Wear Clean Underwear!

So here we are, at the end of a marvelous journey.  I don’t know, exactly, where the last twelve years have gone.  I don’t know, exactly, how we got through some of the things we had to go through.  We did a lot of good together, yet I am keenly aware that there remains so much more to do.  I’ve preached more than 450 sermons here, and yet there remains so much more to say.

 

There is always so much to say when one gets to the end.  And so recently I found myself full of words – more than usual! I’ve been creating wordy documents and having wordy staff meetings and wordy conversations with church leaders.  I have been writing words notes to folks and notes to myself.  I’m trying to get it all out while I still have time.

 

My mom used to do that on school mornings.  She would think of things that she needed to say me just as I was dashing out the door to catch the school bus: , “Did you brush your teeth?”  “Yes, Mom.” “Don’t forget your lunch!” “Thanks, Mom.”  “I hope you’re wearing clean underwear!”  “Of course I am, Mom.”  This used to annoy the fire out of me, but now I see her frantic words for what they actually were: her loving attempt to make sure that I had what I needed for the moment at hand. 

 

Today’s lesson from I Thessalonians sounds a bit like a frantic, loving parent, shouting advice to the kids before they spill out into the world.  I Thessalonians is actually the oldest book in our New Testament, composed before any of the other letters or the Gospels. Therefore, it’s as close as we can come to the first Christians.   Scholars date this epistle between 50 and 51 CE, meaning that it was penned less than twenty years after Jesus’s earthly life.  Some of the people in that church were contemporaries of Jesus.  Others may have even have heard him speak or seen him heal the sick.  And all of them were waiting for his to return to the earth – the Second Advent.  No one in the early church believed they would have to wait very long for Christ to return.  And so they were living in the in-between time, that space between the already and the not yet.  And they were starting to get a little anxious about how they were supposed to live when their hope seemed to be delayed.  And Paul, like a parent, shouts out his best advice as they dash out the door and into their lives.

 

Remember… “Rejoice always!  Pray without ceasing! Don’t forget to give thanks at all times!  Don’t dampen the Spirit’s fire!  There are prophets out there – listen to them! Test everything to see if there is goodness in it.  And don’t you ever participate with evil!”

 

“Rejoice always.  Pray without ceasing.  Give thanks at all times.”  In these difficult and threatening days, it might do us well to print these words and tape them to our front doors, so that every time we go out into the world, we remember. It might do well for the Board of Stewards and the pastoral search committee and the program committees and all of you people in the pews to ponder these words in your interim time – as your waiting for your new beginning: “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks at all times.”

 

Well, that was Paul’s advice.  And my mother had her own about brushed teeth and packed lunches and clean underwear.  And now I, ready to watch from afar as you all march on into your future without me, I have my own words of advice for you.  I think you know how much Marcos and I love you, how grateful we are to have known you.  I offer these words in that spirit, and with the hope that they do not offend.  But if they do… well, you never have to listen to me again!

 

First of all, dear Broadway United Church of Christ, please remember who you are.  Who you are and what you are and what you could be is actually far more than you imagine.  It’s easy, and perhaps self-protective, to think of yourselves in the diminutive – the little church with no building.  That has been part of the narrative for decades now.  But that particular storyline can lead to diminutive actions and dreams.  It can sort of let you off the hook, at least in your own minds.  But that narrative does far more harm than good.  And frankly, it’s just not true. You might be a small congregation.  You might not have a home to call your own.  But this is what you do have, and it’s powerful: you are a congregation with justice for the oppressed and marginalized and despised and misunderstood in your DNA.  You cannot escape it.  You are a congregation with an incredible history.  When few others were preaching against slavery, you were.  When few others were advocating for the rights of women to vote and preach and lead, you were.  You marched on Washington with Dr. King and demanded LGBTQ rights long before it was cool at church.  When no one wanted HIV positive people around, they you’re your church leaders. Liberty and democracy and the free exchange of ideas in a religious context are your particular gifts to this great city.  You were and remain the First Congregational Church in the City of New York.  And in these dark times of waning freedoms and the rise of oppression and the stifling of free speech, that still means a great deal.  That still preaches.  It’s still attractive.  So don’t forget who you are and where you came from.  And stand up straight and tall.

 

Second, learn again what it means to courageously give yourselves away.  I have sometimes cursed the decision to sell the building in 1969 and be a church without walls.  I still wonder if that was wise.  But what I don’t have any doubts about is that the basic impulse that led to that decision was faithful and radical and beautiful – far ahead of its time.  This congregation understood that churches are not called to self-preservation.  They are not primarily cultural institutions or repositories for the arts.  Churches are to be channels, instruments through which God’s goodness flows out indiscriminately. “Meister Eckhart, the (medieval) German Dominican mystic (c. 1260-c.1328), said that spirituality has much more to do with subtraction than it does with addition.”[1]  Our Lord Jesus Christ showed us that.  The pattern of the Gospel is the cross – a pouring out of that which is most precious for the good of others.  But the thing about the cross is that it inevitably leads to the empty tomb. Death leads to life.  Emptiness leads to abundance. A channel is always emptying and a channel is always being filled.

 

This pastoral transition and our move from 93rd Street a little more than a year ago might tempt you away from bold generosity and creative mission.  This interim time might tempt you to think of the church’s endowment as that which will save you, when actually what will save you, and give you a vital and active and bold congregation is generosity.

 

And finally, don’t be afraid.  Fear is the awful gift that keeps on giving.  Fear feeds on itself like a wildfire.  Doubt is not the enemy of faith.  Fear is the enemy of faith and the enemy of the faithful.  As James Forbes, the former senior minister at the Riverside Church, liked to say: the overarching theme of the entire Bible is “Don’t be scared!”  Prophets say it.  Sages say it.  Mystics say it.  Angels say it.  Jesus said it!  “Don’t be scared!” These words are not a call to denial of reality.  They are not an invitation to naïveté.  They are, instead, a call to trust in the promises of God because, as Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “God is faithful.”

 

God is faithful, therefore we can rejoice always.  We can pray without ceasing.  We can give thanks in all circumstances.  This faithful One called this congregation into being in 1840 and has been with us every day since then.  This faithful One brought you to this church.  This faithful One has now called Marcos and me away, but she has also already called someone else to come.  This One, who is faithful and true, never forgets her promises. And this One – the Holy One – will not rest until love, justice, mercy and peace “…cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea.”  (Habakkuk 2:1)

 

[1]  Adapted from Richard Rohr, Letting Go: A Spirituality of Subtraction, disc 1 (Franciscan Media: 1987), CD; and

The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis, disc 1 (Sounds True: 2010), CD.