Friday, December 28, 2007

Sermons coming

Sorry that I've been a bit delayed in getting sermons up recently. I preached on November 25th (Christ the King C) and December 23rd (Advent 4A). Really, my biggest excuse is that the closest-to-final versions of them are on my computer at the office, and I most often post to this thing from home.

So, anyway, they'll be up soon, say in the next week or so. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Yes, that's right: those of you who've looked at my blog before may notice that the headline bar at the top changed to "... from a 26-year-old ..." It is indeed my birthday today, which so far I've celebrated by having to get up entirely too early so I could attend the monthly (retired) Men's Fellowship breakfast, eating a Western Chicken breakfast skillet at said breakfast, driving through the rain-ice mix from today's ice storm, and working on things in my office at the church. Gonna go have lunch now. Exciting, eh?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Thoughts on Advent Music

As the Advent season approaches, there's a debate going on in my congregation about what the appropriate hymns to sing are during these four weeks leading up to Christmas. Really, this is not a new debate: my congregation has had some of it before, and many congregations face a similar dilemma.

The struggle, as it were, is basically this: the pastors (myself and my senior pastor colleague), the music staff, and a portion of the congregation want Advent to be Advent, holding off on Christmas carols/hymns until the Christmas Eve services and for the Sunday(s) following that are the actual Christmas season. Another section of the congregation, though, doesn't seem to have much connection with the Advent season or its hymnody, and feels that we should be singing the Christmas carols in those Sundays leading up to Christmas. And, of course, there's probably the silent 'broad middle' of the congregation that doesn't have particularly strong feelings one way or the other on the matter.

In the debate going on in my congregation, I think there are actually a number of realities and issues playing into the dynamics of the debate--issues not directly connected to the debate at hand--and so I'm not sure it's helpful or appropriate to go into great detail about the specifics of how this debate is playing out in this place.

What I want to do instead, though, is give some of the reasons why I feel Advent is important, why I feel we need to let Advent be Advent.

1. -- There's a fairly basic issue about the integrity, harmony, and wholeness of the liturgy itself. Our congregation uses the lectionary to determine the scripture readings for each Sunday. As a preacher and worship planner, I find that worship services are much more powerful and meaningful when all of the elements fit with one another. Specifically, I try very hard whenever I am planning worship to see that the hymns and other music we sing fits well with the scripture readings, the sermon, and any other themes for that day (special celebrations, liturgical season, etc.). Sometimes this "fit" is more direct (a hymn whose text quotes or tells the story of one or more of the readings, for instance) and sometimes this "fit" is more of a 'coordinated' or 'complementary' relationship (a hymn that expresses the same or similar themes, for instance). During the 'festival seasons' (that is, the part of the church year that is not simply Ordinary Time), often choosing most of the hymns out of the repertoire for that season is a sufficient level of 'fit' to bring the sort of harmony I look for. The hymn that follows the sermon, though, (the "Hymn of the Day" as it is referred to in the Lutheran tradition) definitely needs to 'fit' the readings and sermon, for me--little is more jarring than a post-sermon hymn that deflates, contradicts, or is simply unrelated to the sermon and scripture that precedes it (unless for some well-thought out reason a contradictory message is planned intentionally).

So, during the season of Advent, it makes little sense to me to completely ignore the whole nature of what the scripture readings are during this season. For instance, the Gospel reading for the 1st Sunday of Advent this coming year is from an apocalyptic discourse of Jesus, Matthew 24:36-44: "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." For that kind of text, something like the well-known "Sleepers Wake! A Voice Astound Us" (a.k.a. "Wake, awake, for night is flying") to the also-well-known tune WACHET AUF is something that fits well. Or, while not being quite so direct a fit, Marty Haugen's "Awake! Awake, and greet the new morn" would fit in a complementary way. Or even "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" complements this text--Jesus is saying "you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" and in response the church prays for him to come. Flipping through one of the hymnals I have at home right now, though, I cannot find a Christmas carol that fits at all with this kind of text.

The situation is the same with many of the Sundays of Advent in all three years of the lectionary cycle. We hear beautiful and powerful prophetic visions from Isaiah about the wolf lying down with the lamb and God saying 'peace' to those under oppression. We hear Jesus speaking of his second coming, not his first. We hear John the Baptist crying out to prepare and repent. How many Christmas carols speak of repentance?

2. -- The church does not need to play into and support the over-commercialization of Christmas and our society's addiction to immediate gratification. As this debate plays out in many churches, there are always folk who say "well, they're playing Christmas carols everywhere else, why can't we sing them in church?" Well, part of the vocation of Christianity and the church is to invite people into "the way", a different way of seeing themselves and the world and a different set of practices. Recently there has been a lot written about the recovery of "Christian practices" in mainline Protestant churches. The way we mark time, as Christians, is part of the different sort of practices we engage in as the church. We set aside one day each week for 'sabbath': worship, rest, and service to others. And we observe a liturgical cycle that deeply connects us with the life of Jesus: his coming, his birth, his ministry, his death, his resurrection, his presence by the Holy Spirit, and his coming again. It is not that we don't celebrate Christmas or sing Christmas carols, but we do so in their own time and place. Advent gives us the opportunity to be immersed in Jesus' "coming"s: his first coming and his coming again.

The demand that we sing Christmas carols during Advent stems from at least two phenomena in American society and American Christianity. One of these I have already named: the combination of commercialization with our American addiction to instant gratification. Why should I have to wait when I can have it now? A second piece, though, has to do with the phenomenon of the American civic religion and the loss of Christian distinctiveness in America. Many in our congregations do not connect with Advent, or with much of the liturgical/lectionary year, because in the so-called glory days of American Protestantism, most Protestants had little to do with such things. Observance of the church year and use of the lectionary is something that most mainline Protestants (the Episcopalians and some Lutherans excepted) only began reclaiming in the late 1960s. It was probably not until the 1980s that you could say it had caught on to a large degree in a majority of the churches. (And, I will add, my particular congregation was especially late in this, as regular use of the lectionary didn't start until around the year 2000.) The idea that the distinctive, historic practices of the larger Christian tradition could have important formational function went largely unrecognized, or thought unimportant, by mid-20th century civic faith Protestantism. It was simply assumed that everyone was Christian and that everyone knew what it meant to be Christian. The idea that Christianity was about inviting people into an alternative way of life, faith, and practice would have been thought odd at best (and perhaps 'ludicrous').

Well, folks, this isn't the 1950s any more. Most mainline Protestants have been engaged in the liturgical renewal movement for at least 30 years. Marking the liturgical seasons, using the lectionary, reclaiming the sacraments, all this is not new. Secondly, we do need to be formed in the faith, to be drink deeply at the well that is the life-death-and-resurrection of Jesus, to be invited into a distinctive community called the church.

3. -- This final piece is connected to the second one, but from a different angle. I'll say it this way: We need Advent. I think the root feeling/theme at the heart of Advent is longing. Simply as humans, we have longing. We long for comfort, for peace, for an end to warfare and hunger, for love. The haunting melody of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is a wonderful musical embodiment of that longing. As Christians, though, we are especially a people of longing. We are the ones who "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes"--the focus of which should be at least as much on the "until he comes" part as on the "Lord's death" part. Our basic faith affirmations include "Christ will come again" and "I believe in ... the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting." Our basic prayer is "Our Father in heaven ... your kingdom come." Quite frankly, if we are not a people of longing, then we have definitely lost our way as Christians. If we are not a people of longing, then we have lost sight of all those in this world who are hungry, dispossessed, and enslaved. If we are not a people of longing, then the gospel itself is nothing to us, for we apparently have all we need and all we hope for within our reach. (This is part of the connection to the commercialization of American society theme, because in America we do have everything within our reach, or at least so it seems.) If we are not a people of longing, then we have no use for God at all. "Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O God," saith Augustine.

We need Advent. We need it in order to reconnect with the longing that haunts inside us, to give voice to our hope for ourselves and the world, to empower us to authentically cry out "Come, Lord Jesus!"

"How the Pilgrims Were Wrong" - A Sermon for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

A Sermon for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Pilgrim Sunday / Stewardship Sunday
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, Illinois
November 18, 2007

(It must be noted that in my congregation, the Sunday preceding Thanksgiving is observed as "Pilgrim Sunday", a remembrance of the 'Pilgrim heritage' of the Congregationalist tradition.)

