorial and see names from 800 counties across this country where lynching occurred and not sense an overwhelming gravity of hate.  You cannot deny how connected those lynchings are to today’s mass incarceration rates among our black citizens.  We pray for wisdom.

And yet – in the face of this pain and trauma, in the wake of such oppression and despair, with resources and opportunities that were far less than ours – these pioneers, this cloud of witnesses, persevered.  They persisted.  They prayed and sang and told stories and withstood opposition.  They could do so because they weren’t alone.  They tapped into a deep reservoir of faith and courage bequeathed to them by their forebears.  Women and men in the generation before them nurtured and mentored and cheered them on.  They walked in the footsteps of the faithful.

May we do the same.  May we strive to live a life worthy of the inheritance we’ve received.  With gratitude, courage, tenacity and hope.

 

Words of Blessing for Sunday’s Service

Source:  Central Conference of American Rabbis:

 

“When evil darkens our world, let us be bearers of light.

“When fists are clenched in self-righteous anger, let our hands be open for the sake of peace.

“When injustice slams doors in the face of the ill, the poor, the old, the refugee, the immigrant and the stranger, we will open those doors and strive to right the world’s wrongs.

“Where shelter is lacking, let us be builders.

“Where food and clothing are needed, let us provide.

“Where knowledge is denied, let us champion learning and knowledge.

“When dissent is stifled, let our voices speak truth to power.

“When the earth and its creatures are threatened, let us be their guardians. When bias, greed and bigotry erode our country’s values, let us proclaim liberty throughout the land.”

 

 

 

 

 

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