On the Road: Beginnings Are Good

October 8, 2017
Reverend Sarah Brouwer

Genesis 1:1-5, 26, 28, 31; Luke 24:13-16

This fall, Tim kicked us off with a series on the Reformation. It is the 500th Anniversary of the reformation this year, and festivities among church nerds the world over have been happening for months.

Thankfully Tim’s knee replacement surgery went well on Monday, and while he recovers for the next four weeks, the associate pastors will take up the task of preaching. In September, Tim artfully laid out the main theological points of the reformation and connected them to our present and future, as Westminster steps into a new era. It seems providential really, that such a monumental anniversary would be upon us, to remind us as we are in the midst of change, that change is part of our tradition.

You may have heard this phrase among proud Presbyterians before: Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda, the church reformed and always reforming. Even now, this latin phrase is a rallying cry for reformed people- a motto to remind us of who we are and who we intend to be.

Although we aren’t quite sure where it came from, it was written about quite frequently in the mid-20th century by theologian Karl Barth. Barth preached and taught during both world wars. He witnessed how the church, instead of being reformed, was conforming to anti-semitism. Barth was considered theologically conservative, because he blamed more liberal theology for morphing God conveniently into the supporter of institutional agendas, like the Nazis. Barth fought for the oppressed through theology that was not popular during his time.

Now, it’s not my natural impulse to quote Barth in sermons. But here’s the thing I appreciate about him. Barth was not a reformer for the sake of reforming; he didn’t insist on change for the sake of change. There was a global crisis happening, which the church became apologetic for, and Barth was called to respond. Throughout history, this church reformed and always reforming has sometimes been misused by people trying to obtain power, or exclude others. But, when reform  is legitimate and successful, it always seems to happen beyond the control or desire of the church as it is, and it usually has those in mind those who have been left behind.

Now, here we find ourselves in 2017, at Westminster, a congregation right in the middle of yet another monumental shift. We believe that God is calling us to become more intentionally open and diverse, and responsive to the city around us. And because of an extraordinary gift, the project next door and the incredible mission opportunities with it are taking shape. Through the work of Open Doors Open Futures, and given our unique downtown context, and the juncture within the larger church and in our current culture, I am confident that none of this is coincidental. We stand on the precipice of large scale change. It is upon us for a reason, and we have been called to the exciting task of deciphering what God is doing among us.

The disciples in Luke’s Gospel were at a critical turning point in their life, as well. It was Sunday, and they had spent the weekend grieving Jesus’ death. They heard the tomb was empty, but that was about it- they didn’t yet understand what had happened. Cleopas and another disciple were presumably making their way home to Emmaus, a walk that would have taken a couple of hours, leaving them plenty of time to recount the traumatic events of the last few days. The text says that as they were walking Jesus came near to them, but they were kept from recognizing him. It’s a strange turn of phrase. My educated guess says they weren’t the only ones on the road, walking home from Jerusalem that day, and they were in deep conversation, unaware of who was around them. But, let’s be logical here, they also weren’t on the lookout for a resurrected body. Their expectations had been foiled, and they no longer had a messiah who would usher in a new reign for the people of Israel. This change in plans was devastating, and, as far as they knew, it put an end to their ministry. I can imagine there was a great amount of resignation between them. They had seemingly given up everything to follow Jesus- family members who counted on them had been left behind in pursuit of this religious radical named Jesus, now dead. And they were facing the facts of the situation. As Sarah Henrich writes, they had to “get real, grow up, and get back to work.”

My colleagues and I have split up this story in Luke 24. We will preach through it, piece by piece, during these four Sundays left in October. I will say, it was good to look at these verses away from what happens at the end of the story when the disciples realize it has been Jesus with them all along, their lives are changed. As I read and reread these verses, where the disciples seem to have yielded to what they thought happened, I began to think about how hard it is for our own minds and hearts to be changed. We too can be in the dark about what God is doing. We miss resurrection, we move on with individual priorities, become resigned to the way things are, and we continue to hold on to biases that close our hearts. These disciples challenged me to consider: when was the last time I was truly changed?

