Faith, Freedom, Fellowship
Matthew 10: 40-42 & Genesis 22: 1-14
I nicknamed June, “The Parade of Previous Pastors.” We have been blessed to have had the Rev. Dick Haferman stop by to co-lead a memorial service, Rev. Liam Battjes led worship on Father’s Day (which I know was a very special worship service for him) and then last week, of course, we had the Rev. Bruce Vander Kolk leading our service. All familiar faces. What an incredibly special time this has been for our church community to celebrate our “previous pastors” this way, by having them visit and lead us once again in our time of prayer and reflection. I’m so glad that we can maintain such a friendly, strong relationship with each of these men.
In the wake of “The Parade of Previous Pastors” I just want to say thank you to the congregation – for blessing me to be able to go on a much needed little road time. I had a day in Chicago to explore a new museum, and a few days in Nashville to spoil my niece and nephew by taking them to Chuck-e-Cheese and their other favorite hangouts. Then it was on to Demorest, Georgia (to Piedmont College) for the Annual Meeting and Conference of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. Which never fails to be wonderfully life giving, inspiring, and educational – this year especially as our Bible Lecturer was Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor. If you were following my Facebook postings of the conference you would know that she is the Beyonce of the preaching world and I was star stuck all week!! (At the worship service on Sunday I was helping pass the communion trays and as I was handed the tray of grape juice cups I just had this horrible vision of turning to her and dumping them all on her lap. *I didn’t though!*)
Just before I left for this road trip to GA, the Reformed Church of America the RCA. They had their national annual gathering, called General Synod. It was hosted in Holland this year, so I heard a lot about it. And I know that a lot of pastors, lay leaders, and whole congregations walk away from that meeting a little frustrated- for they spent ample time in their business meeting quibbling over the Heildelberg Catechism of 1563 that eventually led no-where really. Just around again in a circle.
While I mean no disrespect for our RCA brothers and sisters… for they are seeking to faithfully steer a massive barge of a denomination… I am reminded to be thankful to be a part of the NACCC, where we can steer our nimble little canoes in and out of choppy social and theological waters with much more spiritual freedom and communal agility.
In fact the biggest squabble that we had at our business meetings this year in Georgia was over upholding the voice of the little church. It was about how we vote and are represented. Someone moved that we do all that we can to make sure that everyone maintains an equal voice. And then a hardy debate began between the Robert Rules of Order following purest and the (ach-em) true congregationalists.
I’m so thankful that there is an air of trust and transparency whenever our sister churches get together to talk business. It means that we can quickly navigate boring budget talks and committee reports to get down to what is truly important- fellowship.
On Sunday afternoon, the youth conference came together with the – ah, old people conference, I don’t know how to separate it – And we packed meals for the Rise Against Hunger program. We packed just shy of 21,000 meals together in an hour. And throughout the room I saw hundreds of youth from all over the country standing side by side with people 2,3,4 times their age packing meals and dancing along to the Jackson Five. As we gathered to sing and pray before each of the business meetings I was delighted to look around and see our Samoan church from California was there, proudly wearing their tradition dress, our urban churches from LA, and Chicago, and Brooklyn were all there. I shared a meal with Pastor Hardy from Church of the Valley in Chandler, AZ a traditionally black church with just 30 members- and we both gushed about our communities and the programs we’re excited about. Interestingly, there were two new churches there who’s membership is completely online, their weekly worship services are all done through Facebook Live! How cool! We had churches present that have just eight faithful members in the whole congregation and churches with thousands of members. There were national task teams circulating information about encouraging special needs people in the worship space, there were workshops on revitalizing historic churches, on family ministry, church safety, future thinking churches, and creative preaching… The conference was a celebration in diversity and thought!
One of my favorite moments was during the ceremony where we uplift and pray for our new seminary graduates. We celebrated Paul, a gay man who was just ordained two weeks ago at his new church in Nebraska. And we simply affirmed him and raised his ministry to God with all the rest of the graduates. And we didn’t even have to hold a vote about whether or not we all agreed with the call that God placed on his heart…. We just received him as a new colleague and friend.
The NACCC is truly a place for everybody. We boldly gather in the name of Christ to move towards decisive and intentional fellowship, towards freedom of conscious, towards a faith that is never allowed to be stagnant or held up due to the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563. There is a sense of movement, and relevance in the Congregational Way these days that is so palpable.
Sometimes the NA is an absolute island of misfit toys- but, in Christ, it works.
Now, our Scripture readings, given where my mind and heart has been all week long, they are so fitting.
Our passage in Matthew is the benediction of sorts from Jesus’ missionary discourse, he is sending out his disciples to minister to the world. He says: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me…” Jesus tells them all to go and welcome strangers and others into their lives. But also, Jesus tells them to go and be welcomed themselves. All in all they are to be a living/breathing people of hospitality in the world. Serve and be served. Love and be loved. Welcome and be welcomed. That is there ministry at its most simple.
And then we have Genesis. We often call this story “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” But the Jews call this “The akedah”/ “The Binding of Isaac.” This story has led to centuries of conversation over the nature of our Creator.
Is this a story of an abusive God? A misguided Abraham?
Why would we share a story of religious violence at its worst in an age of extremism?
Would we really give our allegiance to a God that could ask this of us?
Why is this story so foundational for Judaism and Christianity both?
This story is a curiosity. There are little nuances that are just fascinating. Did you notice that Isaac carries the wood that will build the fire of his sacrifice- just as Jesus carried his own cross – the means of his destruction. Did you notice that Abraham’s reply to God, Hineni, “Here I am.” He says it three times- he is so steady/ so consistent in his obedience. Although… I think we can imagine the relief and hope in his voice when God finally calls out “Abraham! Abraham stop!” Even as he raises the knife above his one and only beloved son, preparing to do the unthinkable.
And what do we think of this experiment being a genuine test? It is stated that Abraham was free to choose to obey or not, that God may not have known how this would play out. Up until this point in Genesis, Abraham had not been that steady and consistently faithful character… this was a real test.
The story of “The Akedah” / “The Binding of Isaac” while it brings up some mighty questions… It makes a claim on us: all that we have, all that we are, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave us breath in the first place. And yet, thankfully, the Akedah assures us that God will provide, that God can be counted on to deliver.
Matthew’s Ministry Charge, The Akedah of Genesis… what a perfect paring for this week following our national Congregational gathering. I love it when the lectionary lines up!
Today we see and uphold our call to hospitality- decisive/ intentional fellowship. And we uplift the message of the Akedah that we are free to trust God, even when it seems that too much has been asked of us.
As we begin to bring our hearts and minds to a place of communion with our Lord… Let us be mindful of the collective family of Christ. This great cloud of witnesses that we are a part of here, around the country/around the world. Our Congregational brothers and sisters and those of other faith traditions. Remember that we all serve a vital role in the ministry of Christ on earth. And that we are bound by the ever present invitation to look up to God in faith and say, Hineni, “Here I am.” Sure, and steady, and trusting.