June 23, 2019
Luke 9:57-62. The context: Jesus turns his face finally to journey to Jerusalem. His fame preceded him, and some villagers refused him hospitality because they knew his destination and it stirred up contention about his mission. Others importuned him for miraculous healings. Still others pledged allegiance to him even as tensions rose.
Keep your eyes on the prize.
I thank God for your faith, Eliot Church. I have seen the evidences of your faith in the beauty of your sanctuary and the entire premises, so lovingly maintained; in your history as a flagship church of the Mass. Conference; and in your presence here this morning when you could be somewhere else on a summer Sunday after a period of six months in which two ministers have left and two new ones have arrived.
However, it is not just the last six months that might have you a little dizzy, but the last six years during the Rev. Susan Brecht’s tenure here—they also give me evidences of your faith, because it was a period, as I have been allowed to understand, which was a mixture of great learning and some contention. Have I put this correctly?
Just as importantly, it all coincided with dire changes in the national political climate and in the planetary climate when we were all needing the maximum spiritual support from our churches.
It is to be expected, and I speculate, that you might be exhausted from it all and feel somewhat tentative about the future, specifically about the prospect of getting to know the two of us. We are strangers in your midst right now, Dr. Elizabeth and I. But, folks, strangers are what friends are made from. And we will be friends, good friends, starting right now.
After all, your search committees worked hard, they worked diligently and very fast, and they chose well! I can attest to that in the case of Elizabeth whom I have come to know in these two weeks to be a highly competent professional, an insightful and dedicated leader, a spiritual presence upon whom you can rely, with an unmistakable joie de vivre. I am looking forward to working with her, and you should, too.
Speaking for myself, I claim that your search committee chose well also because I am someone who relishes adventure and who appreciates the good that is in everyone, with experience in multiple contexts—universities (Princeton, Tufts, and Skidmore), seminary (UofC DivSchool), and urban churches (Old South Church in Copley Square, Central Congregational in Jamaica Plain).
So much for now about me and Dr. Elizabeth! May I just add, however, that the rest of the staff you have secured over this time—our Music Director Monique Weiss Byrnes and our church administrator, Natasha Collins—inspire me with confidence in this church, and I feel only excitement about assuming the role of your Interim Senior Minister, for whatever period of time, long or short, that might be required to prepare for us to call the next settled pastor.
On top of which, I arrive to discover this wonderful church leadership. I will not name them individually because everybody knows who you are, but I am ASTONISHED at the way you drive this 18-wheel semi-trailer truck of a church like a sports car! Some tell me you have missed a few curves, otherwise it seems you stayed well within the guard rails.
So, just what is an Interim Minister? Many of you may not have encountered such a species before.
Someone doubted, is an interim minister a “real” minister? And more sharply put, can any minister come to be trusted in such a short period of time, and why should you bother to try, only to lose them all over again? The answer is, of course you can. The length of tenure is irrelevant. Have other people not come into our lives before, only to move away, the richness of which is worth the cost of its shortness?
Think, if you’ll excuse the academic analogy, of a visiting scholar on campus, an artist or musician who comes to teach a master class, a sabbatical replacement. Then again, maybe a touristic analogy serves better, like traveling to a foreign country with which you fall a little in love, but you know it’s not forever. That applies to people too, which every one of us knows from personal experience is true.
Yes, I feel that I can be a real minister to you and for you. But actually it may depend less on me, than upon you.
This morning’s scripture passage speaks to the situation of anyone wishing to follow Christ and it applies to those wishing to belong to the Body of Christ, the church. It’s a stringent demand which Jesus makes, asking us to give ourselves without reserve. One man had a father to bury, and another needed to bid his family goodbye. Jesus would not have any of it, perhaps anticipating that they didn’t intend to come back. In a vivid rural metaphor, Jesus tells them not to hesitate. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
Jesus discountenances the kind of looking back when someone is wishing themselves out of a situation, when someone is outright regretting the circumstance. Perhaps they were attracted to Jesus’ message, but not to Jesus’ path, given that he was on the way to Jerusalem at just that point. I surmise that he detects some double-think and picks up a scent of, “Oh wouldn’t it be great if we just didn’t have to go through with all this. . . wouldn’t it be great had I not met Jesus (or joined this church) just now?”