A few years ago, May of 2000 to be exact, I had the opportunity to stand where the Pilgrims once had—literally. I was on a European concert tour with the Men’s Glee Club from Michigan State University, a tour that began with a week in the Netherlands. On our very first day, we were driven to Leiden, a university city not very far from Amsterdam. In Leiden, there still stands Pieterskirk, St. Peter’s Church. Stepping inside, you can see the beauty of the gothic architecture, take in the noble vastness of the space, and perhaps even hear some melodies from one of Pieterskirk’s two pipe organs. What you can’t do, though, is actually attend church there, as the building was deconsecrated as a church some years ago. But, as you continue your walk around this grand building, you’re likely to happen upon the reminders of some of the people who once did attend church there. You might see a plaque with a hauntingly familiar-looking boat on it, memorializing one John Robinson. Intrigued, you take a closer look and read the plaque:

In Memory of
Rev. John Robinson, M. A.
Pastor of the English Church Worshipping Over Against
This Spot, A. D. 1609 - 1625, Whence at his Prompting
Went Forth
To Settle New England
in 1620
- - - - - - - - -
Buried under this house of worship, 4 March, 1625
[At the age of] [49] Years.
In Memoria Aeterna Erit Justus.
Erected by the National Council of the Congregational
Churches of the United States of America
A. D. 1891”

Indeed, this John Robinson was the pastor of the congregation of Puritans that left England for Holland in 1609 to worship without persecution, the same congregation from which some 35 people (which was actually only a minority of the congregation) set sail for the new world on the Mayflower in 1620. And this Pieterskirk where we find this plaque is the church in which that congregation worshipped.

Knowing what I know now, that I would find myself standing in a Congregationalist pulpit, I am honored that I had the opportunity to place my feet in the very church where the Pilgrim’s feet had trod, to reflect on the Pilgrim pastor—the one who told them as they left that there was “yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s word”—glad to imagine that faithful community at worship in those walls, to glimpse a little piece of their story. And, had I known what I know now, I probably would have taken better pictures.

It is a right and good thing to remember and celebrate the heritage from which we come, whatever that may be. But in honoring our heritage and reflecting on our tradition, we only do so faithfully when we remember with a critical mind, a willingness to recognize that what our forebears did may not have been right, or at least not be the best thing for us to do today. It’s the difference between tradition and traditionalism.

The reason I bring this critical memory thing up today is this: as I’ve been thinking about the Pilgrims alongside the two scripture readings for this morning, the topic—the sermon title, if you will—that keeps popping up in my head is “How the Pilgrims were Wrong.”

I think the Pilgrims may have been wrong because they didn’t quite dream big enough. Now, yes, yes, I understand that understand that leaving everything behind to set sail for a relatively unknown land thousands of miles across the ocean is rather a big thing. So I do not mean to imply that they did not risk a lot—in fact, the Pilgrims risked far more for their faith than most of us here today have had to risk, quite possibly more than many of us might be willing to risk. But my question is not about what they risked, but what did they dream? What was their vision?

In this piece from the last section of Isaiah, God offers a vision, and not just some small vision, but a pretty darn big one. The Israelites have come back from exile in Babylon, and they’ve found out that life is not the rosy walk in the garden that they thought it would be. The city of Jerusalem was still in ruins, they weren’t a self-sufficient kingdom led by someone from the line of David, and even the temple itself was still a wrecked mess. They still vividly remembered their people being plucked from the land they toiled over, driven out of the houses they labored to build. But even as the people despaired and began loosing their vision, God was not done. God had a new vision for them, actually a new vision for the whole creation. “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things”—that is, the despair, the humiliation, the exile—“shall not be remembered or come to mind.” God is going to create a new Jerusalem, a new city on the hill that would be a light to the nations.

When we hear these promises, this vision, I think it’s hard for us today to really have a sense of how big this is. Sometimes I think it’s maybe easier to think about some heavenly paradise. Ah, yes, in some far away place in some far away time, there’s this place of wonder and peace. I can limit God to heaven and believe that God has some pie in the sky awaiting us. That’s easy. But it’s that ‘new earth’ part of the vision that makes it big, I think. This is a vision about real infants that die too young and real labor that seems in vain. If I were to imagine this vision in today’s terms, it would have something to do a new creation for the very real children we know who grow up in dangerous neighborhoods or maybe the mentally-ill woman I see a few times a week walking down the middle of the street past my apartment, yelling at the traffic that goes by her. Dreaming God’s big dream about this real world is not easy. I mean, come on, that whole wolf and lamb thing—we all know that wolves and lambs don’t go together, and when they do only one of them is get out of it alive… and usually it’s the wolf.

For the Pilgrims, though, in the midst of their struggles with fellow Puritans and the Anglicans and the Catholics, they seemed to have trouble too. They set off to the Americas to create their own city on a hill, their own New Jerusalem. It is as though they lost sight of God’s vision and promise that the New Jerusalem was God’s work, work they were invited and called to be a part of, but still God’s creation in the end. It doesn’t seem as though they had a sense of God’s vision encompassing everyone, all creation and all peoples. And like I’ve said, I think the hard part about this vision is that it is a vision about this world, a promise from God that the very people and land and cities we know will be transformed. And yet, for the Pilgrims, they decided that they had to separate from the church and the world that they knew—they were even called Separatists by other Puritan groups, even by the Puritans that would join them in Massachusetts only 10 years later. From all across the witness of the Bible, we see again and again the promise that God is not done with this world—even to the very end in the book of Revelation, where in the second to last chapter, the loud voice from the throne proclaims “See, the home of God is among mortals. [God] will dwell with them, and they will be [God’s] peoples.” So, looking back at the Pilgrims I think it is fair to question their decision to separate themselves from the rest of the church and from their society.

On the other hand, it is only fair to look back with the critical eye on the Pilgrims if we are willing to turn that critical eye on ourselves as well. Are we too guilty of not dreaming big enough? Often I think yes. When most of us hear the kind of big vision that God has through Isaiah’s words, well… we have trouble dreaming that that kind of radical transformation is possible in our world… and, even if we thought it were, for many of us we have too much at stake with the way the world is now that we don’t want to dream that. We don’t want to be too intentional about engaging with the real practices of Christianity and the church, because then we might just start seeing the world differently. We might start having big dreams. And besides that, if we started being intentional and committed about church and discipleship and Christian practices, then we’d be different—we’d be weird.

Well, friends, the gospel is weird. The gospel says that the world doesn’t belong to those who have money or power, rather it belongs to God. Pretty weird. God not as some hard-nosed distant despot, but rather the gospel speaks of the God loved all of us and all the world enough to come as one of us to be a part of it. Pretty weird. Death as not the final word. Pretty weird. A God who still comes to us through real, concrete, this-worldly things like spoken words, water, bread and wine, communities of real, less-than-perfect people. Pretty weird. God invites us to dream big and then to live as though those dreams were already happening. Pretty weird.

You know, that’s actually one of the good things about the Pilgrims, one of the things they did right that we can learn from: the Pilgrims were pretty weird, too. They weren’t afraid to be known for their faith. They weren’t afraid to let their faith—to let God, even—affect every part of their day-to-day life. They weren’t afraid to engage in practices of faith that made them distinctive as Christians. They weren’t afraid to give everything—their money, their talents, their lives—in response to God, to give thanks for all God’s work. (There, for those of you who were expecting a stewardship sermon today, that sentence was for you.)

What can we do in response to all God has done for us? What’s the biggest, craziest, most lavish vision we can dream of what God is doing in the world? And what’s the weirdest thing we can do, the weirdest people we can be, living out that dream?

Amen, weird dreamers, Amen.

"Have we failed the Reformation? Thoughts on Bread and Forgiveness" -- A Sermon for Reformation Sunday 2007

“Have we failed the Reformation? Thoughts on Bread and Forgiveness”
A Sermon for Reformation Sunday 2007
Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, Illinois
October 28, 2007

Reformation Sunday is probably one of my favorite days on the church calendar each year. Now, this may seem like a strange thing—Reformation Day doesn’t have the pizzazz of Easter Sunday or any special sentimental feelings like Christmas can have. It’s not even a day that everyone in our own denomination, the United Church of Christ, would be very familiar with—even though it is listed on the official UCC calendar book every year. I suspect that many of you probably don’t know much about Reformation Sunday, either, this day that commemorates the very beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, when people like Martin Luther and John Calvin back in the 1500s started trying to reform the church, but instead created one of the biggest divides among Christians ever, the divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics.

So why is this somewhat obscure day one of my favorites? Well, let me first say that it is not because I think it should be an easy opportunity to bash the Roman Catholic Church. Now, while there is much that I do not agree with, there are certainly things about the Roman Catholic tradition that are good. I know this might be scandalous to say here, but there are even things that they do better than us Protestants, and we might just have something to learn from them. So anyway, for me, Reformation Sunday is not about anti-Catholic feelings.

Some of my friends from seminary and others who know me well might say that my fondness for Reformation Sunday is about my fondness for things Lutheran. Indeed, this day is one that is most commonly associated with Lutherans and, even though I have never been a Lutheran, it is true that I do like many things from the Lutheran tradition—their more liturgical worship and greater focus on the sacraments, and their rich heritage of music and hymns, including our closing hymn today. Of course there’s also that great Lutheran tradition of beer-drinking, but that’s another matter.

