Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sermon delivered by Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II on Saturday, July 2, 2011 at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Big Tent Event in Indianapolis, IN. The sermon was preached at the closing worship service.


A Ministry of the
PC(USA) Office of Public Witness, Washington, DC

Sermon Title: “Moving From Success to Significance”
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. God is doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43: 18-19a)

            The Sovereignty of God is evident when one begins to read the power of Isaiah’s comfort to God’s people in Babylonian exile. The promise that Yahweh would gather this flock that belonged to the divine is one of the most compelling sources of strength to remind us of the coming of the Lord. Feel free to close your eyes and listen to these words that may have provided a moment of calm to you during your sojourn with the Lord. 

Comfort, O comfort my people, says our God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for her sins. A voice cries “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and the people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5).

Israel’s penance is accepted and Yahweh is promising to gather his flock and bring them home. God is promising to redeem God’s people. And what better time could this redemptive relief come than in the middle of an impending Babylonian collapse. King Cyrus is leading Babylon to ruins. Emerging from the Old Testament view of God’s all-powerful and sovereign nature is the belief that suffering is a by-product of God’s dissatisfaction with humankind. Exile was God’s righteous judgment, but it was not a sign of God giving up on God’s people. Therefore, the collapse of Babylon is God’s way of sending a message to these exilic people. Although there are divine messages that can be derived from our dismal, dark and desolate circumstances, our reformed faith tradition reminds us that suffering is a part of the human experience.
It is worth noting here that Isaiah’s message is one of total confidence in God through these times of struggle. Oh, I hear him paraphrasing some of the old words of comfort that have paved the way on my journey on the highway of life. Some of you know what I am talking about - “God is God all by God self” – “the Lord Will Make a Way Somehow” – God can do anything but fail!  Isaiah says it this way;  

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circles of the earth and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. (Isa. 40:21-23). 

These words of comfort are marked with expectations of liberation and release from the binding that prohibits God’s people from becoming what they are intended to be. In other words, God is available to redeem, restore and relieve these exilic people from their burdens and despair, but it is incumbent that the people assist God in their own desire for liberation. Their focus requires a liberation motif that is entrenched in being significant to the Kingdom of God. Significant!
Our success model is being destroyed everyday! As churches and people are leaving the denomination over the passage of 10A; NFOG; and conservative–liberal posturing it is clear that we face a moment in time that will result in our liberation from the religious yoke of bondage or the death knell to the potential freedom found in being captive to the will of God. We have a choice! We can lament over not being what we used to be or live into the mystery of God’s desire for what we are to become with God’s help. We used to have four million members; we used to have clout; we used to be able demand an appointment at the White House; we used to have collection baskets overflowing and persons looking for the nearest Presbyterian Church when they came to town. We used to be successful!
But, like the exilic people in our text for today, God is calling us back to a renewed relationship to our God and ourselves as the body of Christ. God wants the Presbyterian Church to be significant. Therefore, it is a blessing that while our country and world has to rediscover a new way of meeting demands in this present global society, we are required to do the same. God is saying to us, as he said to those in Babylonian exile, that to move from a mentality of success to one of significance we must:  

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. God is doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43: 18:19a)

Identity and Imagination Must Lead Our Transition

God is calling the PC(USA) to live out a new call in transforming a broken and dying world. At the core of our challenge is making a new discovery about who we are. Our identity is found in what we are becoming – not what we used to be or our circumstances. Our challenge is akin to the pastoral challenges of assisting people in restoring hope in a new future. A story is told by a pastor who counseled a woman who could not find satisfaction in her life. She complained:
“The people at my job always leave their work undone and I am the one that has to clean up their mess. They take long breaks and talk about people all of the time. I know they are talking about me too! Some of them come in and play games on their computers, look at Facebook and talk on their cell phones.

“My husband never wants to talk.

“My children act like they live in a zoo. Their rooms are never clean and they leave stuff all over the house.

“My mother in law is staying with us and the place is crowded.

