Texts for this sermon:
Isaiah 40:25-31 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-27
Friends, why are we here today? Or any Sunday … or even any other day of the week for that matter? What keeps us coming back to this building – this historic little white church with the green shutters and the antique organ?
Really, it’s out of the way for a number of us. Some come from Red Wing, from Goodhue, from Wanamingo.
We don’t all see eye-to-eye on things – silly things as well as some of the more serious issues of the day.
And there are certainly bigger congregations around here that we could join – congregations with more butts in the pews and fewer financial concerns.
And yet we choose to keep coming back here Sunday after Sunday, Christmas after Christmas, year after year.
We come back for the community. We care about each other. We have a shared history (some maybe a bit longer history than others). We ask about one another’s families, jobs, vacations, and the hurdles that we’re facing not because we have to, but because we genuinely care. We’re invested in each other’s lives – celebrating together, mourning together, and lifting each other up when the need arises. We pray for each other, and we love each other because that’s what you do as brothers and sisters in Christ. Maybe we don’t always see eye-to-eye, but we connect with each other heart-to-heart.
And we come back because of our shared belief that we are doing powerful, important work here – God’s work in the city of Zumbrota, in southeastern Minnesota, and even in the world. That’s part of the reason we’re gathered today, isn’t it? To do the work of the church in the form of the annual meeting. We’re gathered to take action on some items that affect our lives together as the First Congregational United Church of Christ and as the OZ congregations. We’re gathered to “check-in” with each other again – to hear about how the various functioning bodies that are affiliated with this congregation (the Trustees, the Deacons, and so on) have been working to live the Good News of the Gospel throughout the past year.
Now, as we consider the work that’s been done and the work that lies ahead, it’s my hope that as we go through the familiar motions of this annual meeting we will also grasp that shining thread of hope and vitality and inspiration that we find running through Paul’s words this morning. In the New Testament passage that we read, Paul was writing to the Christians in Corinth about his ministry and about their ministry. Paul talked about the voluntary nature of his calling – about giving his heart and his time and his energy not because he had to but because he wanted to: I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wider range of people. And Paul made sure that the Christians in Corinth knew that the message he was bringing – the message that he was, in fact, living – was for everyone: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized – whoever. Paul made it clear that it wasn’t his job to tell someone, “Nope, you’re not worthy of hearing the Good News.” It reminds me of a story that I loved while I was growing up. [Stone Soup] Paul knew the truth at the heart of the Stone Soup story – there’s a place for everything in the pot. Every contribution just makes the soup better.
In fact, Paul made it clear that he did whatever he had to do in order to make the Good News accessible to everyone: I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I know … I know … sounds a little exhausting, right? How often do we tell our children, our spouses, our friends, and even ourselves that we don’t have to be all things to all people? That we don’t have to please everybody? And it’s true that if you spend all your time trying to be what everyone thinks they need, you will find yourself sorely depleted before your head can even hit the pillow at night. But on the flip side, it seems like more and more, we live in a “take it or leave it” society. We deify our constitutional freedom of speech while often turning a blind eye to the consequences and the aftermath of that speech. There has to be a happy medium in there – a place in which we can live the Good News of the Gospel, God’s love and forgiveness and justice, in a way that it reaches people of all ages, races, backgrounds, and walks of life but also a place in which we find renewal in this living, not exhaustion.
I think that in our Scripture this morning, we also get a hint at that place from Paul. You see, Paul made sure to highlight two other key points. First, he reminded the Corinthian Christians that it wasn’t for his own gain, his own glory, his own authority that he was working. Paul said, “I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!” Paul had found this incredible, life-altering faith in Jesus Christ. He had been given a first-hand experience of God’s grace and forgiveness and blessing, and it was toward the spreading of that message, that Good News that he worked so passionately. And, friends, it’s the same for us. We’re not spreading the message of how awesome we are. We don’t gather on Sunday morning to read from our own day planners or sing songs about our own greatness. We come together in this place and engage in the work of this church to spread the Good News of the Gospel, that in Jesus Christ, all sins are forgiven, all slates are wiped clean, and all are made a people loved and forgiven and freed.
And Paul’s second critical point? Yes, this work can be exhausting. It can be trying. At times, it can be challenging – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Paul even went so far as to compare working for the Good News to the rigorous training of the gladiators! But even in the face of that struggle and strain, Paul made it clear that the blessing of the ultimate goal far outweighed the exhaustion: All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that gold eternally. I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. As a Hebrew scholar in his former life, Paul would have been familiar with the words from the prophet Isaiah that we read this morning: God doesn’t come and go. God lasts. [God’s] Creator of all you can see or imagine. [God] doesn’t get tired out, doesn’t pause to catch [a] breath. And [God] knows everything, inside and out. [God] energizes those who get tired, gives fresh strength to dropouts. For even young people tire and drop out, young folk in their prime stumble and fall. But those who wait upon God get fresh strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles, they run and don’t get tired, they walk and don’t lag behind.
I know that sometimes it’s hard to be part of a small congregation – rotating in and out of the same positions, always being the one to plan this fundraiser or organize that meeting. It’s easy to get bogged down in all the little details and to get discouraged by the amount of work that there is to do. But friends, we have to remember that we truly are doing God’s work. We are God’s living message of love and peace and justice, and the work that we do is important work. And as we approach this work, we need to come at it with a Stone Soup attitude – everyone has a contribution to make, and everyone has to step up, take ownership, and share a piece of themselves. Former President Jimmy Carter said, “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”
As we look ahead as a congregation, as we discern where God is leading us in the year ahead and how to be the sort of servants that are needed right here and right now, let us ask ourselves three important questions:
- What is our voice?
- What is our mission?
- What can we do today?
 1 Cor 9:19 (emphasis added).
 1 Cor 9:20-22a.
 Heather Forest (retold by). Stone Soup. (Little Rock, AK: August House LittleFolk), 1998.
 1 Cor 9:22c.
 1 Cor 9:23.
 1 Cor 9:25-26 (emphasis added).
 Is 40:28b-31.