Monday, November 24, 2014

Benediction: Looking Back to Look Forward

Benediction: Looking Back to Look Forward
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 23, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Numbers 6: 24-26
1 Thessalonians 3:  11-13

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. [1]

I started my thinking on this morning's sermon by reading my last seven. Over the last two months we have taken quite a journey. We've looked at the parts of our worship service, and I hope that we have gotten a little bit of insight on what each of the movements of the service are all about, and also a little into why we do what we do, with all the natural rhythms and structure of what we do. I hope we also have allowed ourselves to see how worship actually is at the center of everything we do in church, and that worship is not defined just by this hour every week, but instead breaks out, that everything we do here as a church fits into the rhythms of worship. And probably more importantly I hope that we have really taken a look at where we are as a church. We are a church that is facing challenges. Many other churches in America face what we face, but that doesn't make it any easier that we are not alone. In some ways it could make it worse, and seemingly hopeless. . . like we are just really swimming against the current of culture and the times and the world.
This week we take a look at the end of the service, the benediction. Probably the hardest part of teaching writing is teaching the conclusion. It is the hardest because so often my students are just writing papers to get them done, rarely are they actually trying to communicate something that they deeply care about. So they get to the conclusion and they ask, well what do I write now. . . I tell them to restate the thesis, and they don't want to repeat themselves. Then I tell them the most important part to any conclusion. . . to make it relevant. You have just spent the time to develop a thesis, to write a thesis, to prove a thesis, now in your Conclusion state why it is that your thesis matters. I have been working on a thesis over the last 8 weeks, basically that we have challenges that we are facing, and now we must engage with them. We must engage with each other and we need to engage with the challenges we face. Now in this benediction. . . in this conclusion I have to get across why that matters.
 Literally, benediction means the "good word," it marks the farewell, the blessing, the last good word spoken, and for us lately since we haven't had a choir in a while to sing us out of here with "God be With You till we meet again," it has literally been the last word of the service. Sometimes I say a blessing, sometimes a little prayer, often it is spoken like a charge, a parting mission, a see you next week, and in the meantime go to it, live out the word. . . but more often than not it is one last look back before you head forward, one last review, recap, and look at the message of the service, shortened, put into context, summarized, and made memorable. . . hopefully that it may be a lasting good word for your week, the week ahead, where we all try to live out, and extend the worship. So today, that is exactly what I want to do. I want to take a reviewing look back, a last and final look back, so that we can from here move forward, having said and heard where we are, so we can begin going where God is leading us.
We start every worship service with a meditation that I like to call the Prayer of Preparation. It is usually a poem, or a quote, a prayer in name only, but what it really is, is fertilizer. Seeds will be planted during the course of the day, and these words of meditation seek to make fertile the ground, to quote Jesus, we are making fertile ground in which the seeds can be planted and take root. So on that day at the beginning of October we took a look at the outside external factors, ones that have nothing to do with us, ones that we can't change, but that we live with. It's that harsh current, those rising tides. . . a culture against us, an area that is growing slowly if at all, an aging congregation, an aging building, rising prices of seemingly everything, and stagnant economic growth, making it even harder to afford the basics of life, paired constantly with growing marginalization of traditions and institutions that had once been so prominent cornerstones of society. It's all there. It's all true, and it most likely isn't going to change, at least there is no silver bullet that we have, no trump card we can play, no abracadabra magic words we can say to change it ourselves. Instead we just have to acknowledge it and live in it.
Which brought us to the next week where we looked at the Call to Worship, the time in the service where we are reminded of the amazing power and qualities of God. And the overwhelming message of that week was that we shouldn't be here but we are, it shouldn't work, but it does. History is a story that shouldn't have happened, but yet it did and here we are and it is all because of God. He is the source of our faith and hope, and truly the only one. That Sunday we were blessed with such inspirational music from HARP, with a special theme of The Battle of Agincourt. . . where a small band of outnumbered soldiers, beat the odds and were victorious. Since that Sunday I have had the Non Nobis Domine song that HARP closed with, and it has been quite a blessing of reminder of that day, that historic event, and most importantly the translation of the latin text, which is, "Not us, but God." It is not our doing, but God's and to him we give all the glory and thanksgiving.
