Scripture Readings for Sunday, June 24
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
Job 38: 1-11
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Master! The tempest is raging!
Oh! The billows are tossing high!
The sky is o’ershadowed with blackness!
Oh! No shelter or help is nigh!
Carest thou not that we perish?
How canst thou lie asleep,
When each moment so madly is threatening
A grave in the angry deep?
- Rev. James Cleveland
Last week, in this space, I began to tell you about the 2018 Central Atlantic Conference Annual Meeting, which Nancy and I attended in Bethesda, Maryland on Friday and Saturday, June 8 and 9. Our Friday sessions concluded with serious, candid conversations about budgets and how to keep our congregations— and our Conference— alive and growing.
Our Conference employs a Conference Minister (currently, Rev. Dr. Roddy Dunkerson, serving as an interim) and three Associate Conference Ministers, plus two or three office staffers. The Conference gives money toward the meetings of the national Synods of the UCC, which gather every second year; we give $8,000 to the Lancaster Seminary in Pennsylvania; we support meetings of Conference committees and boards; and we pay for educational programs for our staff, clergy, and congregations. The Conference budget for 2019 totals $1,135,001.55. This year, our Board of Directors asked for $30,000 more than last year for programming, which will go to a new program to help our Authorized Ministers (like me) form “Communities of Practice.” These “communities” will be gatherings of pastors to encourage, counsel, and challenge one another to more effective ministry. Of course, the point of strengthening us ministers is to strengthen the churches.
I may be asked to lead one such “community” of our ministers in this area. I applied for the role, but I won’t know until mid-Summer whether the Conference will call upon me to do it.
On Saturday of Annual Meeting, we voted to approve the proposed budget. Now, it is up to the churches of the Conference to give to Our Church’s Wider Mission (“OCWM”), the annual offering which funds almost the entire Conference budget.
Our Conference Board of Directors decided, this year, to cut the percentage of our Conference’s OCWM giving that is passed on to the national setting of the UCC, from 30% down to 15%.
Many of you know, before I became pastor here, our Bethel’s leadership voted to stop regular support for OCWM. In recent years, we have held special, freewill offerings for OCWM.
Like many of our fellow churches, we would have a tough time raising additional money to help support the Conference. Lots of our UCC congregations still raise this support, every year; lots of others don’t. We are a free association of congregations. We each have a choice.
On Saturday morning of Annual Meeting, a seminary professor led us in some serious self-examination. Dr. Barbara Fears of Howard University Divinity School got us working on the question, “Who is my neighbor?” (think of Luke, chapter 10). Dr. Fears presented the story from the book of Nehemiah, set in the period after the Babylonian exile ended, when some Judeans came from Babylon and started re-building the walls of Jerusalem. She challenged us to think about Nehemiah’s wall-building project as Christians: to question how it was, to be the local residents who for many years had been living near the ruins of Jerusalem, suddenly having to deal with the presumptuous attitudes of the Judeans who were constructing walls to keep out the local people. Around our tables, we shared stories of our churches: the people inside and the people outside, and how we separate ourselves from each other— or, on a good day, how we come together.
After Saturday’s first Bible study, we went to different workshops that were offered. I attended one led by Marge Royle, on “Emerging Churches.” Although I had become aware of the “emerging church” movement in the course of my seminary studies, this program was a strong reminder, that the way many of us grew up with church— thinking about it, worshiping with it, taking part in its leadership— is not the only way to “do” church, and that the future of church will be quite different from its past.
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: ....
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding!” - Job 38: 1, 4
Scripture Readings for Sunday, June 17
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
First the blade and then the ear,
Then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we
Wholesome grain and pure may be.
For the Lord our God shall come,
And shall take His harvest home....
- Henry Alford, 1844
Nancy and I have just returned from Central Atlantic Conference Annual Meeting, which, this year, was held in Bethesda, Maryland. But we got into a lot of other things this past weekend, as well. Over the course of the coming year, I mean to unpack for you what I can. I imagine that it will take awhile, to explore the treasure-trove of resources and inspirations we received between supper-time last Friday and late morning on Sunday.
The Annual Meeting began with supper and fellowship with people from around the Conference.
Our Interim Conference Minister, Rev. Dr. Roddy Dunkerson led us in worship. He spoke of the disorienting times in which we’re living, and the choice to see ourselves as disciples on a quest for whatever vision God will give us. Then, Rev. Sherry Davis Molock urged us, in the midst of times like these, to focus on developing covenant relationships, especially when the route of our journey keeps getting detoured and we keep hearing (as the electronic GPS devices tell us) “RE-CALCULATING ROUTE!” Our song leader, Mark Miller, taught us his song, “We Resist, We Refuse to Let Hatred In” – the first of several of his songs we enjoyed singing.