The two weeks after I graduated from seminary, I spent in Chicago. I had one unfulfilled course requirement, which was an intense class in dismantling racism and bias. I’ll shamefully admit I was annoyed I had to take this class, and that I had to be away from home for two weeks to do it. I was already a progressive-minded person; clearly this class was for my more conservative classmates. Long story short, let’s just say those two weeks in Chicago changed me in such a way that I will never be the same after. We met with some of the most diverse populations I’ve ever encountered, had some of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever experienced, and, while I could say so much more about this course, what is most important is this: it made me realize how much I didn’t know, how many biases I did and continue to have, and that it would be a lifelong pursuit not only to work on those biases, but to be honest and vulnerable about them and bring others along in doing it with me. I also learned an important lesson about ministry, which is that there is a difference between making change happen, and making space for God’s people to be changed.

A friend told me a story recently. He was in graduate school some years ago, focused on study and work, and living far away from family. His mother was sick, which he knew, but he received a call one day that things had taken a turn and he should, much like the disciples, begin the journey home. When he got home he had absolutely no idea how bad things actually were. His mom had been told by doctors that she could extend her life 18-24 months with treatment, but she had refused. His mother used to tell him he had the gift of convincing anyone of anything; he was good at getting people to change their minds. Over the course of days he tried everything in his power to convince his mom to get treatment, but she didn’t want to do it. In the most critical of moments, his gift, which had been identified and encouraged by his mom, didn’t work. His mother died and initially he was angry about what had happened. But then, he said, he learned something. Ultimately, his gift wasn’t intended to change the minds of everyone, instantaneously. He realized he had to be part of the process, to open his own heart and come alongside people, and allow himself to be changed, too.

At present it seems there are, daily, new opportunities to choose how we will have our being in this world, and how we will posture ourselves- as individuals, and at this juncture in our history, as a community of faith. Will we continue on just as we are, using our new space to discuss our own opinions in the dark while the world clamors for good news and resurrection? Our reformation heritage, misinterpreted, can tell us that we alone are the change agents- that we are the ones with the lens that brings God into clearest focus. But Barth and Luther and Calvin would be the first to say that isn’t true; they weren’t the owners of change. They were reformers as a response to what God was doing in them, and what was happening in the world around them. An elder at our session meeting last month made this good point: as we open our doors to the future, is the expectation that Westminster will be a telling presence in the city, or is it, that God’s city will also become a telling presence to us?

The story of creation in Genesis always brings words of blessing, but it feels especially appropriate as change is upon us, and we find ourselves in the midst of a new creation. You see, our creation story begins in the dark, in what seems like the unknown. But even in these first verses we understand that God is intentional, there was never nothing with God, but always something, waiting until just the right time to be changed into what is good. With our present day sloppy speech we often use the word good to indicate that things are just fine, nothing to complain about, really. But, God calling creation good is more than that. It is akin to outstanding. This is our beginning. And thus our beginning always has been and always will be beautiful. You and I, we come from a beautiful beginning. And we shouldn’t forget that. As the world continues to present itself as anything but good, we trust in a God who takes what is- death, even- and starts fresh, makes something new out of it, changes it, and changes even us. “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” These things are not erased, but transformed. Creation reveals not just God’s capacity for change, but God’s desire for change that is good.

In the last couple of weeks, in the wake of natural disasters, and another mass shooting in Las Vegas, I have sensed a collective numbing of our nation. What is happening around us often does not reflect the goodness of God’s creation. Conversations about these events turn political and someone says, “can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” Staying in the darkness of our privilege, heads down facing the road like the disciples, feels much safer. But we believe in a creative God- one who speaks words and does not stay silent, who creates not because of ability but because of a desire to change, who does not allow the chaos of the formless void to pull us under, but transforms it and calls it good. This same God sent Jesus to walk alongside his disciples until they recognized him, and showed them the change they were capable of if they trusted in the power of resurrection.

