Sermon: Focus for the Future

30 September 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
September 23, 2007

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Focus for the Future

1 Chronicles 29:10-14, 17-18
1 Timothy 6:12-16

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

Now there’s a lot King David could have said on this important day at the end of his reign, at the end of the book of First Chronicles, as he passes the crown to his son Solomon. He could have preached on anything, as I could have today, but this is his plea to God – that his people be given the strength to keep their hearts fixed on God.  David wanted God, and God’s agenda, to always remain the people’s top priority – to be their focus for the future.  Likewise, the apostle Paul, in his final words to his successor Timothy, has similar words of wisdom to share:  “Fight the good fight of faith,” he preaches.  Keep the life-giving commandments of Jesus Christ until He appears again in his glory. Again a leader urges the people to stay focused on God for their future.

Months ago, when I began to wonder what words of wisdom I might impart to you on this momentous anniversary day, I was pleased to find these verses from First Timothy in the lectionary for September 30, 2007.  It’s always seemed to me the most important task of a pastor: to keep the focus of the people on God.  That may seem obvious, but it’s all too easy for the focus of a church to shift to the preacher’s skill or personality (or, God help us, the preacher’s LACK of skill or personality). The biggest challenge for a pastor, as the leader of God’s flock, is to keep the sheep from wandering off from the Way of Jesus.  My friend Frank likes to say that sometimes guiding God’s flock is more like herding kittens than shepherding sheep.  We don’t always follow Jesus.  When that happens we’re likely to sink into deep bogs of exhaustion or get lost on side tracks of pointless busywork.  Have you ever been worn out by the sheer weight of your church commitments?  Have you ever witnessed how easy it can be for our focus to get diverted by the multiple challenges of church life that we face in every meeting?  Before we know it we’re not only off the meeting agenda, but far off the agenda of the true head of the church, Jesus Christ.  It’s no wonder we may feel the life draining out of us – we’ve strayed too far from the source and Lord of all life, Jesus Christ.

On an important day like today, when we stand on the threshold of our next 250 years, we have the privilege of dedicating an enormously successful building campaign.  Like David’s people, as the King dedicated offerings to the temple-building campaign of his son Solomon, we need to be reminded once again, of why we are here and what we are called to do.  We are here because of God’s love and mercy, and we are called to spread the Good News of that love and mercy to all. That is our focus for the future.

Both of these texts, and my sermon to you today, are kind of like a half-time pep talk to the team.  “Fight the good fight,” Paul says to a people struggling just to survive as disciples of a new brand of faith in a hostile world.  John Robinson, the English Puritan pastor living in Leyden, Holland, preached a similar sermon to the small and courageous band of Pilgrims who were leaving on the Mayflower for the New World nearly 400 years ago. So what do I, as your coach, have to add to so noble a subject in this particular locker room?  How many different ways does a coach have to say, “Keep your eye on the ball”?  As in sports, we know we’re supposed to do it – the harder question is the how. This is important for us to learn, because this is not a church bench-sitters.  It’s an all-star team.  We all love to play the game, and we’re good at it.

When I came to Brookfield, it was all happening at once – the Anniversary Celebration had rung in at midnight of Dec. 31, the last day of my ministry in California.  When I arrived here at my new church in late January, the Anniversary Campaign, the parsonage work and planning on the organ, the stewardship drive, the Yankee Fair, BIG changes in the Sunday School – all these projects were well under way. I quickly realized the best I could do was just preach the Good News and stay the heck out of the way – let the Holy Spirit do its work.  Perhaps that’s always been the best role for a pastor.

Here at our church, we are very blessed that the Holy Spirit is blowing so strongly.  The only problem is that it can be a little out of control, as it was on my arrival last night at Friday Vespers – it was blowing so hard it was a challenge to settle things down.  The youth group was trying to set up luminarias on the walkway, but stray paper bags were flying into the road, and the wind was making it hard to get the candles lit.  It was a beautiful sight, an inspiring sight, to watch our young people laugh in a swirl of wind-whipped yellow leaves, but it reminded me of what a blessing and a curse it can be to be a part of such a busy church.

In Timothy’s day, church members were doing all the tasks of ministry that we’re called to do today – except with persecutions by the Romans, church members were doing all that while their former friends and neighbors were threatening to throw them to the lions.  At least we can be thankful we’re not persecuted, right?  Or ARE we?  Don’t our high-pressure commitments sometimes start to feel like persecution? Sometimes it’s the little things that can start to rip you apart.  Maybe it’s not a lion that’s eating at your soul – like physical violence, major illness, death, or divorce – but a million little things – like a clogged kitchen sink, the unpaid bills, the kids fighting and late for the soccer game, and grandma’s left her glasses at the doctor’s office again.  All this to do, plus a church meeting to go to tonight.  My dad likes to say that’s a different form of martyrdom, like “being nibbled to death by ducks.”  You’re still being eaten alive, but you’re not likely to take it very seriously.

The truth is, our problems may not seem very serious, but we still need to be saved.  So what is the answer?  We need to hold on to our focus on Jesus.  Jesus is our light, and he calls us to reflect the light of the Divine back at humanity – at the masses of humanity wandering around in their daily lives with a million distractions, fighting a million stupid fights all week.  Our job is to show them what’s really worth fighting for, and to inspire them to “fight the good fight” with faith and with courage.

Now isn’t that what we’ve been doing for centuries now as Christ’s church, as the light of the world that the prophet Isaiah hoped God’s people could become?  That first small band of Pilgrims reflected the light of Jesus back to their world – the nations came and are still coming to our shores.  The Lord is our light, and we need to stay strongly centered in it so that we can keep showing the world a better way.  That’s the purpose of any place of worship – from Solomon’s Temple to the Congregational Church of Brookfield.  Like King David and his generation, we have been called to build on the work of those who have come before us, to continue what God began.  And God has promised to give us the strength of faith to focus for the future.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.

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