Dr. Lee Barrett, a seminary professor, challenged us to ask the hard questions of, “Who are we now?” He pointed out that our earlier identities, as individuals and congregations, are no longer the same, and the society in which we find ourselves now is not like it was... so, Who are we now?
Dr. Barrett urged us to study (as Jesus’ disciples) "What can we offer the world, which no other institution can offer them?" Following his talk, we had a spirited discussion about the nature of our current society and the spiritual gifts we (the church) continue to bear and share. It was a disturbing and heart-wrenching conversation with the two hundred or so Conference members present.
We ended Friday evening by having an initial hearing on the Conference budget. Like most of our local congregations, the Conference budget is “in the red” due to lower income, but the proposed budget envisions spending money on new programs to strengthen ministry and staff to assist our Associations and congregations to grow and prosper. The microphones were open, and numerous folks from all over the Conference got up and talked about their difficulties raising money, and also the hopes and dreams and success-stories that keep them inspired and motivated.
Arthur Brown, of Washington, DC told us that he encounters countless people in his neighborhood who don’t understand what we church people mean when we talk about “grace” and “joy.” He said that we have to go and live with them and listen to their concerns and needs before we can demonstrate what “grace” and “joy” really mean to us.
One remark that haunts me came from my colleague, Rev. Dr. Susan Minasian, of Sojourners UCC in Charlottesville. Reflecting on one speaker’s lament that her local congregation seems to be dying, Rev. Minasian said something like— this is from my memory—, “Sometimes, we in the church go to visit someone who is dying and we realize that it’s their time to die. The same is true of congregations and associations and conferences and all human institutions. Sometimes, we have to accept that it’s time for it to die. But we believe in Jesus and the resurrection of the dead, so there’s no need for us to go around acting like it’s the end of the world. We believe in resurrection!”
On Friday night, we also discussed changes to the UCC Constitution which were passed by the General Synod last year. The changes are intended to make the national setting leadership more accountable to us, by making the Executive Ministers report to the General Minister (Currently, Rev. John Dorhauer).
All of this is just the beginning. Things will grow.
[Jesus] also said,
“The kingdom of God
is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, ”
- Mark 4:26
Scripture Readings for Sunday, June 10
2 Corinthians 4:13 - 5:1
Ephesians 5: 1 – 17
On Sunday, May 27, after Bethel’s worship service in Elk Run Cemetery, Nancy and I attended the service of ordination for our friend, Rev. Steve Giddens at St. Stephen’s UCC in Harrisonburg. It was a pleasant service, with our Interim Conference Minister, Rev. Roddy Dunkerson and our Acting Associate Conference Minister, Rev. Dr. Audrey Price participating.
Among the highlights of the service was the moment when Amanda, Steve’s wife, was returning to her seat after receiving Communion, carrying their seventeen-month-old daughter Emily. Emily repeatedly shouted out, “More bread! More bread!,” to everyone’s delight.
But what I really wanted to share with you was from Steve’s pastoral prayer. He is a combat veteran of the Army, who has served in the recent wars. Among many other parts of his prayer, he included this:
“This Memorial Day weekend we ask that You be with the Gold Star Families. For the mothers who lost sons, fathers who lost daughters, and children who lost a parent we ask special blessings: ease their suffering and heartache.”
I am grateful that Steve gave us words to express these feelings on the weekend of Memorial Day. They will help me, a non-veteran, as I pray for these families in their losses.
† † †
This coming weekend, Nancy and I plan to attend the Annual Meeting of our Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ. This year, for the first time, the Annual Meeting will be held in a hotel / conference center in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. This is partly because the number of people registering to attend is down from past years, and partly because it was very expensive to meet at the University of Delaware, where we had been gathering for the previous decade or more.
Our Conference extends from the New Jersey suburbs of New York City in the Northeast to Blacksburg, Virginia in the Southwest, and over through Richmond to the ocean. We are divided into five Associations: New Jersey, Potomac, Chesapeake, Catoctin, and our association, Shenandoah. Ours is the smallest of the five associations in this conference.
In the United Church of Christ, local congregations such as our Bethel live in a covenant relationship with one another, to help each another in a variety of ways. We contribute to local, regional, national, and international mission work together. We elect Church and Ministry Commissions in each association to prepare, examine, ordain, and discipline Authorized Ministers (like me) as well as other Licensed Ministers. We share educational resources and training programs for lay-people and clergy. I am sure I have left out very important categories of work that we share, but I hope the above items give you a flavor of what’s “out there.”