But anyway, all of that said, the real reason I like Reformation Sunday so much is because the Reformation was all about reclaiming the central things—identifying again the real, core, central good news of Christianity and focusing in on the practices that proclaim and make real that good news—and then making sure that those central matters are actually what’s at the center of our life together as a church. This is a question that I try to keep in front of me all the time. It’s very easy for us to let matters that are really secondary overshadow what should be at the core of our mission and purpose—and certainly I can be as guilty of that as anyone else. But that’s the gift of Reformation Sunday, to let the question of the central things to challenge us once again into faithfulness.

So, what are the central things? How do we discern what should be at the core of our life together? We could try to talk about the central concerns of the Bible, which in fact we do do fairly often. We could try to look at the creeds and confessions of faith. But I want to propose another way, something perhaps more accessible, certainly something closer to our hearts. In fact, something most of us know by heart, and something we find on our lips every Sunday: the Lord’s Prayer. What can the Lord’s Prayer show us about the central things? **

First, I want to be clear that I’m not simply being arbitrary by focusing in on the Lord’s Prayer. It has been so central to Christian practice throughout history that it’s connected to all our praying, all of the church’s worship and liturgy. It’s connected to baptism, as a “gift” people are taught as they are preparing for baptism or as they affirm their baptisms though confirmation. It’s also connected to Holy Communion, as the final table prayer we pray at the end of all our great thanksgiving-and-praying in preparation for the feast. And it’s something we find amongst our prayers in the morning, in the evening, in Sunday services even when we’re not celebrating a Baptism or Communion. If there is one thing that Christians do together, one thing the Church does, it is pray and worship, and the Lord’s Prayer has such a common and important place that it could in a sense be a symbol to stand for all of our worship and prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer is first and foremost a communal prayer. “Our Father”, “give us”, “deliver us”. And, not only is it the prayer of a community and not just an individual, it is a prayer that expresses the deep longings and hopes of all humanity. It speaks with honesty of the human condition we all face: “longing for God, in need of mercy, justice, and life, hopeful, fearful, likely to fail.” O God, your reign come. Your will of justice and mercy and peace be done. Do not bring us to the test, for we fear we will fail. We pray these things looking to the future, waiting for the day of the Lord that we both hope for and fear. And we pray it along with all humanity—us as priests, praying on behalf of all the people. So this is one thing central to the Prayer, our calling to pray and cry out for others and all people.

But along side everything in the Prayer that pleads the hopes and fears of all humanity, there are two things that stand out as different, that set us apart as Christians from others. Two signs that the “expected, longed-for Day [of the Lord] has already dawned in the life of the [Christian] community itself.” Standing right at the center of the Prayer are two central things that mark us as Christians, as the Church: bread and forgiveness.

“Give us today our daily bread.” Or, maybe it should be “Give us daily the bread for the journey, the bread that sustains”. In visions of the end-of-times, of the coming reign of God, whether in our the book of Revelation or even in the Jewish writings that were around in Jesus’ time, one of the images of God’s reign is a rich banquet table where the great multitudes freely eat of the feast of new, rich, everlasting, abundant life—the bread that sustains. This vision is transformed, though, when we as Christians dare to pray to God to give us that bread, that feast, today, now. We dare to believe that the great, life-giving feast is already breaking forth here, in this place. We are the people who hold a meal together that we believe is already God’s meal—that’s what Christianity has been from the earliest times, a meal fellowship. We receive what God is giving us in the resurrection feast, and then we are sent out to share food with the hungry, to fill the actual needy with actual good things.

The other thing that stands at the center of the prayer—forgiveness—is also about God already doing what we expect in the end-times. ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.’ Or perhaps better, “Forgive us now with your final forgiveness, just as we are turning to each other, ministering forgiveness to those who sin against us.” This is the place where Sunday after Sunday we hear the presence now of God’s promised forgiveness. “Friends, believe the good news of the Gospel: In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.” Not, ‘we will be forgiven’, but ‘we are forgiven’. That’s who we are as Christians, the people who believe that God already started God’s reign in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. But more, we’re the ones who turn to each other, full of that already breaking-forth power, and minister forgiveness to each other. “The peace of Christ be with you all.” And, of course, we are called to carry that forgiveness out into the world, that others may experience what we know of God already at work.

Of course, forgiveness was one of the central themes for the Reformers, folk like Martin Luther and John Calvin. “Salvation by God’s grace” is the big deal that most people associate with the Reformation, and especially with Luther. Convinced of his own unworthiness, Luther finally came to understand God’s love for him and all people in reading the writings of the apostle Paul. The message we heard this morning in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, that all of us have fallen short, and yet we are justified by God’s grace as a gift—this was the key to all that Luther and his fellow Reformers stood for, all that the good news of the gospel still means for us today. And, I think it is no small matter that we as Christians are the people who pray and speak and act out of the conviction that God is already working such grace and forgiveness among us.

Bread and forgiveness, that’s what stands at the center of who we are, if the Lord’s Prayer is any clue. If the concern of the Reformation was about renewing our focus on the central things, then to ask if we are living into the spirit of the Reformers is to ask ourselves about our bread and our forgiveness. Does “bread and forgiveness” really describe who we are at the core?

Sometimes I worry that it doesn’t. Or at least that it doesn’t seem clear to the rest of the world that bread and forgiveness is what we’re all about. In a new book titled unChristian, David Kinnaman shares the results of some recent studies of young adult non-Christians, 16 to 29 year olds who do not consider themselves Christian. The results are rather sobering: 87% of young adult non-Christians believe that Christianity is “judgmental” and 85% say it’s “hypocritical”. Somehow these aren’t words I’d use to describe something that’s supposed to be about forgiveness. And even more, 91% of them, along with 80% of church-going young adults think that Christianity today is “anti-gay”. Clearly they don’t see the rich, open, hospitable banquet table spread with a life-sustaining feast given for all, the bread that the Lord’s Prayer points us to. Instead, we’re apparently a closed-off, rule-oriented, un-reconciling, judgmental, hypocritical group that “no longer looks like Jesus.”

Are they right? Have we become like the religious leaders that Jesus is talking to in this morning’s reading from John? They had forgotten where they had come from. “We are descendents of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” You almost want to say “Hellllloooooo, remember that whole Exodus thing? Pharaoh, Moses, the plagues, the Passover? Was that just some nice vacation in Egypt?” And more than that, Jesus seems to be saying, we all become slaves to our brokenness, our sin, to the facades we try to put up and the appearances we try to keep up. But there is hope, because in the Son, “we will be free indeed”, as John’s Jesus says. In fact, free we are, already, in the Son, Jesus Christ, the one who taught us the prayer with bread and forgiveness at the center, the one who is the bread of life we receive at the table, the one whose peace we pass on to others in forgiveness.

Inspired by our Reformation heritage, that is the freedom we are called to live in to, the freedom we have in Christ. It is the freedom to lay aside in God’s grace all that enslaves us, all the secondary things that keep us from the central things. The freedom to pray for God’s forgiveness already at work and for the bread of life to be broken in our midst. Indeed, here in this place a word and a feast are set out for us, and here in this place are empowered to be bread and forgiveness for the world—light to the whole human race.


** This exploration of central things is deeply indebted to “The Pastor in Preparing to Preside: The Lord’s Prayer” in Gordon Lathrop, The Pastor: A Spirituality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).

Monday, September 17, 2007

From the Associate Pastor...

From the Associate Pastor…

Most Sundays at the conclusion of our worship service, you will find me near the door of the sanctuary greeting people as they leave the church for the day. Often as I talk with people at that moment, I will hear comments like “good sermon” or “I really enjoyed the service today.”

Now, on one hand, it is good to receive direct feedback. Our congregation is working on overcoming a long-standing “problem” of people not directing their feedback to the people actually responsible for something, instead just talking (complaining, usually) within a circle of friends—so that maybe the feedback reaches the person responsible third- or fourth-hand, giving that person no good way of actually responding or dialoging about the issue.

On the other hand, though, as a pastor these “good sermon” or “enjoyed the service” comments sometimes make me cringe a little bit. Part of this is for some reasons of principle: as a preacher, I don’t hope for a sermon to be “good” so much as I hope that the sermon conveys God’s goodness. I don’t hope for you to “like” the sermon so much as I hope the sermon moves you to faith, or to re-affirmation of your faith, so that you are driven to respond in some way. As a worship planner and leader, I don’t care as much about whether you “enjoy” a service as I do about whether the service enabled your prayer and praise to God. Worship is not like a concert or a lecture or a sporting event that you go to watch and then decide whether it was “enjoyable”; rather, it is something you participate in, something you receive signs of God’s grace through, and something that ultimately is directed toward God, not us.

Perhaps in our tradition within Christianity we have lost the ability to think and speak about worship and preaching in this way. By the 1950s, we had reached such a great misunderstanding of our tradition that worship had become simply about “going to hear the preacher”, an understanding of worship from which we are (slowly) working ourselves away. We lost the sense that people needed to be “formed” as Christians, which is one of the things worship helps do, because society simply assumed that people already were Christians and already knew what that mean (which, it turns out, was a very misguided assumption). Or, on another thought, perhaps our worship still is not participatory enough for us to be able think about worship as the worshipper’s actions and as receiving from and giving back to God. (As a side note, though, to those of you who too readily agree with the idea that our worship is not participatory enough, it seems that as soon as we do try something in worship that involves more active participation, that is when we get accused of doing things that are “too Catholic”.) Or perhaps Mike and I need to do more to ask you about why you liked a sermon or a worship service.

