Sunday’s sermon: Promises Promises

Text used – John 4:46-54

This sermon was given on the Sunday of our annual meeting in 2022. The tradition in the congregation that I serve – the Presbyterian Church of Oronoco – is to intersperse the business of the annual meeting within the worship service. It helps us remember that all the work we do – the mission work, the compassion work, and even the sometimes-tedious administrative work – is work that we do for the glory of God.

 

          For the last few weeks, Jesus has been traveling. A couple of weeks ago, we read about that little incident at the wedding in Cana – the whole water-to-wine thing. After that, he and the few disciples who had already joined him headed up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover where he met the Pharisee Nicodemus in the secret of the night, then spent some time winding their way through some of the more remote parts of Judea. Then, of course, we read about Jesus’ adventure into Samaritan territory and his life-changing encounter with the woman at the well last week. All in all, this is the kind of journey that probably took a couple of weeks: probably 4 days or so to walk from Cana in Galilee to Jerusalem, time to celebrate the Passover, and probably a week to make their way back north to Cana (because last week’s Scripture reading told us Jesus and his disciples spent a few days in the Samaritan village). All told, it’s a journey of roughly 80 miles one way.

          Today, we catch up with Jesus as he and his disciples have finally returned to Cana in Galilee. But this isn’t a simple, uncomplicated returning for Jesus. He’s been doing things. He’s been healing people. His disciples have been baptizing. They traveled through – and stopped in! – Samaria! (gasp!) He’s back at that place where he turned simple water into the best of wines. People know him now. So when he and the disciples did finally return to Cana, word got around. Word got around far and wide. All the way to Capernaum, another 12 (or so) miles northeast of Cana, and in Capernaum, word reached a certain royal official whose son was sick. It’s interesting that the gospel writer tells us that this man is a “royal official.” It could mean that he’s a Gentile – a Roman citizen of some sort. But it could also mean that he’s a Jew whose been employed by the Roman Empire. Either way, he’s an outsider, because Jews who were voluntarily in the employ of the Romans – the oppressors – were despised within the Jewish community as a whole. (Think of Zacchaeus and Matthew, the tax collectors!)

          But to this father – this father’s whose son is deathly ill – none of that matters. He would travel ten times as far as those 12 measly miles between Capernaum and Cana if it meant his son could possibly be made well again. But he’s heard all the rumors flying around about this Jesus fellow, and he knows … he knows! … that this man can heal his son. Even though it’s a long shot. Even though his peers all think he’s crazy. Even though the possibility – the hope – is just a mere flicker … even though it’s barely a spark, it is a hope.

          So he goes to Jesus and asks him to heal his son. And he will not be deterred. Even when Jesus tries to put him off – tries to tell him that he doesn’t really believe. He hears Jesus say to him, “Unless you see miraculous signs and wonders, you won’t believe.”[1] He hears it, but he continues to plead: “Lord, please. Lord, please. Come. Come now. Come quickly. Come before my son dies.”[2] And even as he’s standing there shaking and weeping … even as he is silently and ceaselessly praying … even as he is pouring every ounce of his hope and his faith into this strange and miraculous rabbi in front of him, he hears the words he’s been praying for: “Go home. Your son live.”[3] And just like that, the man knows it’s true. He doesn’t have to see it. He doesn’t have to feel his revived and whole and living son in his arms. He knows. He believes. He mumbles thank you upon thank you upon thank you as he swiftly leaves this Jesus man’s presence and hurries home.

          And it is true. Before he can even get close to his home, he sees one of his servants running toward him along the road, shouting that his son is well. His son is well! And not only is he well, but he was made well at the exact moment that Jesus said it. When he finally walked back into him own home … when he finally did feel his revived and whole and living son in his arms … he told his whole household about his incredible encounter with Jesus, and they all believed.

          This is probably one of the shortest but most powerful stories in the gospel of John – powerful not because of Jesus’ actions but because of the man’s belief. Undeterred. Unfailing. Unwavering. He couldn’t know for sure what the future held, but he believed. He believed it not only could be better but it would be better. He believed without seeing.

          Friends, I don’t normally do this. In fact, I’ve never done this, but this morning, I want to read my pastor’s report to you:

          Many of you know that I’ve been working on a doctorate through the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary for the last 2 years – a Doctor of Ministry (DMin for short … and yes, it sounds exactly like “demon” … commence the ironic laughter). More specifically, it’s a DMin in “Pastoring for Renewal: Discipleship, Liturgy, and Catechesis.” The cohort description that appears at the top of every semester’s syllabus says,

“Renewed pastors lead renewed ministries. Renewed communities encourage and support joyful discipleship in Jesus Christ–loving God, neighbor and self–for the life and healing of the world. For renewal to be lasting and vital, it must address the personal and corporate worship life, education in the faith, and practices of discipleship. This UDTS Doctor of Ministry program will offer students the opportunity to explore the relationship between renewal, liturgical formation, catechesis, and practices of discipleship, both personally, as pastors, and within their parishes, congregations, or faith communities.”

