A sermon by Pastor Cindy, Deacon Kris, Pastor Todd and Pastor Amanda (in abstentia)
In his book, UnChristian, researcher David Kinnaman studied the attitudes and perspectives of those who choose not to participate in a church, or a faith community. These are not necessarily people who don’t believe in God, or don’t have faith, but for whatever reason, have chosen not to engage with a church. In Kinnaman’s study, three important themes emerged:
First, one of the reasons these people stayed away from Christian churches was because they perceived the church to be hypocritical. The church, they believe, says one thing and does another. In particular, they called out the church around issues of race, of human sexuality and of classism. And to be honest, the Christian church has made its share of mistakes.
Second, they believe the church is too political. When the church jumps in too deep with either end of the political spectrum, you begin to exclude people on the opposite end of that spectrum.
And third, the church comes across as too judgmental. There is too much law and not enough grace. They believe the church perceives the world too much in black and white…and doesn’t acknowledge the gray.
Now to be honest, as a pastor, I can get pretty defensive of my congregation and the people I love. I want to shout it to the world: “But we’re not like that!” We’re not perfect, and we can always do better, but we try pretty hard to not be any of these things. And ultimately, I know that it doesn’t do any good to get defensive.
But it does make me wonder if we’ve done a good enough job telling the story of what God is up to here. I wonder if we haven’t done enough to tell the story of God’s great love. Because when there is a void, it is usually filled by the loudest, and the angriest voices. We see that in the media all the time. And those voices can be what drive people away.
So, I wonder: What if instead of talking about what the church is not, we focused on what the church is.
- What if we talked about what the church is “for?”
- What are we, as a people of God, “For?” What and who do we support?
- Where and how do we care?
- How do we “show-and-tell” God’s great love?
Our Gospel text today is the story of the transfiguration. It is the story of change…of how people are changed. The disciples are with Jesus, and they go up to a mountain, as Jesus often did. And there, Moses and Elijah suddenly appeared, with dazzling brightness…and Jesus transformed into the same dazzling brightness, and the three of them talked.
The disciples were star-struck. Jesus…and now Elijah and Moses? All right here? Unbelievable. The word “transfiguration” refers to the change in that moment, the change in Jesus…but also to the change in the hearts of the disciples. “Let’s stay here and live in this light!” they wanted. And Jesus said “No. We return, to share this story of light and hope, and help those around us change.”
This is our call.
Cindy: Ummm Todd? <Cindy steps up…> I think you might be missing something here.
Todd: ‘scuse me?
Cindy: It’s not just about change. It’s about healing.
Todd: You know, in 32 years of ministry, I’ve never been interrupted while preaching before.
Cindy: I think we can all agree…it’s probably overdue.
As pastors, we usually don’t tell certain stories. We take our commitment to confidentiality very seriously. And sometimes there’s a story that needs to be told. So with some changes to protect confidentiality, I’d like to share a story with you.
My husband & I were at a social gathering. As often happens, the women were in the kitchen and dining area. The men were in the den watching a football game. I tried to be engaged with the women but I kept changing my position trying to find the perfect spot to remain in the kitchen AND catch a few plays and maybe hear the score of the game.
One of the women separated herself from the group and cast a certain look my direction … as if to ask me to join her. I put aside my thoughts of the game and took a few steps her direction. She immediately began sharing.
It had been a hard couple of weeks. Her daughter was struggling with mental illness. There seemed to be an ebb and flow to the medications working well. When they worked, life seemed pretty close to “normal” – whatever that is. But these past two weeks had been particularly stressful and painful.
Her daughter had managed to hold it all together during the school day. But the stress of the school day boiled over as soon as she had walked through the front door of her home. This had occurred every day that week. The emotional outbursts had reached such a volatile level that Friday that this mother, this woman standing next to me, made the difficult decision to admit her daughter into the mental health unit at the hospital.
The mother held her breath trying to contain her own emotions. I turned my gaze to look into her eyes. As our eyes met, a surge of tears began coursing down her face. Through her sobs she asked, “What am I supposed to do?”
I assured her that God was with her AND her daughter. She nodded and said, “Oh I know that! I hang onto that truth.” Then she took a deep breath and almost spat her words at me. “You’re a pastor. What about the church? Do you know of a church that will care about my daughter? Will she be welcome?”
Many of us know people with these questions.
Maybe these questions are your questions.
Kris: Ah, Cindy?
Kris: It’s not just about healing. It’s also about meaning.
Cindy: Well sure. Meaning is critical.
I know a story of a woman, who just turned 100 years old last month. She was welcomed. And that welcome facilitated a life of meaning and purpose for her.
Her name is Ellen. She was born into a family with many siblings. Before she was 1 year old, her parents divorced. Because of the divorce, she and her many siblings were separated. A couple of them lived with their father, some went to live at the Minnesota State School and Orphanage, while Ellen went to live with her older sister and brother-in-law, here in Owatonna.
The Musil family lived next to Ellen and her sister’s family. They had four children and were Trinity members. The two families were very close. Ellen’s sister and brother-in-law didn’t go to church.
