I’ve made a practice in recent years of speaking to the State of the Congregation during our annual meeting. It’s a nice moment to step back and assess how things look – what challenges face us and what is going well. I hope that you’ll come.
This year while I was mulling this over, my wife, Debbie, daughter Anna and I attended daughter Erica’s graduation from Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA. As I mentioned in worship last week, it was a wonderful occasion, filling us with pride as we watched her take her next steps into ministry. And it got me thinking about my ordination into ministry, which took place right here in Asheville on the same day in February 2005 when you installed me as your minister. That, too, was a wonderful occasion and, for me, very inspiring.
One of the high points of that day for me was the ordination sermon from the man who was my advisor at Meadville Lombard Theological School, the Rev. David Bumbaugh. David recalled the year of his own ordination – 1964 – and what a tumultuous yet hope-filled time it was. Yet, still there remained, in his words, “the dream of a society lay within our reach if we had the courage to reach out and grasp the possibilities,” in short, the opportunity to save the world. And ministry, the work of religion, it was agreed, was a way to accomplish it.
In the time since, he said, many of those early expectations for a changed world were disappointed and trimmed to realistic size. Also trimmed were the expectations for religion, letting go of the dream that it might be a vehicle of change and instead seeing its mission as simply, in his words, “helping people to feel better about themselves.”
He told us that “every fiber of my being cries out against this diminished understanding of the church and its ministry.” Instead, he said, “The purpose of its ministry, lay and clergy, is to enlist people in a vision that lifts them out of dumb fascination with themselves, that lifts them out of their little local universes, that helps them understand themselves as part of an ongoing venture, responsible to generations past and generations yet to come for building a world of justice and mercy, a world of peace and hope.”
Almost 12 years later, those words still ring in my ears. Especially at a time when this congregation, like nearly every congregation in every denomination, is struggling to get a handle on our future, to understand how it will endure, we need to remind ourselves of the true work before us.
It is work that challenges us, that pulls us out of our comfort zones, that makes demands on our attention, our compassion, our resources. For all that, what we receive in return is a richness in our lives that it is hard to give words to, a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, an embodied hope that finds in a community of struggle and support the improbable yet transformative work of saving the world.