But anyway, aside from these issues of principle, there is another reason I am sometimes disheartened by the “good sermon” or “enjoyed the service” comments: quite frankly, I am not the one you should be telling that to. If you think a sermon, or preaching at Second Congregational in general, is good, you need to be telling that to all the people who aren’t in worship here. If you found a worship service “enjoyable”, there is someone who wasn’t here that needs to hear that. We need to generate excitement about what goes on in worship among the 300 to 400 of our members that aren’t in worship on any given Sunday—give them the sense that they’re missing out on something. Many of these people are people you already know and talk to: tell them about the “good” sermon or how “enjoyable” the service was. And, not only do our own members need to hear this, to be reminded that they’re missing something really fabulous whenever they’re not in worship, but we need to be spreading this word to others who aren’t yet part of our church community. You think Mike or I give “good sermons”? Great, now tell that to someone you know who’s never been here to hear them. You think our worship services are “enjoyable”? Great, I’m sure one of your friends or coworkers or relatives or teammates would find them enjoyable too. Really, it’s no different than telling them how “good” the food is at your favorite restaurant or how much you “enjoyed” the concert you went to last week.

So, by all means I do not want to say that you shouldn’t give Mike and I feedback, even if it is just “good sermon” or “enjoyed the service”. But, for every time you say that to us, I challenge you to say it to at least one other person who wasn’t here to experience it.

Peace, Pastor Matt

This is an article I've written for this week's church newsletter.

"'I may be the most famous deity you don't really know.' --God" -- A Sermon for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

“‘I may be the most famous deity you really don’t know’ —God”
A Sermon for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, IL
September 16, 2007

Have you ever wondered why certain things are so popular and well-loved? Like, a particular food or soft drink. Or, maybe a certain baseball team even though they haven’t been to the World Series in 62 years (that's a reference to the Chicago Cubs). Well, this week I’ve been wondering about a hymn—yes, a hymn… don’t worry, I do have a life—namely the hymn “Amazing Grace”. “Amazing Grace” is probably the most widely-known hymn in the English-speaking world—mainline Protestants like us sing it, conservative evangelicals sing it, Roman Catholics sing it (this I know first hand, having been at a Roman Catholic mass where it was sung). Certainly even some people who are not Christians find the song compelling. But why is it that people love “Amazing Grace” so much?

Now, for me, I am someone who usually says I like a song more often because of the music than the words. There are plenty of songs on pop and rock radio stations that I like even though I never paid attention to the words. With “Amazing Grace”, though, I’m inclined to think that it’s more than just the music. I mean, the tune is lovely enough, but from a musical standpoint, it really isn’t all that interesting.

Besides that, you can take the tune and put it with any number of other lyrics, but the results just aren’t quite as compelling. For instance, you can sing our opening hymn this morning, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” to the same tune we use for “Amazing Grace”: [here I sang to demonstrate this] Now, that’s perfectly nice, but at least I don’t think it’s quite the same.

So, anyway, what that gets us around to is that there must be something about the words themselves. The message or story that the words to “Amazing Grace” convey connects with people at a very deep level. No matter what mask we try to wear or what airs we try to put on, I think most all of us have some experience feeling lost or abandoned, some ‘dangers, toils, [or] snares’ that we know or fear. When we are willing to let our guard down just a little, we see brokenness inside us or brokenness around us that we cannot help but participate in or brokenness that we have been the victim of. As much as we sometimes don’t like the word ‘sin’, and as much as we try to pretend that we aren’t guilty of sin—and even as much as we know that there are some Christians who use the language of sin to wrongly assault and victimize people—even with all that, when we are willing to look at the truth of our experience, we know what it means to be lost, to be less than what we were created to be, to be a “wretch”.

Of course, if “Amazing Grace” were all about being lost, I’m sure it wouldn’t have nearly the popularity it does. “Amazing Grace” is also the story of being found—in fact, it is first and foremost about being found. As much as I believe that most or all of us have some experience will feeling lost and broken, it is my hope that we also know what it is to be found. Somewhere along the way, we have felt a warm embrace, an set of open arms, a light amidst the shadows, a word spoken at just the right moment in our lives—the grace of God. Even for those of us who have grown up amidst caring communities and the life of the church, I suspect there has been an experience when this grace became more real, more tangible—even if it was only someone handing you a piece of bread and saying “the body of Christ, given for you.”

So, if our attachment to “Amazing Grace” is because it tells a story of being lost and being found that we know ourselves, I would think it should be easy for us to identify with the two parables Jesus tells in this reading from Luke this morning. The sheep is missing. The coin is no where to be found. And—just like how in “Amazing Grace” the words never speak of searching out God’s grace, but rather simply of being found—the sheep and the coin don’t do anything. Rather, the shepherd and the woman go looking for them. The shepherd even leaves his other sheep at risk in order to restore the lost one to the whole. And the point is fairly clear: God is that shepherd; God is that woman. God lights a lamp and searches her house to restore us into her treasury. God risks danger and offense to one part of the flock in order to find us, so that the flock may be whole again.

But, even though it would seem that we have an easy time hearing and identifying with these stories, it was not so with the Pharisees who first heard them. They didn’t want to hear about restoring the whole, bringing the outcast into the community, welcoming the sinners. It’s not that the Pharisees were evil, heartless, legalistic men, as sometimes Christians have claimed out of the evils of anti-Judaism. Rather, in the midst of the compromises that had been made under the thumb of the Roman authorities, the Pharisees needed to be clear about how the Jewish community was defined. If they let just anyone in, like Jesus was doing, it threatened the whole system that ensured some illusion of ‘security’ and that kept the Pharisees in power. And so, for the Pharisees, their religion and, as a result, their image of God was about law and purity and boundaries and respectability, at least as Luke pictures it (see note at end). The God they knew was solely interested in the righteous.

You know, though, I can’t help but thinking that we get caught there ourselves sometimes. For many decades, churches like ours all across this country got caught up in being ‘respectable’, in trying to maintain their place in American society. Even today, there are too many of us who worry about speaking up about the controversial issues of the day because someone might get offended. We can’t stand up against the evils of war, we can’t welcome into our midst the illegal immigrants or the gay people or the single mothers on welfare because what would people think of us then? For too long, the God we seemed to know was mostly concerned with making us “nice” and forming us into good citizens and giving us some pointers on how to live a good life.

But, like a certain presidential candidate complaining about her impersonal image recently, God has come to us saying something like “I may be the most famous deity you really don’t know.” If the God we think we know is about rationality and rules and respectability, then I think we don’t really know God very well after all. That’s certainly not the God we see in today’s parables from Luke. Just the images alone begin to shatter that picture: God as a shepherd in a culture that saw shepherds as poor, shifty, and unclean; God as a woman in a time when women had almost no status in society. But even more than that, we have God taking the initiative to find the lost, to restore every last part of the community to wholeness, even putting the many at risk to save the one. It’s that same irrational God that hear about in 1st Timothy, the God that would choose the foremost sinner to become the most famous apostle. It’s that same irrational God that we sing about in the words of “Amazing Grace”, a God that would save a wretch like me … and that same God that would choose ordinary things like spoken words and water and bread to be the instruments of divine power among God’s people. And of course, it’s the same God that did that most irrational and un-God-like act of all: to become human, one of us, and even to die for the life of the world.

The challenge is before us: We can get caught in that image of God to which God says “you don’t really know me”, or we can live in the knowledge of the God who seeks us out, the One who finds us even when we aren’t looking to be found. And likewise, we can grumble like the Pharisees when we see that same God seeking and finding others, even at our risk, or, remembering the joy at our own finding, we can join in the party God is throwing. And as we join the party, we can take on our calling to join with God in sheep and coin finding ourselves, that there might be even more rejoicing.


Note on my disclaimer "at least as Luke pictures it": I include the “at least as Luke pictures it” disclaimer in recognition of the fact that some scholars believe that the picture of 1st century Judaism in the New Testament is skewed to serve the interests of early Christian communities in conflict with their non-Christian Jewish contemporaries (the roots of what we know now as rabbinic Judaism). It is important to acknowledge that Luke’s picture of the Pharisees may not be accurate, and that some of the images of Judaism (or at least the Jewish leaders) given in New Testament texts like this one have contributed to centuries of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism and their resulting atrocities.

Monday, August 27, 2007

"You Want Us to Go Where?" -- A Sermon for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

“You Want Us to Go Where?”
A Sermon for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Jeremiah 1:4-10

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, IL
August 26, 2007

I have two stories I want to tell you about today—two pictures to paint, if you will—and so I’m going to jump right in with story number 1.

