First Sunday as Pastor
Scripture: Matthew 6:25-34 and Isaiah 49:8-16a
Striving for the Kingdom
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
Do you hear it? Can you feel and sense the Prophet’s words resounding from the rooftops? The heavens are exalting today, the earth breaking forth, the mountains are singing for on this day we are reminded that God has NOT forgotten us. God has not forgotten any one of us, God has not forgotten this congregation, First Congregational Church of Braintree, God has not forgotten this community of Braintree, but has brought you and me together causing the mountains along with my heart to sing “halleluiah!”
We have a few more weeks here when we can still say our “halleluiah’s”, so I’ll take advantage this morning and say halleluiah. Halleluiah indeed as on this day we are called to consider the lilies of the field; to look at the birds in the air which at this moment in time requires a healthy dose of imagination as the lilies’ bulbs are safe at rest in the frozen, but hopefully soon-to-be-thawing-ground and most birds are not soaring in the New England air these days. Nonetheless, the Word has marked our beginning together with lilies and birds, neither toiling nor spinning; neither sowing nor reaping nor gathering – they simply are. God tends to each and all and we are left but to behold the beauty of creation.
It is difficult to dwell for too long in the fields with the lilies, watching the clouds pass and birds fly above before life interrupts our tranquil simplicity and reality begins to seep in. As the Gospel reminds us this morning, we descend from a long line of wayfarers and wanderers, workaholics and worriers. It is our nature to toil and spin, sow, reap and gather; to accomplish in order that we might be able to provide for and nurture those we love. We each/we all assume these expectations and like the disciples we are left to wonder and worry if what we do will ever be enough.
The Greek term for “worry” that Jesus uses in this passage from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount translates into “split attention” or “divided concern.” Jesus paints a picture for them and us of our split attention between God and the stuff of life (mammon).
In her candidly written memoir, Circle of Quiet, author Madeline L’Engle confesses that she spent most of her adult life ridden with guilt for spending so much of her time writing that she failed to be the good New England housewife and mother that her husband and children deserved. On her fortieth birthday she received a rejection letter for one of her manuscripts, which she understood as a clear sign from heaven that she should stop this writing foolishness and learn to make a decent chicken pot pie for her family!
But, throughout this worry, within her divided concern and split attention, Madeline had an epiphany – in this season of epiphany we remember Madeline’s epiphany - prompted by her daughter. She recalls how she came to this great realization:
“When I am feeling unsure about my writing I am worrying that I am neglecting other responsibilities, and so misusing my freedom; I’ve gone through periods of confusion and downright stupidity. It was our eldest child, with her remarkable ability to see and accept what is, who said to me a good many years ago, ‘Mother, you’ve been getting cross and edgy with us, and you haven’t been doing much writing. We wish you’d get back to the typewriter.”
Much the same is true for our lives in the church as well. Devoted to our communities of faith, we toil and spin, sow, reap and gather in order to provide for and nurture our beloved church. We worry – oh, we worry about the building, about the budget, about broken locks and walls thirsting for paint, about burn-out from committee meetings and all the to-do checklists that we write….Our attention is split between focusing on the day to day operations required to just be a church and…GOD. So it is with our beginning together in ministry. The practical and very real needs of this church and our worries about our ability to meet those needs begin to overgrow the lilies of our spiritual gardens.
And yet, here we are – here I am – here you are this morning, wandering in the garden, gathering to worship God; longing for what lasts, matters, and counts. We come to this sanctuary where we can pause, to turn an ear toward Jesus, and consider the lilies and look to the birds.
Every lasting church is initially formed with a spiritually vigorous center. At its inception the original members of a church are so captured by a clear and compelling sense of spiritual life that they commit their lives to its formation and growth.
As you and I are preparing to begin at our beginning together, Bill and I have been “buffing” up on our Braintree history these past few weeks; we have been reading about the historical and faithful forces that formed this church – or meeting house - as it were. And, we discovered omens that indicate that indeed God is calling us to Braintree and me to serve this congregation. The story of Old Braintree began on Bill’s birthday, May 14, 1634 and the day that marks First Congregational Church’s formation, September 10, 1707 is my birthday, as if there was ever any doubt that we should be here.
On that day, the 10th of September 1707, before the congregation stood and laid their hands upon the first minister of this church, Rev. Hugh Adams, to ordain him into the ministry of Word and Sacrament, Cotton Mather preached a sermon based on the 22nd verse of the 2nd chapter of Ephesians:
“And in him (Christ) you are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.”
We are called this morning to heed the words proclaimed over three centuries ago marking the conception of and defining this community of faith that In Jesus Christ we, the First Congregational Church of Braintree, are built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit. We are to become a dwelling place for God.
We are to be a resting place for the spiritually weary,
A place of comfort for the grieving,
A place of fellowship for the stranger,
A place of forgiveness for the sinner,
A place of nourishment for the hungry;
A haven for the struggling;
For anyone who may walk through these doors we are called to serve as a dwelling in which God lives.
Isaiah comes to us this morning addressing his servant and imagining a new kind of exodus for the Israelite people from Babylon – one that will be global in scope. It is unclear who the servant is that Isaiah is referring to. The servant may be you or me; Isaiah’s servant may be all of us. But, Isaiah does something significant when he reimagines this exodus of his wilderness people as he promises the servant, “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people.”
He reframes God’s covenant with Israelites. The covenant, the law, is no longer that stone slab that Moses held on the top of Sinai. For Isaiah, that object of the law is symbolic of the covenant between God and creation, but it is not THE covenant. The people are the covenant, this congregation, this gathered body of Christ is the covenant. We are the manifestation of God’s promise – the building is not the manifestation of God’s promise but we, as a people, are. We are built together as a congregation to become a dwelling in which God lives.
We each hold expectations for our future together. I realize this. I have them, you have them, but the measure of our success cannot be a balanced budget or more people in the pews. These may very well be outcomes of our ministry together. But the only way to measure the success of this congregation will be how well we love and serve God and our neighbors. It will be how well, how wholly, how fully, how completely we strive first for the kingdom.
For our wayfarer ancestors, the wanderers of our heritage, the exiles whom Isaiah speaks, the destination was never Egypt or Jerusalem or Bablyon, but God. Always God. For the seventy-one families in the South Precinct who gathered and adopted the name of First Congregational Church of Braintree, the destination was to become a dwelling in which God lives. When we strive first for the kingdom, when we pause with the lilies and the birds is when we discover our calling as individuals and as a body of faith. It is at that moment when we get back to our typewriters.