Next we confessed. . . we took a look at some of our internal weaknesses, and we allowed them to be our strengths, reminding ourselves that we can of course find our strength in that very weakness because we can rely on God.
And that all brought us to the message of this extended service, the sermon. With the specific challenges that we face we must simply engage, not ignore them, not pretend they don't exist, not over promise, not allow ourselves to be broken apart, but instead to simply engage. Engage with the issues, in the moment, and engage with each other. How easy is that said, and how difficult to do.
But our last three weeks brought us into the responding to the word, responding to that message. We went to the table, arm in arm, engaging with the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we placed our service on the offering table, talking about discerning, seeking to engage exactly with what it is that we are called to do and to be, and in the mean time loving, engaging with each other, and last week we prayed, engaging in conversation with God personally in intimate relationship, and that all bring us to today, when we seek to move forward.
Where do we go from here? First off, we give thanks and then it's Christmas, and Christmas is a great time here. We'll have an Advent study, where we'll engage with learning and challenging our faith. We'll have a really awesome opportunity to engage with the community, with the sesquicentennial civil war service on the 20th. We're going to come together for our annual concert, our annual Christmas party, the Christmas Eve service, with the pageant, and the special lighting of the candles we do. We'll even open our doors for Soup night, and follow that meal with our special Longest Night Prayer Service. . . These are all opportunities for us to worship God, and to engage with who we are and what we are called to do. Can you believe that this little church, with our challenges can pull off a activity packed Christmas season like that. There are huge churches with budgets 5 times ours, that won't do as much, but it's not necessarily just about doing, but about being together and engaging with God. All the time, through the speed of the festivities, take some time out to discern. Because it will be over fast and then New Years, and 2015 is on us before we really even know it. We face all these challenges fresh in 2015. . . what new offering of you are you going to bring to the table in 2015? Will you start a new program here? Will you pray more? Will you give more? Will you serve on Session? Gerri goes off this year. . . will you come on, we have great things going on, will you be a part of it? Are you called to serve? Will  you teach Sunday School? Help with Bible School? Clean the church? Be a lay reader? Visit some of our home bound members? Spend time over at Gordon House? Offer musical talents during worship? Sing and perform in the night of duets? Come to Adult Sunday School? Come to the Lenten service? Come to a special service, like Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday? Do something completely new and original that is a God called gift of yourself to the world?
What will 2015 bring for us as a church? Will it be another year like this one? Will it be different, better, worse? Who knows?
I'm not sure what the future holds, but I do know that we will keep doing what we do. We are a loving church, a caring church, a learning church, and a church that has much to offer a world in need. We just need to get out into the world and let them know it. The message of this sermon series has been to engage, engage with the problems we face, engage with each other. Can we engage with the world, too? What would that look like? Would it involve inviting folks to church for a program? For a Sunday? Would it involve creating a website, where we can reach a new audience? Would it involve having conversations with people we don't know about what we do and why? Would it involve a continued and renewed engagement with Feed My Sheep? Would it involve getting more engaged in Presbytery Meetings and the workings of the larger church? There is much there that will be discussed and voted on in the next few months. . . . where are we? Have we asked those hard questions? Do we feel comfortable doing so? If not why not? If we are comfortable, what is holding us back? What is holding us back from engaging in the world we live in? What?
We have now taken a look back, we know where we have been, we know where we are, all that is left is to follow where God is leading us, and see where it takes us. Part of what I said a conclusion should do is to put the message into context and let people know why it is important, and why it matters. I'm not sure that I have done a good job of that. . . and if I were grading me, like I do my students, I may not score the highest marks, but I think the reason it is difficult to say why it matters, is that we all know why or we don't, because that is the truth: It either matters or it doesn't. This church either matters or it doesn't. It either matters to this community or it doesn't. It either matters to each of us or it doesn't. It either matters to God or it doesn't. We may not know the future, but we know whose hand it is in. . . thanks be to God Almighty. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Th 3:11-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.