This first story is the story of the calling forth of a prophet, specifically today’s story of the call of the prophet Jeremiah. We as liberal mainline Protestants aren’t always as up on our knowledge and understanding of Old Testament prophets—or really much of the Old Testament—as perhaps we should be, and so I think this story deserves a few moments for us to unpack, to explore, to delve deeply into what is going on here.

The first thing we hear in this story of the calling of a prophet is God coming to Jeremiah. “Now the word of the Lord came to me.” Jeremiah does not tell us that he went looking for God, that somehow he sought out the Lord, that in some way he started asking for God to speak to him. No, rather, quite the opposite—God sought him out. God took the initiative. God made the way. And this is certainly not the first time we find God making the first move. Perhaps you remember the “Early Word”, our children’s message, three weeks ago where Pastor Mike took on the role of Samuel, and ran over in the middle of the night to Eli the priest (aptly played by our own Ian Woody) because he, Samuel, heard the voice of God calling to him. Or maybe you recall Moses out in the wilderness tending his father-in-law’s sheep, when God called to him out of a rather flame-resistant bush. And there are others too: Abraham, Gideon, Isaiah, Ezekiel—all of them, like Moses and Samuel and, in today’s story, Jeremiah, found themselves being found by God.

Having been found by God, and now being spoken to by God, what does Jeremiah hear? Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I consecrated you. Wow, this is the kind of language in the Bible that can take my breath away. Imagine these words addressed to yourself, as Jeremiah would have heard them. I suppose you could be thinking, ‘well, yeah, God’s God—all powerful, all knowing, blah blah blah—of course God knew Jeremiah,’ but I think there’s something much more intimate going on here. ‘I knew you’—‘I chose you—not others, but you.’ ‘I am watching over you and caring for you.’ This intimate kind of knowing is the only kind of knowing I can imagine happening in the waters of a mother’s womb.

There is more: the word of the Lord that Jeremiah hears does not only tell him that God knows him, but that God has consecrated him. God has chosen Jeremiah. God has set him apart, dedicated for a particular mission. Scholars will point out that in the Old Testament, consecration was something usually said about priests. A priest was consecrated to be the mediator of God’s holiness in the temple or sanctuary. Here, Jeremiah is a bit different: he’s been consecrated to proclaim God’s holiness out in the world, in the streets of Jerusalem. But even with this difference, God has still set him apart; he was born with the promise of God already upon him.

Now, of course, all this—it is a lot. A big calling. A huge responsibility. And Jeremiah sees this, and so he objects, even protests or complains. Certainly not me. How could I be up to the job? Or, as Jeremiah puts it, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” ‘Aaahhh, but it’s not about you, is it?’ seems to be God’s retort. The words Jeremiah is to speak—God will give them. The opposition Jeremiah will encounter—not a problem, for God will be there too. The calling of a prophet, it would seem, not ultimately about how adequate or skilled or experienced the prophet is. The calling of a prophet is about what God intends for them.

And then, finally, as if to prove or seal all this talk—or maybe, more rightly, to enact it—God reaches down and touches Jeremiah. Through a real, visible, tangible action, God puts this call into Jeremiah. “Now, I have put my words in your mouth.” And not simply the words of the call, I think, but the words that drove Jeremiah out into the streets and the words that he proclaimed when he got there.

So, that’s the first story, the story as we have been told it of the calling of a prophet.

The second story I have come to tell today is the story of your baptism. Now, I know that, except for a handful of you, I was not there when you were baptized. In fact, while I was certainly there when I was baptized, I confess that I do not remember it, as I was only a few months old at the time. But, even with that, I think I can tell the story of your baptism, or at least a version of it.

Let’s see now… Your baptism… Well, to begin with, it started not with you. Now, for those among us who, like myself, were baptized as infants, that’s pretty easy thing to say. Our parents, or someone else significant in our lives, did what was necessary to have us baptized. For those among us who were baptized at an older age, you might protest, though, saying that you did what was necessary to be baptized. But, in either case, I still insist that the story of your baptism didn’t begin with you, and it didn’t begin with your parents, either. The story of your baptism began with God. And I don’t mean that in some sort of theological sense that God gave us the gift of the sacrament of baptism, even though that is true. Rather, I believe that for every one of us here, our baptisms began with God taking the initiative. There was something that led you to try out that church for the first time, and something that kept you coming to the point that you wanted to pass through the waters. Or there was something that got your parents into the church, or your parents’ parents, and kept them there and something that led them to have you baptized. And that something, well… as Blaise Pascal, a man better known for his contributions to math and computer science than religion, put it: “Console yourself: You would not be seeking me if you had not already found me.” To say it plainly, I’m staking the claim that that something was God—or at the very least, that God had some hand in it, even if God’s hand had to work through some strange or mysterious ways. Regardless of any of the details of how it happened, I believe that the stories of all our baptisms have God’s initiative right at the start.

The story of your baptism also includes God’s claim upon you. If you take a look at the prayers and other words said when a person is baptized, one of the things you’ll see again and again is that in baptism, we are joined to Christ. We speak of our going down into the water as dying along with Christ, and our rising from the water as our rising together with Christ. This idea of baptism as God’s claim on us gets emphasized more strongly in our particular tradition within Christianity than in probably any other. Back in the 1500s, the folk in Germany who wrote the Heidelberg Catechism, a document we recognize in the United Church of Christ as part of our historic tradition, they put right at the very beginning this question: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The answer? “That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” So important this is, that those writers built their whole statement of Christian faith and belief starting with that affirmation. And there is probably nothing else we do as church that more strongly states that claim upon us than baptism.

Now, something that was not part of the story of your baptism was your having to be good enough. Thankfully, ‘No Child Left Behind’ does not affect churches—we have no achievement tests for admission to baptism. You can be male or female. You can be a really devout mystic or a questioning, overly-intellectual seeker. The church has baptized black people, white people, people with autism, people who use wheelchairs, gay people, straight people, rich people, poor people, old people, young people. All in all, your baptism was as much about you as it was about God and God’s plan for you.

And, finally, I know there’s much more to the story of each of your baptisms, but one last thing I’m confident in is that there was some water involved. The priest poured water from a shell over you, or the pastor sprinkled some water on your head, or the preacher led you down by the riverside where you waded in and were dunked under. However it happened, as if to seal or prove or enact all these other things about your baptism, some real, touchable, mess-making water was used. It touched you, and then there was a community of real, touchable, messy people there to welcome you in.

So, there you have it. The two stories I want to tell this morning. The story of the calling of a prophet and the story of your baptism.

Hmmm… Come to think of it, maybe these aren’t two stories. Maybe there’s only one story here. God’s having the first intimate knowledge and taking the first initiative. Check. God’s claming and setting apart. Check. The un-importance of one’s adequacy and ability. Check. Some sign and seal of all these promises of God. Check. Indeed, it would seem that the calling of a prophet and our baptisms add up to one and the same story.


If you were paying attention to the reading from Jeremiah, you may have noticed that there was a piece I left out as I walked us through it. God knows and consecrates and claims Jeremiah to be “a prophet to the nations”, and the words God places in Jeremiah’s mouth are so that Jeremiah will pluck up and pull down, and for him to build up and to plant. As Jeremiah’s life goes forward, we find that Jeremiah has to go in front of his people to warn them of the errors of their ways, to call them back to the kind of community that God intends for them, and even to journey into exile and despair and yet to proclaim hope in the midst of it. It would seem that the story is not finished without the message God has given us to proclaim and the work God has set us apart to do.

Monday, August 20, 2007

"Your Life is Being Demanded of You" -- A Sermon for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

“Your Life is Being Demanded of You”
A Sermon for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, IL
August 5, 2007

Texts: Hosea 11:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

I have a confession to make to you this morning. I don’t know. Now, I know that many people—and especially us Protestants—come to church on Sunday to hear the preacher tell us what she or he thinks the scripture text means, or what we should believe or think or say. Not a few of us expect the pastor to have all the answers. So, that is my confession today, that I don’t entirely know. And, just as a side note, if you are someone who thinks that pastors have all the answers, I would encourage you to spend some more time around some pastors.

But, anyway… Let me start with some things I do know. We have shared two readings from the Bible today, and both of these passages are readings where God speaks. By that, I don’t mean that God speaks in that sort of philosophical way that we claim God speaks to us through any story from the Bible. Rather, in both of these readings, we actually get the active voice of God speaking—“and God said …” So, what is it that God is saying?

Well, first in Hosea we heard God thinking and talking about Israel—actually, to be more precise about the passage, we hear a mother God looking out on her gathered people as her child. She begins by testifying her love for her people: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” She is the mother who guides her child through life with kindness and bends down to feed her people. But, like many a mother, she is keenly aware of all the ways that her child has gone astray. “The more I called them, the more they went from me, they kept sacrificing to [other gods]. … The sword … devours [them] because of their schemes.” But God is a loving mother in this passage from Hosea, never willing to give up on her child no matter where they go. She may have to be a ‘tough-love’ mother at times, even roaring like a lion, but through it all, her compassion warm and tender, she asks “How can I give you up? … How can I hand you over?”