            After listening for a long time, the pastor took a piece of paper and folded it in half. The pastor asked the woman to take the paper and on one side list the positive things in her life. She helped her begin the list by saying “You have a job. In view of so many job losses, that is a good thing, wouldn’t you agree,” The woman nodded her head in agreement. The Pastor said, “Write that down.” She then assisted the woman in listing other things that were positive in her life, such as her children and husband being healthy; her husband assisting the children with their homework; and the woman’s children doing well in school. The woman was then instructed to take the other side of the paper and in the coming week write all of the bad or not so good things occurring in her life. “Then, let us sit down next week at this same time and discuss your list.”
 A week later the woman missed the appointment; did not return phone calls; and had not been in Church. At the grocery store several weeks later ,the pastor saw the woman and shared her concern at not having seen or heard from her: “I have not seen you in church and you did not return my call. Oh yes, and the appointment we had, you missed it. What happened?” The woman explained that she and her husband went on a vacation without the children. It was the first vacation that they had taken by themselves in over two years. “Who kept the children while you were gone” asked the pastor. The woman responded, “My mother-in-law.” The pastor then asked “Are the children still doing well in school?” The woman responded, “They are all on the honor roll.” The pastor then asked the big question, “How are things with your job?” The woman’s response was, “You know, those people on that job sure have changed.”  
The reality is that her view of her own life changed. She recognized that her circumstances did not define her. And, if the PC(USA) is to move from a model of success to one of significance, it is incumbent on us to walk in the way and the admonition of the Lord, so that we will begin to see more clearly our possibilities rather than our problems; our way forward rather than lamenting the life we must leave behind; our mission and message rather than our mess; people who are waiting to hear a word from the Lord rather than those who are leaving the church; our Young Adults who rejoice in the possibilities of a new day of mission and justice advocacy rather than those who only want to make sure that the church cemetery will be their burial ground. Yes, we can become a transforming entity in the lives of people who want sing a new song while marching toward a divine commission, rather than lamenting those whose quest is power, dominance, and control, trapping the church in the dark ages while singing out of the green and red hymnal.
Brian McLaren reminds us that we are no longer mainline. Joel Olsten is mainline today. T.D. Jakes is mainline today. And, we must search for a new identity as a denomination. What an exciting time to serve the Lord in the PC(USA). What an exciting time to grow our ministries, take risks in the name of the Lord and expand our opportunities to serve in this time of globalization, which demands that we rediscover creativity in order to reimage what it means to church in the 21st century.     

Faith Must Lead Us

            During Thanksgiving, I spent time with my mother, who would be upset with me if I told you her age, and my 102 year old grandmother[lgw1] , who would be upset with me if I did not tell you her age. It was becoming evident that 10A may be a close vote, but it was still early. Before leaving with my wife Gail to return to Washington, DC, I asked the two of them to share with me what they thought was happening in the church today -- with congregations pulling out and people withholding money and threatening to leave the denomination. They both paused for awhile and then my mother responded by opening her bible and read these words:

I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and me in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1-5)

Momma closed the bible and grand-momma began to speak. “Herbie, the Lord is pruning Presbyterian Church. Cutting it back! It is not about agreement or disagreement. The church has been pruned in every new thing that God has intended to make possible. The Presbyterian Church was pruned during the slavery of African Americans; the ordination of women; the civil rights movement and Angela Davis; the reunion of the Presbyterian Church U.S. and the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); and now the ordination of lesbian and gay persons to ministry. God prunes the church to make it useful for God’s service! And when it comes back on faith it becomes beautiful and full and produces good fruit.” They told me, “if you look at this time as a despairing moment then you will miss the point that only the eyes of faith can understand. I packed the car and returned to Washington, DC, committed to let God do a new thing.

Our call to move from the model of success to one of significance requires that God, through Jesus Christ, be the center of our joy in faith.

I, I am the Lord and besides me there is no Savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed when there was no strange God among you; and you are my witnesses, says the Lord. I am God, and also henceforth I am He; There is no one who can deliver from my hand; I work and who can hinder it?
Isaiah 43:11-13
These are the words that precede the new thing that God is going to do for those being called back to a commitment of significance for the Lord:

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. God is doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43: 18:19a)

This new thing will not be done without a supreme faith in the God of salvation. Church can no longer be ritual. The young people I talk to want to experience God in worship. I have led both a church redevelopment and new church development in my ministries. It is clear that in our ministry development, we are challenged to learn how to pray for the courage to evangelize and serve. God is the center of our joy! Moving from success to significance requires that pastors,  elders, deacons, members of congregations, and governing body leaders learn to pray and build a healthy faith in God through Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (11:1). Prayer and our faith in God must be the guiding sources of our work ahead. We must study God’s word and know it for ourselves. We must know more about the book of John than the Book of Order or NFOG. The constant reminder in the days ahead must be the notion that we work for God and not ourselves. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.
And I’m so glad that God loved little ole me and little ole you enough to send the only begotten son that God had for the redemption of the world, and through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we can have hope right now. I’m so glad the scripture reminds us that the darkest part of the night is often just before dawn.  I’m so glad that every appearance of death may be our only way to resurrection, not dead never to stand again.  I’m so glad that the Lord never forgets God’s children, and has promised to walk with us all the way and gives us a new start and a brand new opportunity.  I’m so glad that Jesus lifted me, and I’m so glad that the promise is that Jesus will lift us all.  That the day will come when the Kingdom shall reign and we shall shout “Hallelujah!  Thank you Lord!” We live in the land of power and might, given by God Almighty!  Stand to your feet today and declare that God is our only help in these times of trouble! Thank you Lord!  He’s still on the throne!  Never forget God’s truth! God’s truth is still marching on!  Our God is able to do all things but fail! 

Let us pray. 

Copyright (c) 2011 J. Herbert Nelson. All Rights Reserved.