One day, the Musil family invited Ellen to go to Sunday School with them and she did. Ellen found the people of Trinity so welcoming. Ellen said that she found meaning and purpose at Trinity. And, Trinity was the place where, as Ellen tells it, she invited Jesus Christ into her heart.
Since she was never baptized, Ellen was baptized and confirmed on the same day. June 9, 1935 was the day that Ellen was thrilled to become an official member of Trinity, through her baptism and Confirmation. Because of Ellen, her sister and brother-in-law became members of Trinity.
After Confirmation, Ellen’s life kept moving forward. She moved to Chicago and St. Louis for work. She got married and had two boys, Jim and John. She made her way back to the Midwest by going to college at Mankato to get her teaching degree. She was a Home Ec teacher in Owatonna, for a few years, then moved on to teach Home Ec in the Twin Cities. After retirement, she moved back to Owatonna to be near her older sister. She continued to worship at Trinity and proudly says that she rarely missed a Sunday.
With the help of the Lord, Ellen did turn 100 years old on January 22, 2020. Ellen’s faith story, filled with meaning and purpose, began here at Trinity with the simple act of an invitation, with the simple act of welcoming the neighbor.
<Cindy interrupts Kris>: Kris, this is all exactly true. But the need for transformation, for healing and for finding meaning is more true for those on the margins than for anyone.
Kris: What do you mean?
Cindy: Well, I remember a few years ago when a young man came to the church during the morning hours of a weekday. There was no program going on. He was alone.
He looked to be about the age of my sons… just barely beyond college. I could tell that he was trying to look all pulled together. His hair was combed. His shirt was tucked into his oversized jeans that were cinched tightly at the waist with a belt. I greeted him and he asked if I had a few minutes to talk. I said yes.
The first words out of his mouth were: “Do you have any work around here that I could do?” He offered to clean or paint or do yard work… anything. He finally blurted out “I just need a job.”
I asked if he had checked with this agency or that business, this company or that organization. He nodded and starred at his feet. And then he mumbled, “I just got out of jail. No one wants to hire someone with a record.” It turned out that he had participated in some illegal activity. He had served his sentence, but now he was carrying an even larger sentence – one that kept him in the margins of society. One that reminded him every day that no one wanted him. One that required more perseverance than most young men possess.
My heart ached and my mind raced. I didn’t have any work for him. I didn’t have any answers for him. I wondered if he was doomed to become a repeat offender. Where would he go? What would he do? At what point would he give up trying?
I sighed and offered to pray with him. He accepted the suggestion with gratitude. As we stood together, I prayed. He respectfully bowed his head. And then he sniffled. I said Amen and he looked into my eyes – silently pleading for me to help as he shook my hand and thanked me for my time. Then he turned and I watched him walk away carrying the colossal weight of hopelessness.
I never heard if he found a job.
Even today, when I remember that young man, I wonder, who (Did anyone) cared for him? Who (Did anyone) walked with him? Who was FOR him? I don’t know.
Todd: Here’s what we do know: Ministry with the broken, Ministry that welcomes and engages through helping people find meaning, and direct ministry with those on the margins…these things have a powerful effect on both the church and the community. If a group of people, like us…this congregation… gathered here today, goes after these things, really takes them on, and shows our community that we are for them; then change, the kind of change… transformation… transfiguration… Jesus talks about will happen for all of God’s people. We believe that with all of our hearts.
Cindy: We do this because we know that God cares for the broken
Kris: We do this because we know that God is the meaning that people seek.
Cindy: We do this, because we know with every fiber of our being that God is for each of us. We sometimes have to keep reminding ourselves of this, because in the world we live in, it’s easy to forget. But we can say it boldly: God is for us.
Todd: And it is important that Owatonna knows first and foremost that God is for them. And then that we, the church, are here for them. These three areas of ministry…ministry for the broken, ministry that brings meaning through faith formation and ministry on the margins…this is what we believe God is calling us to do. And we will do these things, for our community…for Owatonna.
And so today we launch this initiative, right here, right now. We are for the community. We are for Owatonna, and we want the world to know it.
We have a gift for you. It is a visible sign of our commitment to being for our community. I’m going to ask the ushers to come forward and distribute these…they are our new window stickers for cars, doors, whatever. They say “#ForOwatonna.” When people see them, they will know that you are for our community. And when they ask, you can say “this is my faith…this is my church…it’s Trinity…we are for our whole community.”
In a world where people align themselves politically, or socially, or even spiritually around things that they are against, we think it’s important to rally around those things that we are for. And so, this is our mantra. We are for the broken, we are for finding meaning, and we are for those who are on the margins, we are for the community, we are for Owatonna.
Todd: Because God is for us…
Cindy: We can be for the broken
Todd: Because God is for us…
Kris: We can be for welcoming through meaningful faith formation
Todd: Because God is for us…
Cindy: We can be for those on the margins.
Todd: Because God is for us, we can be for Owatonna.
Kris: Thanks be to God