I know I am often amazed at the stories that I see and hear of someone’s faith and faithfulness despite all the odds. With our high school youth last week in Washington DC, I was able to yet again see such faithfulness. We spent the evening on Wednesday playing in the beautiful Meridian Hill Park, a park that only 5 or 6 years ago was the most dangerous and crime-ridden park in all of Washington—and now because of the faithful work of the ‘Parks & People’ group that some of our youth worked with, it’s crime rate has dropped fully 99% and it’s simply a great place to take a stroll or play frizbee with 60 of your favorite high schoolers. Or, there was Mr. James Burton on the staff at the 1,350 bed homeless shelter we worked at, a man who’s been through all the ups and downs that the shelter has seen—from lost court cases to government dignitaries who thought they were too good to eat the same food that the shelter served its residents. And yet, through all of that, Mr. Burton is still convinced that “the almighty God” was using our little group of youth from Illinois as part of the “ongoing unfolding of creation.”

And yet, the faithful conviction from which Mr. Burton spoke was simply a reflection back of the faithfulness of God that he knew, the faithfulness of a God who was—and is still—using our youth as part of the unfolding of creation, the same faithfulness that we hear this mothering God herself speaking in the pages of Hosea, the same faithfulness of the God who came to be among us as Jesus, the same faithfulness in death itself and in resurrection triumphantly that we remember and proclaim and enact as we gather around this table. So, this is one thing God is saying in the readings today, and this is one thing I know.

But, as we turn to the story from Luke, it would seem on first appearance that God is saying something rather different. In the parable, the story, that Jesus is telling, we see a rich farmer who has ended up having a really, really big harvest. So big, in fact, that his barns cannot hold all his crops. Now, having grown up in a farming community myself, I can’t say that this is the sort of problem that most modern American farmers are running into. But, given that this is his situation, this rich farmer has to figure out what he is going to do, and so he decides that he will tear down the barns and build bigger ones. And, having devised this seemingly intelligent plan, he continues on this conversation with himself, saying “Self, you have stored up all you need: relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” It’s there, at the end of this rich farmer’s conversation with himself that we hear God’s first words in the story: “You fool!”

“You fool?!?” What happened to the mother crying for her child? This may not be God coming in wrath, but it certainly doesn’t sound like Mr. Nice God. It would seem that our faithful, compassionate God has gone away, and the rich farmer’s left with an angry, or at least annoyed, God, because it’s not only “You fool!”, but God goes on to say “This very night your life is being demanded of you.” It’s easy to assume that this parable is about God demanding the rich farmer’s life. It is certainly true that much of Luke and, in fact, much of the Bible doesn’t take kindly to rich people who hoard all their money and possessions with no regard for anyone else or for God.

But I think there may be something more here. If you pay close attention to exactly what God says to the rich farmer, it isn’t God demanding the rich farmer’s life here. Many experts on this passage point out that the way the sentence reads in the original language, the thing demanding the man’s life is not God, but in fact the crops and goods that he wants to store up and eat, drink, and be merry about. I suspect many of us know how true that can be—our lives can become consumed with all the stuff we want or have, or they become overrun by the jobs we have to toil at in order to afford that stuff. Or maybe it’s something else demanding our life: an obsession or addition, a broken relationship or the quest for a relationship, even our own egos. Even as a church, we can fall into this trap—while I wouldn’t call this building merely a “barn”, how easy it is to get sidetracked from the life and ministry God is calling us to by an obsession with our building or our traditions or even our programs. Whatever it is, whether as a group or as individuals, “it” is out there and “it” is demanding our lives from us.

And so, to us as to the rich man, God comes to us like a good friend or a wiser older sibling, saying “You fool!” Or maybe “Helloooo!!!!!! Don’t you see what’s going on here? I want you to have real, true, abundant life and all this stuff is demanding it away from you.” Sometimes we need the wake up jolt. In the time of the parable, an over-abundant harvest was a sign of something bigger, a sign of God’s coming kingdom, and this rich farmer missed it. And so God comes in, saying “You fool!”, God being a friend to one who needed to hear “Wake up, dummy!” This is another thing God says in the readings today, and this is another thing I know.

So, what is it that I’m confessing to you that I don’t know? Well, in the midst of what I do know—that even through a whole laundry list of wanderings and offenses and unfaithfulness, God is faithful and that even when we get blinded to real life by misplaced priorities, God comes with a “You fool, Wake up!”—in the midst of these two gracious gifts from God of faithfulness and re-orientation, what I don’t know is how you will choose to be rich to God in return.

Thursday, July 12, 2007



1. If you want to see some pictures of me during my recent trip to the National Gathering of the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, as well as one from General Synod, go here. (For other pictures from National Gathering, you can go to the Coalition's website at

2. If you want to see some pictures from life around Second Congregational UCC, check out this.

3. Finally, if you want to see some pictures from my Ordination and from my Installation, go here.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

More is coming...

All right, all:

So, as I was away most recently for our United Church of Christ's General Synod, I found out that there are in fact at least a few people out there who do read this blog. It was interesting having someone(s) I didn't know come up to me to say that they'd been reading my blog. Anyway, for all of you who are reading this, do know that I am planning to write more about my time away back in May (I went to the Princeton Forums on Youth Ministry and to the Festival of Homiletics) and also my most recent trip which included the National Gathering of the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns and the UCC General Synod. For now, I did just post today's sermon and the wedding homily/sermon from the wedding I officiated yesterday (my first ever!).


A Sermon for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

A Sermon for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
2 Kings 5:1-14 (The Healing of Naaman) & Luke 10:1-11,16-20 (The Sending of the 70 Disciples)

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, IL
July 8, 2007

But Naaman’s servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?"

My friend John is pretty good at catching me in some “Naaman moments”, that is, when I’m sounding an awful lot like this guy Naaman in our 2nd Kings reading, trying to make something rather simple into an excruciatingly complicated ordeal. Usually, it starts out with me talking about something I’m planning to do, and my story will involve like 46 steps, the reinvention of the wheel, and weeks of planning. And John, in a sometimes overly ‘older brother’ sort of tone, chimes in like Naaman’s servants: “but why don’t you just _____ (something amazingly simple)”. Then, of course, comes some sort of defense: “but if I just do that, then x, y, and z won’t happen.” “Yeah, and…” usually follows from John, at which point I realize that x, y, and z really aren’t that important anyway, that the job will be accomplished just as well with the simple solution, and that, indeed, the world will not come to an end.

I am willing to hazard a guess that I am not the only person here today guilty of having at least an occasional “Naaman moment.” Some household chore you’re trying to avoid, some long-standing dispute with your brother or your in-laws—really there are any number of situations that can blind us to the solution right in front of us that seems too easy to be right, to simple to be possible, too good to be true.

As Christians, and especially as American Christians of the late 20th and early 21st century, we have so often fallen into this trap. Some 80 to 90 percent of Americans say that they believe in God—probably 60 to 70 percent consider themselves at least nominally Christian—and yet the vast majority of us have completely missed the too simple to be possible, too good to be truth that is the real core of what Christianity is all about. I suspect if you took a random survey of a handful of people who consider themselves at least nominally Christian, whether they go to church regularly or not—if you asked them what it means to be Christian, they’d probably tell you it’s something about being a good person or being nice or doing what is right. And this has a dark flipside: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say that they can’t go to church because they’re not good enough—they swear too much or they’re a lesbian or they smoke and drink or they don’t pray enough or they’re a single mother, or, or, or… all because of this conception of what Christianity is all about. Even among those of us who do go to church at least occasionally, many still think that what we say and believe and do is not really too important as long as we’re generally “good people”, so to speak.

Where are Naaman’s servants among us? Who are going to be the ones to call us all back to the too gracious, too wonderful to be possible, too fantastic to be true core of our Christian faith? That core that says ‘it’s not about you or what you’ve done, it’s about God and what God has done.’ The truth that rings out “God loves you” and “Christ died for you” and “Christ was raised to new life for you and for your new life” and “Another world is possible—and not some slightly better version of this world of hatred, injustice, prejudice, and despair, but truly another world, a new world.” The light that reveals that churches are not museums of saintly do-gooders, but rather that place where one hungry, broken sinner shares bread with another hungry, broken sinner. The trumpet blast that declares “not only that there is a God, but that God actually cares…actually gives a damn…” about you and about me and about us and about our world. (Quote borrowed from a sermon by David Lose at Luther Seminary and included in the introductory volume of Luther Seminary's In the Company of Preachers audio series.)

