Romans 12:1-8; Isaiah 43:14-21
“We are looking for a risk taker…We need space to practice risk taking and we need care from a trusted mid-wife who would help us face a new reality.”
These words come directly from Lehigh Presbytery’s Mission Information Form (MIF) and the supplemental questions used in the search process. But wait–there’s more!
“We need to learn healthier and more efficient ways of doing our work, while together we boldly face a process of discernment and change.”
As much as I loved seeing this, I was frankly a little skeptical. I’ve been a Presbyterian my whole life and, in my experience, we tend to avoid risk. Sometimes we say we want to change, but when it comes right down to it, we resist.
I was assured by the search committee, though, that this is for real, that everyone is on board with what the MIF claims: “Without experienced leadership to guide us forward, the Presbytery will remain stuck in the status quo….The culture in our communities, like elsewhere, has changed significantly. If we are to remain a faithful witness to Jesus Christ in this time and place, we need a Transitional Leader who can help us break old patterns and experiment with new ones within a grace-filled context.”
That last sentence is what got me–your stated desire as a presbytery to faithfully witness to Jesus’ gospel in 2019, and the awareness that to accomplish that, you have to change the way you do things.
So. Let’s get started!
Scripture is always a good place to begin so let’s see how Paul’s letter to the Romans might guide us. Leading up to today’s passage, Paul spends several chapters describing God’s long, loving relationship with humanity and the never-ending grace and mercy God offers, in spite of our stubborn resistance. Then in chapter 12, Paul links God’s love and mercy with how we are called to respond. Therefore, he writes, in response to God’s generous and abundant grace, present your whole life as an offering to God, and embody that offering in everything you do as a form of worship.
But be careful, Paul goes on: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” In other words, the world tries to define us, to tell us what we should do and be. The world bombards us with messages on TV, websites, billboards, emails, and social media. Our families, friends, clubs, and political parties pressure us to stay within the boundaries of tradition or custom. The world tells us to look the other way rather than face the injustice, hatred, oppression, greed, and violence that surround us. Don’t listen to the world, Paul implores. Clear your minds to hear what God would have you be and do–what is good and right and faithful and glorifies God.
One of my primary roles as the transitional leader is helping you, as a presbytery, to open your minds and hearts to discern God’s call upon the Body of Christ here, in this particular corner of the kingdom. A large part of that, of course, includes encouraging the 31 worshiping congregations who comprise the presbytery to also engage in discernment and renewal.
I’m wearing a button today that says, “When times change, so must we.” Consider how much the world has changed in the last 50 or so years in the fields of technology, transportation, politics, communication, media. Times certainly have changed–dramatically. So why does the church believe that we don’t need to do anything differently? Why do we continue to do the same things in the same ways they have been done for 50 years, and then complain when people don’t come to church anymore? Why do presbyteries have the same committee structure, meeting structure, funding structure, and dusty old policies they’ve had since they were formed? Ask yourselves this: if your church or your presbytery continues with what it’s currently doing, with no changes, will you still be around in 10 years? In 5 years?
Let’s be honest–the church has to change at every level of the denomination. Oh sure, we can hang on for a while, until we’ve spent every penny and the last person out the door turns off the lights. But is that doing what is good and right and faithful? Is that glorifying God? Or is it doing what benefits ourselves; conforming to the world’s advice to always look out for our own interests?
“For by the grace given to me,” Paul goes on, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…”
If Lehigh Presbytery and its congregations are going to successfully transition into God’s new vision for the church, we have to work as one, as members of one body. We must all be willing to take a chance on change or we will remain stuck in the status quo.
This means we have to all be the presbytery together and it means we will need all hands on deck. So when someone from Shared Gifts calls and asks you to serve the presbytery, take it to mean that your unique and specific gifts are needed. And consider saying yes. You may be asked to serve in a new way with people you don’t know very well. Please say yes. We all have to be open to creative experimentation–trying new ways of doing things. Some of those experiments may crash and burn. But that’s okay–we’ll move on and try something else.
Breaking old patterns of behavior will also mean engaging in more collaboration and cooperation and breaking down historic silos, on both the church and presbytery level. We can no longer be lone rangers; we have to partner with one another and share resources. You just approved the creation of a new congregation formed from the merger of two churches who discerned that they’re better together than they could be apart. It took real courage for them to embrace that new vision of ministry. And now, as Christ Church, they will discern their new purpose. They got a good start a couple weeks ago when Beth Utley led them in an asset mapping process. You should have seen the energy and creativity that the Holy Spirit generated in that room! We’ll talk more about that process later, in our time together after worship.
Now you may have noticed that I have not said that a goal of this transitional time is to help our churches grow in numbers or help them “attract more members.” What I have said is that we will support our congregations in discerning what God is calling you to do and be next. That may be a call to do something you might have never considered, like merging, yoking or sharing staff with another church, or even closing, if that’s the most faithful thing to do. It may be a call to start something that’s both creative and little dicey, like a shelter for trafficked women, a free clinic for homeless people, or affordable housing for low/middle income families. Sometimes God calls us to risk serving the most vulnerable people in our society. In any case, we are challenged to think big, take leaps of faith, and risk failure, faithfully accepting those challenges, knowing that the Holy Spirit is in them–promptly us, inspiring us, and making us a bit uncomfortable.
Let’s face it, change is hard. Whenever you transition from one thing to the next whether intentionally or by circumstance, making the shift is difficult. We feel this every time we go from one season of life into the next. In the last three years, my husband Gary and I have experienced a lot of change: we both got new jobs; we transitioned into the empty nest phase, my father become ill and died quite abruptly, and we downsized from a house to an apartment in an inter-state move. Now, of course, we have moved again so I could accept this position.
I’m honored, by the way, to have been offered this job; to be asked to walk with you in this season of faithful discernment. I will poke you. I will try hard to pry open your hearts and minds. I will challenge you to be and do what is good and right and faithful and glorifies God. I’m going to do that because of these words (your words!):
“If we are to remain a faithful witness to Jesus Christ in this time and place,
we need a Transitional Leader who can help us break old patterns
and experiment with new ones within a grace-filled context.”
You know what they say: “Be careful what you wish for!”
One more thing: our denomination’s Stated Clerk, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, whenever he’s asked about the future of the Presbyterian Church (USA), says it this way: “we’re not dying; we’re reforming.” He’s right. We’re not dying. We’re transitioning from the way we’ve always done it to a new way of being the church. Do not fear. God is in this. I close with God’s words spoken through the prophet Isaiah.
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert…for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people to whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. Rhonda Kruse’s Sermon at the September 21, 2019 Stated Assembly of Lehigh Presbytery.