We are capable of that kind of change, too. Change that starts within, that is deeply influenced by God’s world around us. In January, when we step foot into the space next door, my greatest hope and prayer is that we will not be the same people we were before. Who we were does not get left behind, but it does get transformed. That is our call. As reformed people. As God’s people.

Tim has said this before, but I will say it again. What we are building next door is a sanctuary- a sanctuary for the city that is physically accessible, and spiritually open. And our worship discernment team has been working hard to imagine what kind of  worship will happen there. What they are creating will be good, in the best sense of the word. But, like any process with such a large task, it hasn’t been easy. When we started a little over a year ago, we all brought our own vision of the kind of worship we wanted to see in Westminster Hall. But, after visiting other churches, compiling our findings, discussing priorities, and finding our way through all the unknown possibilities and expectations for that space, I think we found it wasn’t just a new service we were creating. What has been most surprising and good about working with this group is how much we have all been changed by the process, and how our posture toward the world has changed, too. We are creating space for lives to be transformed by God. This worship is not for us, only, it is for the unchurched, the de-churched, the nones, the poor, the wealthy, the old and the young, black and white, LGBTQ, and whoever else is seeking the good news of the Gospel, and we don’t know yet who else.

I would like to think that if Barth had been asked what the next 100 or 500 years of the church were going to look like, his answer would not have been concrete. I’m sure he had his hopes for it- more justice oriented, more gracious and welcoming. But, as a true reformer he would have also known that even he could not predict what God would do, and how God’s people would be changed. He knew the future of the church depended upon a people who could look up from the road they were on. And as reformers of the 21st century, this is where we must begin, too. From creation to resurrection, from reformation and into the future, God’s people have made the most faithful changes when they have been open to God first changing them.

Beginnings can be mysterious and always start in the dark. But we also trust that beginnings are good, if we are open to what God is creating, changing, transforming and resurrecting within us.

Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

Brennan Blue

God of mercy, whose presence sustains us in every circumstance

We come with heavy hearts

Seeking the grounding relief of your compassion and care

as we grieve the fear, danger and division

that cloud our local and global communities

We pray for the Spirit’s hope
For the courage and conviction of Christ
That we may not yield our humanity to fear

even when it feels we are endlessly
dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death and despair

We come this morning to hear your Word of resurrection
Remind us that we are made in your good image

Remind us that dawn can and will follow the darkness

That even now your Spirit is working to make all things new

Help us to feel and know that your kin-dom of peace

is still a possibility in which to believe

still a hope beautiful enough and attainable enough
to live and work, to pray and advocate for

With pain and sorrow, Lord, we pray for all those who lives were brutally taken
this past week in Las Vegas
We pray for broken homes and families, for broken trust and futures
As we grieve another mass shooting, another act of domestic terrorism

How long, O Lord, will your peace hide from our world?

How long, O Lord, will we hide from responsibility that is ours

To desperately find a way forward

Whatever it may take?

Forgive us for our failure to make concrete change

So grant us strength for our work

And hope in our calling

That we may together build the future in which

swords are beaten into plowshares

and spears into pruning hooks

when guns are laid aside for gardens, for grace, for gratitude

May your Spirit guide us, each in our own context,

to heal these hurts and somehow find a new day

And so we pray for your comforting presence, O God, for all who are hurting this day

in the midst of grief, loneliness, pain or despair

We pray for the people of Puerto Rico in their desperate struggle for life and healing

We pray for those who are living with mental illness and addition

May they know relief and the comfort of steadfast care

O God of life, we cast our lives and the life of our ministry

into the welcoming promise of your gospel

So may you unite us, truly and sincerely, as one body and one human family

As we join our voices now in the prayer Christ taught us, saying…

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