Can it really be so simple? Can Christianity and the church really be about God’s love and God’s care and God’s healing and God’s grace? … Is this not what the whole story of the Bible is about? God who creates order and light out of chaos and shadows. God who hears the cries of God’s people and leads the slaves out of Egypt. God who sends prophets to call for justice and faithfulness when the people are entangled in idolatry and profiteering. God who comes to us to be one of us. God who goes all the way, even to death, with us. God who sends the Spirit to sustain us and apostles like Paul to remind us of God’s “grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24) God who shows us a vision of the end of all history of a new world where tears are wiped away and thousands upon thousands feast at the banquet table. Can it really be so simple? Can it really be true? Maybe, just maybe, it’s so wonderful and so fantastical that it can't not be…

The opportunity stands ever before us: “Wash and be clean”. We can take our Naaman selves and walk down to that river bank and immerse ourselves in the abundant waters of God’s grace. We can emerge out of the waters healed and renewed. But, having done so, the opportunity also stands before us for us to take on a different role in the story, for you and me and us to be more like Naaman’s servants, saying to each other and to those outside this place and to the world that it doesn’t have to be so difficult—just come and wash and be healed. Where are Naaman’s servants among us?—we are they. Or, maybe more fully than just Naaman’s servants, we are Jesus’ disciples. Sent out to all the people as in the passage from Luke this morning; sent out not with grand complicated plans and preparations—remember, it doesn’t always have to be so difficult—and sent out simply to teach and to heal and to say that the kingdom of God has come near. Reclaiming the simple yet wonderful and fantastical reality that lies at the heart of our identity, all that remains is for us to go forth in its power and to return in joy, amazed at the demons of the world that fall at our feet.

People of God, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean' … and go forth.

Wedding homily/sermon for Sarah Klint & Jonathan Frankel

A Homily/Sermon for the Marriage of Sarah Klint & Jonathan Frankel
July 7, 2007 - Geneva National Golf Club, Lake Geneva, WI

John 2:1-11 -- The Wedding at Cana

Aside from any that I have been an “official” part of recently, I know that I for one have been to quite a lot of weddings in the past few months. There’s even another wedding going on as I speak at the church where I serve as pastor down in Rockford. It must be the season, as they say, for those of us in our 20s, since I know that Sarah and Jon have said that they’ve had a wedding or a bridal shower or something wedding related practically every weekend for the month or more leading up to this day.

Anyway, across all these weddings that I’ve been some part of lately, I can say that nothing quite like this story from the Gospel of John has come true—none of them have run out of wine (or beer or whatever they were serving) during the festivities. This was fortunate, I think, for the sanity of the people putting on these receptions—and perhaps also fortunate the next morning for drug stores selling Excedrin.

And yet, even though I’ve never seen a wedding that has run completely out of wine—and I’m not led to believe that it happens all that often—still this story is one that comes up in connection with weddings. Of course, that’s because the story is not really about the wine running out. I’m not sure it’s about the so-called ‘miracle’ of Jesus turning water into wine, either.

Rather, this is a story of transformation. Jesus took some old clay jars and rededicated them for a new purpose as the container for something new and wonderful. Our prayer this day is for that kind of miracle to happen here at this wedding feast: that these old and honored traditions of wedding celebration—the dresses, the food, the pictures, the party—that these can hold and celebrate the new marriage we witness today. But even more than that, we pray that these lives before us, Sarah and Jon, and the life they have shared together up to this point, that they can be transformed into containers for something new and wonderful by what they do today and by the power of God we invite upon them today.

This is also a story of abundance. Jesus did not simply make a glass of wine or a bottle of wine or even a jug or a keg of wine. He made somewhere upwards of 150 gallons of wine. In the time when this story was written, wine was a sign of God’s kingdom—God’s reign of abundant love, abundant justice, abundant mercy, and abundant peace. Our prayer this day is for that kind of miracle to happen here too. In a world filled with broken relationships, nations at war, and people hungry and oppressed, may the love we witness and celebrate, the risky commitment Sarah and Jon are about to make, and the feast we are about to share, may these things be signs and foretastes of that God’s coming kingdom. And even more, may the new stage that Sarah and Jon are entering in their relationship, may it help them partner with one another and with all of us as we work together with God in bringing about such abundant love and justice and mercy.

Finally, this story of abundance and transformation is the story of Jesus and of the God we know through him. Taking the old clay jar and making it the vessel for something new—this is a glimpse of who God is. Transforming something as ordinary as water into the abundant wine of a new life of peace, mercy, and justice—this is a glimpse of who God is. And, of course, as the story began, this all happens “on the third day”, a reference, I think, to that first Easter day when Jesus was raised after three days death—Christ’s self-giving love on the cross and powerful triumph of new life on Easter being the surest glimpse of who God is. And so, our prayer this day is for this kind of miracle to happen here too: that among all these friends and family gathered and amidst our acts of promising and praying and celebrating, that the presence of the God of new life will be known to each of us.

Sarah and Jon, I don’t hope that you run out of wine, but I do indeed hope this story comes true today. Amen.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

"Unexpected Ministry" -- A Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter

[Sorry for the delay, this is the sermon from May 20th, the 7th Sunday of Easter (a week ago)]

“Unexpected Ministry”
A Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter, Year C
Acts 16:16-34 (with allusion to Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21)

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, IL
May 20, 2007

We are pretty good, here in the church, at saying that God works in mysterious ways. We tell one another that the love of Christ is broader than our minds can possibly imagine. We speak of a God whose will and ways are supposedly unknowable. We claim to believe that the winds of the Holy Spirit blow when and where and how they please. And yet, when we get outside of formal confessions and away from statements of what we think we should believe, most of the time we act as though God is under our control, living inside a box to which we have the key. We live with no room for the unexpected.

During my second year of seminary in Chicago, I participated in a unique experiment my school was attempting, an experiment in bringing our academic course work into closer conversation and relevance to the real lives of congregations in diverse settings throughout Chicago. As part of this program, I myself was working and worshipping among a predominately Puerto Rican UCC congregation on Chicago’s West Side. I was expecting to be challenged by working in a congregation very different from the ones I grown up in. I was expecting to be challenged in making connections between our studies and the churches we were working in. I was expecting to grow in my sense of myself as a pastor. I was expecting to struggle a bit as I worked with some community organizations the congregation belonged to in that inner city neighborhood. Certainly, many of those things happened; many of those challenges were there to be had. All that said, though, these were not the places where the greatest transformation happened. My eyes were opened the widest by the strife I did not foresee right there inside our classroom with and among my fellow classmates.

You see, the year we spent together in this experiment was the first time most of us had been in an academic environment where white people were in the minority. Of the fifteen students in the program that year, four of us were white, one of us was an international student from the Philippines, and ten of us were African American. The unfortunate reality is that this sort of situation just doesn’t happen in almost any graduate school in this country. And the yet more unfortunate reality is that, even in this environment, white privilege and white racism still reared their ugly heads. In the opening weeks of the year, we were asked by our professors—both white—to read a seemingly well-written book on the relationship between ethics and the scriptures. That is, seemingly well-written to those of us who were white. On the day we were to discuss the reading, it took almost an hour before the first of my black classmates found enough courage to break the tension that lingered in the air, so thick you could cut it with a knife. The moment was a story of hopes dashed and the pain of old battle wounds opened yet again. You could sum up my classmates thoughts as saying, ‘For the first time, we are in a place where we as African Americans are in the majority, and yet these white professors have assigned us a book that dismisses black liberation theology as a less-interesting example and hardly worthy of discussing at length.’ Or even more succinctly, ‘Yet again we have been downgraded, dismissed, ignored, thrown to the curb. How dare you?’ Still clinging to our unrecognized privilege, those of us who were white made feeble attempts to reclaim the book. ‘Well, yes, but aside from that, though, isn’t the overall point the author is making good?’ But the point wasn’t about the book. The point was about us. Were we too blind to see the reality of this community of people, too cold to care about their lifetime of pain and rejection?

Over the course of that year, that would not be the only painful conversation among the 15 of us. Somehow, though, I believe that through that year, through those experiences, I was being ministered to. I was having my eyes opened to truths previously unseen, my heart opened to realities previously unknown. Surely, words of judgment were given, and yet some gospel of grace was there too, as my classmates had the courage to walk with us as we finally learned how to walk with them.

I’m sure the jailer who kept watch over Paul and Silas did not expect to be ministered to by his captives. This jailer had the authority of the Roman Empire behind him. Moreover, this jailer had the literal keys to their prison cell, the power over whether Paul and Silas would stand or sit or walk or eat or drink. And yet, as William Willimon puts it, “Having the key to someone else’s cell does not make you free.” (Acts, Interpretation commentary series from John Knox Press) In fact, the jailer was certainly not free, as both he and we realize that his own life was at the mercy of the empire. Furthermore, no position of power makes us immune from the power of God to work through unexpected faces.

In times past, the established church was not immune from the Spirit of God calling it to stand against slavery and segregation, and is still today learning the riches of the gifts of the African American in our midst. In this time, the established church is not immune from the Spirit of God calling us to welcome and affirm lesbian and gay persons into the life of the church. And furthermore, we have just begun to see how this calling is pushing moderate and liberal Christians to new clarity about how we understand the Bible and what we believe the mission of the church to be. New voices will always call to us—to us as individuals, to the church, to our society—from some darkened prison cell with the possibility of life. The question seems to be whether we can open ourselves to a word of grace, a word of peace, a word of challenge, a word of compassion, a word of the Lord that sounds forth from outside whatever little box in which we’re trying to hold God.