          I mailed in my application for this program toward the end of 2019 and began in February 2020. Little did we know at that time what the next two years would look like. I’ve often joked about how ironic it is that I’m studying renewal in one of the least renewing times in history. And yet, I’ve come to recognize that it’s also incredibly fortuitous. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it abundantly and irrevocably clear that the Church is in the midst of deep and significant change. This isn’t something that was brought about by the pandemic. Far from it. It’s a change that’s been on the horizon for decades, but the realities and challenges of the pandemic both shed a harsh and unrelenting light on the need for change and accelerated the timeline of that need.

          And here I am, in the midst of all of it, taking a deep dive into renewal: the theory, the practices, the theology, the roadblocks and pitfalls, the practical steps, etc. I cannot think that this is an accident. This is what my Fun Nuns would call a pretty mighty “showy God” moment. Because, friends, we are in need of renewal.

          Stating the obvious, we are in need of renewal because of how drained and disconnected these last 2 yrs. of pandemic life have left us. But it goes far beyond that. Nearly five years ago, this congregation made the unanimous decision to dissolve the yoke with First Congregational Church UCC in Zumbrota. When we made the decision to dissolve the yoke, we did so because we’d looked at our finances and realized that we had maybe 3-5 yrs. left if nothing changed. Following that decision, we experienced a quick shot of renewal. People were coming or coming back to worship. Our finances became more stable through a couple of significant gifts and some savings in a few crucial areas. We had lots of energy and ideas. More than that, though, we had the excitement and fervor for the mission and work and worship and life of this congregation.

          But over the last few years, that renewal has been waning. After a few years of our budget staying in the black at the end of the year, we slipped back into running a roughly $10,000 yearly deficit. Participating and attendance – in worship but also in our various activities – has gone down. This is not a “fault” thing. It’s not because someone didn’t do something or forgot to do something or did something wrong. But it is still true.

          And here I am, in the midst of all of it, taking a deep dive into renewal. With this DMin program, I’ve reached the point of needing to figure out and propose my final project – my dissertation. And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and praying and discerning a project that would be something that speaks to where my deepest heart lies in ministry but also something that would be truly and lastingly beneficial for the life of this congregation.

          And so I share with you “Come Alive!”: Exploring Discipleship through Prayer and Story – my DMin Ministry Focus Paper. Everything that I’ve read so far has made it clear how crucial it is that a congregation experience spiritual renewal before any kind of numerical renewal. Our spiritual bones need to be strong before we start thinking about reaching out and branching out in any sort of outreach. As one of my course books puts it, “A community of people growing up in their faith would never decide that they were not interested in reaching others with the gospel that is transforming their own lives.”[4]

          So we’re going to do some deep diving together into renewing our spiritual lives as individuals and our spiritual life as a congregation. It’s going to involve discipleship. It’s going to involve prayer. It’s going to involve story – God’s Story through Scripture but also our own stories of faith through testimony. We’re going to make a concerted, intentional effort to reconnect to God and to reconnect to one another as this body of Christ here in this particular time and place. Because that’s why we come here, right? I would hope so.

          The thing is, I can’t do this alone. Literally. I cannot undertake and participate in an entire congregational curriculum by myself. I need your help. I’m asking for your participation, but more importantly, I’m asking for your heart. I’m asking for you to take part in this endeavor not because you feel like you have to but because you want to – for yourself and for the life of this congregation.

          Let me tell you a story. A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few hours on a Saturday afternoon sitting on the floor of my office really working on the particulars of this Ministry Focus Paper. I was surrounded by books and papers and pens and a rough (very rough!) outline that I’d already put together. Before I began, I lit one of my candles – something I always do in my office because it reminds me that the light of Christ is ever-present. And I was listening to music … because I am who I am. More particularly, I was listening to Lauren Daigle, a contemporary Christian artist. As I was sitting there elbow-deep in plans, a song came on – a song called “Come Alive.” The lyrics for this song come from Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones in the valley (Ezekiel 37:1-14):

          But we know that you are God, yours is the victory.
          We know there is more to come
          That we may not yet see.
          So with the faith you’ve given us,
          We’ll step into the valley unafraid, yeah …

           As we call out to dry bones, come alive, come alive!
          We call out to dead hearts, come alive, come alive!
          Up out of the ashes, let us see an army rise.
          We call out to dry bones, come alive!

          As I sat there surrounded by and steeped in thoughts and plans and prayers for renewal – specifically the renewal of this beloved little white church on the hill – with this song and these lyrics resounding in my ears and my heart, I was overcome with this vision of what we could be. It was full of hope. It was full of joy and possibility. It was full of God’s Spirit. And it brought me to tears. I hope and pray that you’ll take this journey with me in the year to come.

          Friends, it’s time to believe without seeing. Let’s do this. Amen.

[1] Jn 4:48 (emphasis added).

[2] based on Jn 4:49.

[3] Jn 4:50.

[4] Harold Percy. Your Church Can Thrive: Making the Connections That Build Healthy Congregations. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 31.

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