All of these projects— and many more— are governed by local churches sending delegates to participate at three different settings: the association, the conference, and the national setting. Because we local congregations freely enter into the covenant relationships with the other settings, and we conduct those relationships any way that we feel is right, NOBODY in the other settings is in a position to be the “boss” of us or anybody else, or is “above” anybody else. We are all in this to share and share alike.
During my six years in Shenandoah Association leadership, which just ended in May, I have not done a good job of communicating to the Bethel congregation the value of working in our covenant relationships with the wider United Church of Christ. There are only two ways I know to get the message across.
One is when our people participate in events and see for themselves that there’s a great big friendly world out there in our Association, our Conference, and the national setting.
The other is when we get into dire need of help, and we become willing to reach out to folks from the wider church— who are already there for just such times. That’s what happened with our Bethel in the 1950s, when we needed money to build our “educational wing” of the church building (the social hall and Sunday School classrooms): we borrowed serious money from the Congregational Christian building fund (the predecessor of our current UCC building fund).
We can take our part in the body of Christ beyond our own backyard. We are not alone.
[Jesus said, ]
“If a house is divided against itself,
that house will not be able to stand.”
– Mark 3:24-25
Scripture Readings for Sunday, June 3
Mark 2:23 - 3:6
A decree He declared it for Israel
when He sallied forth against Egypt’s land--
a language I knew not, I heard.
“I delivered his shoulder from the burden
his palms were loosed from the hod.
From the straits you called and I set you free.
I answered you from thunder’s hiding place.”
-Psalm 81:5-7 (Robert Alter’s translation, 2007)
If you haven’t heard the commandment to “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy,” you must not have been paying attention in church, for a lifetime! Among the Ten Commandments, it’s the fourth.
Take a look at the version of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:8-11, and the version in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Do you see the difference? In Exodus, Moses tells us that our sabbath rest is because God rested after the six days of Creation. In Deuteronomy, Moses explains that our sabbath rest is commanded because God gave them rest from their slavery in Egypt.
Psalm 81 urges God’s people to get excited and relax and celebrate the New Moon festival. The New Moon festivals in ancient Israel were days off from work, like extra sabbaths, when the people were invited to leave off work and enjoy life and praise God. The psalmist reminds the people that God sent the plagues upon the Egyptians in order to set them free from Pharaoh’s brick-making plantations. (The “hod” was the basket for bricks.)
In early 2012, the beloved Old Testament scholar, Dr. Walter Brueggemann spoke to us at the School for Leadership training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. The first night, he spoke about the anxiety that we learn by striving (for old Pharaoh) to accumulate wealth for ourselves in the daily scramble of making a living.
On the second night, he talked with us about the attitude of astonished gratitude that we develop when we truly believe that God loves us and will meet our deepest needs. Jesus fed the crowds with a very small amount of bread and fish: “Do not worry, what you will eat.”
Finally, on the third night, Dr. Brueggemann laid out God’s way to get from our current anxious condition to the state of being blessed:
keeping God’s Sabbath.
Dr. Brueggemann said that the first Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus were Pharaoh’s Ten Commandments: “Make more bricks! You are lazy! Make more bricks! Make more bricks without straw! You are lazy! Gather your own straw and make more bricks!... Lazy! Lazy! ...’
(“You can get ten out of that!”).
By contrast, God gives His people those OTHER Ten Commandments to be an alternative lifestyle, to get us out of being slaves to the rat-race of always trying to make more “bricks”
God commands us to keep one out of every seven days as a sacred day to do no work (Exodus 16:22-30; 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-14).
“The fourth commandment is an alternative to ‘Make more bricks!’” Brueggemann defined sabbath-keeping as “a public, intentional work stoppage.”
† Observing Sabbath reminds us that God takes care of us, supplying our needs.
† When we keep Sabbath, we imitate God, who rested on the seventh day and enjoyed what He had already created.
† When we practice Sabbath faithfully, we take time to share whatever we have with our neighbors, erasing this anxious old world’s distinctions of class and clan. We people of God do these things to show that we have left behind Pharaoh’s accumulation anxiety.
Am I myself good at keeping sabbath?
No, I am not. But that is why even the preacher needs to come to grips with the Scriptures: to get a grip on God’s good reality and surrender the phony story this world tells— that if we would just work harder, 24 / 7 / 365, we would have it made.
In God’s good reality, “the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.”
- 2 Corinthians 4:11
Rev. Dan Bassett