These are escapist sentiments, reverting to the refuge of imagined better days and safer places. Nostalgia means longing for home, and both these followers want to go home. Of course Jesus calls them out: once you put your hand to the plow, plow that furrow and don’t look back. That was, imagine, precisely his own personal situation at that moment.
I wondered about printing this image on your bulletin for my first Sunday sermon here, as it doesn’t exactly convey that the period ahead is going to be much fun. And I wholeheartedly do believe it will be fun, just as Dr. Elizabeth told you last Sunday that it would be, if by fun you mean feeling free, the consequence of Christ’s forgiveness. I define true freedom as seeking the freedom of others.
But this visual image of arduous labor should speak to anyone with misgivings and with your natural hesitations at this juncture in your history. It’s an apt image because there is much emotional life for any Christian that gets packed down by either our reticence, or our denial, or dread. It would take a sharply pointed plow and some exertion to unearth the as yet unexpressed, or poorly expressed, emotions, as perhaps is the case about this congregation.
The printed image indeed suggests it will require work, but to refuse it is to miss out on the truly abundant life Christ promised. It would be to forfeit the prize, the Kingdom of God as Jesus always put it—to be in the moment with the Eternal One.
But take in the whole image, imagine the hard earth below, packed down and yielding only to great effort, as it is being turned over in coils of rich, moist black earth in which seeds are to be planted and grown into a plentiful harvest, which is the prize.
Where I grew up, in Henry County Illinois, the soil is almost as black as oil. And as a youngster I worked on a large farm for two high school summers and one college summer. Farming was highly mechanized then as now, and I was not expert enough to do the plowing, but I came behind on the tractor with the harrow and discs, and I knew the smell of nature’s fecundity. Those tractors strained mightily at the work, and we drivers clung mightily to the steering wheel and seat. There was no taking any hand off the plow as the laboring machines surged forward, for the hours of long days and some weeks. Before too long, it was time for planting seeds, then cultivating (again, this was all mechanized), and then we saw the sprouting green shoots. How happily everyone used to crow about the corn crop a month later to say, “Knee high by the fourth of July.” What if the farmer had eschewed the task, questioned its validity, shrank from the demand? There obviously would be no prize.
Well, we may not get far by this Fourth of July, only a couple weeks away; but, I certify to you that by the NEXT fourth of July, the corn will be as high as an elephant’s eye (can we sing this great line from “Oklahoma”?).
Our question this morning has to be, but will we take to the plow, and keep our hand on it without looking back? And will you encourage others to do the same, as the real disciples of Christ you are, just as I am a real minister of Christ? If so, then we will definitely have real church here and have real fun, going forward!
Then here we are, praise God, right where we ought to be, as the great Shaker hymn went—positioned for a continuing walk with Christ, keeping our eyes on the prize.
Now, if a way to the future there be, we must embrace this spiritual work with loving deliberation. I hope you can feel as if you, as a congregation, are right where you ought to be, positioned to learn, free to imagine a new future? I hope you can anticipate with excitement, then, this next installment in your succession of ministers?
So, what exactly should you expect going down the Interim Road? Briefly stated, we will begin with getting acquainted this summer—I am scheduling “Drop in hours” every Wednesday from 12 to 2:00 p.m., arranging visits to homes for those who want them, and conversations in my office or at a coffee shop. We will sample from the large menu of other activities and resources available to us, and the appropriate choices for Eliot Church will become plain, organically, as we go along together.
My agenda is for your emerging agenda to manifest itself to you.
The Leadership Council met last Thursday night and adopted three goals for the coming year: a) to address the acoustic issues of the sanctuary; b) to unroll the Interim process; and c) to plan for the 175th anniversary of the church’s founding. By the time of the October Congregational Meeting, a more detailed and graphic plan will have been worked out.
In Christ, this kind of work is fun. It’s not even work. As we keep our hand on the plow, let us keep our eyes forward on the prize. I thank God for your faith, Eliot Church.