This is a high calling, an honor, a gift, to open ourselves to the unexpected ministry we can receive from the Pauls and Silases in our midst. And yet, this is not the only way this story plays. Unexpected ministry is not only a gift for us to receive. Indeed, unexpected ministry is also the calling ever placed before us, the gift for us to do and give. If we’re trying to place ourselves in this story, we are not only the jailer, but we are also Paul and Silas, on a mission with the good news of the gospel to share with folks not expecting the gift we can offer them.

Paul and Silas speak a word of freedom and new life to two different people in this story. At the beginning of the passage today, we find them being followed by ‘fortune-telling girl’. Now, our scientific modern and post-modern minds might question this whole idea of her being possessed by some spirit or daemon—we might rather think of her as unbalanced or mentally ill—but regardless of the specific details of her condition, she is being used and abused. Her masters are using the spectacle of her condition as a way to make money. In calling the daemon out of the girl, Paul sets her free from the ability to be used in this way. Now, like what happens in many of the ministries we do as individuals and as a church, we don’t actually know what happened to the girl after Paul’s action. We don’t know if she remained a slave, perhaps to be treated even worse by her masters, or if maybe, just maybe, the budding Christian community in this town took her in. Likewise, we don’t know much about what may have happened to the jailer that Paul and Silas welcomed into the community of Christ. In both cases, though, a word was spoken, though, and a new possibility opened.

We here, this gathering of people known as Second Congregational United Church of Christ, we too have taken on the calling to be as Paul and Silas on our little corner in Rockford, speaking a word by which new possibilities open. And not only have we taken on this calling, but the ministries we do here, as individuals and together as the church, have all sorts of unexpected effects. Who of us can know what affect a caring phone call or a compassionate greeting could be having? How can we know today what life we may have opened up for the children and youth we serve through the Boys & Girls Club? Or perhaps even more unexpectedly, would you have guessed that the work we are doing as a congregation on clarifying our identity and mission, and improving our hospitality and welcome, and raising the vitality and centeredness of our worship, and becoming more intentional about scripture and mission-work and forming one another in faith is doing as much to improve our church’s youth ministry as anything we do at 4:30 on Sunday afternoons up on the 4th floor? At least that’s what some of the newest and most exciting research into congregations that are doing exemplary youth ministry is telling us. (You’ll hear more about this and other things from my recent time away in the coming weeks.)

Our whole reason for being is to invite people into God’s story of new possibilities in this world, to call out ‘daemons’ that keep people in bondage, to sing and pray until that final earthquake comes that will fling wide open every door of captivity and shake loose every chain of injustice. And just what is that story of God that opens new possibilities? Where do we find our authority to cast out the daemons of the world? What is that final earthquake that we await, and where comes our strength to sing and pray until it’s coming? That story, that authority, that earthquake, that strength is none other than the Christ who claimed us, like the jailer, in the waters of baptism. None other than the Risen One in whom God embraced us all even into the pain of death. None other than the One who came not to be served but to serve, whose coming again we await with the Spirit and the bride and everyone who hears. The infant One, the 12-year-old in the temple One, the healing One, the hunger-feeding One, the living-water-at-the-well One the table-turning-over One, the bread-of-life One, the crucified One, the Risen One, the reigns-and-prays-for-us One, the coming-again One.

As the last line of that old American hymn goes, “All things are mine since I am Christ’s—how can I keep from singing?” As the people so loved by this One, the people with the gift of the story of this One to tell, the people who already “trust in the Lord Jesus”, the people with the courage to be ministered to and the strength to minister—how, like Paul and Silas, can we keep from singing?


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Time Away, Part 1: Cleveland

All right, it seems like I should do something bloggy (reflective, etc.) about my recent time away. So, I shall attempt to do so in a few parts.

I spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, April 27-29, at the UCC "Church House" (our national offices) in Cleveland. I was there for a conference titled "Called Out for Good: Ministering in the United Church of Christ", which was a denomination-wide gathering of clergy (plus a couple seminarians) who are openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, same-gender-loving, queer, etc. (Random thought 1: clearly our vocabulary is quickly failing us, as seemingly we who fall in these categories keep adding more and more terms to the list, while those 'outside' the community can't even handle the acronymns GLBT or LGBT without a blank stare.)

Any gathering of people from across the denomination in the UCC is, shall we say, interesting--and predominately LGBT ones even more so. People who are clergy and others in lay leadership in this denomination bring such a diverse mix of social, theological, liturgical, etc. viewpoints, which is simultaneously a great gift and a great weakness of our church. I'm also never quite sure that such gatherings are truly "representative" of the overall character of our denomination, since these gatherings are populated by those people attracted to such gatherings. There does seem to be a growing (ever so slightly) number of us who, while remaining committed to the diversity and the issues of justice, are more 'traditional' or 'orthodox' in our liturgical and theological leanings. For instance, in a conversation about the denomination as a place where "all are welcome", I am no longer the only voice raising the questions "Well, yes, but what exactly are we welcoming them into? Simply welcoming them into a place where all are welcome? Or is there something deeper, broader, beyond that--i.e. the gospel of Jesus Christ (a gospel which is not only 'you are welcome here')?" (Thanks to my friend Greg Morisse for being the one to raise this!).

Overall it was a good gathering. I remain astounded at Phil Porter's skills in facilitating group process (Phil is the Minister of Liturgical Arts and Communications Coordinator at First Congregational Church of Berkeley). Set before him was a gathering of diverse people with no particular agenda for the time, and he was able to guide the group into focusing its time around a couple key areas of discussion and facilitate those discussions in a way that was peaceable, respectful, voice-enabling, and all-around just plain wonderful.

Two of our periods of discussion left me with some things I surely need to reflect upon. The first was a presentation of some research around churches that hire openly gay pastors, and the second was our group discussion around self-care (physical, spiritual, and relational), personal life, and integrity.

One of the areas of reflection for me coming out of both of these sessions is about 'outness'. In my life and ministry at Second Congregational, I would not say that I am "closeted", but I am also not fully "out", or at least not as 'out' as I could or probably should be. We made the decision at my hire that we would not put a "I am gay" statement in the introductory materials that went out to the congregation; part of this was a logical argument that we wouldn't put a "I am straight" statement if that were the case. Since I was not at the time in any sort of relationship (and still am not), there wasn't a particular "need", so to speak, to make this sort of broadcast announcement. However, I also sensed that there was still some worry over the tension/anxiety that arose when my openly-lesbian predecessor was called; her orientation was fully 'broadcast' so to speak at her hire, at least in part because she had a partner. This decision, though, was predicated on an understanding that I was/am not willing to be 'closeted', that if the topic arose I would be open, that if I was asked about, any respondent was to be open. Also, since I was 'out' on my profile, the search committee and the entire church council knew/knows my orientation. And, being a church with an active 'rumor mill', certainly many others know. It was also included on my biographical info, both at my hire and on new-member Sunday back in February when I officially joined the congregation, that I am a member of the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns (but again, referencing my random thought above, there are a lot of people who don't know what the LGBT acronym stands for).

Now some 8 1/2 months later, I find myself growing somewhat more uncomfortable with the current state of affairs. Who knows? Who doesn't? I said that I was going to be open about myself when the topic arose, or the appropriate context presented itself, but when/what is that appropriate context? Why is it that, for the most part, I have yet to find any of those 'appropriate' contexts myself--I'm drawing a blank as I try to think of a time that I have disclosed my orientation to people within the congregation whom I didn't know already knew. My senior pastor, Mike, says that he has mentioned it on at least a couple occassions, which is perfectly fine, but that doesn't address my own disclosure. When will the time arise when I can make a passing reference in a sermon, be it to an event I was at, a relationship I had, whatever? How do we get to that time? Is it acceptable if that time never comes? (Already know the answer to that one: NO).

I am not talking about this as someone who wants to be defined by this aspect of my identity. It's not like that, once I think everyone knows, I would make some reference in every sermon or began every sentence in a group gathering with "As a gay man, I ...". On the other hand, it is the case that this part of my identity has contributed significantly to my journey as a Christian and as a pastor. I have already had to overtly 'neuter' a sermon at least once, maybe twice, in my time here.

At this point, I don't know whether the decision we made back in August was the "right" one. At one level, it quite possibly could have been 'easier' to have just taken care of this whole issue back then. On the other hand, I am usually a believer in "working the system", and maybe that's what we're effectively doing here, working through the disclosure within the positive impression and relationships I have already created with the congregation, instead of having had my orientation set up as a "hurdle" to jump on the road to those relationships. But is my own comfort, integrity, and self-care ending up as the sacraficial lamb in the process of "working with the system"? On yet another hand, will people be curious/doubtful/mistrustful/upset about the motivations for not sharing this from the beginning?

Obviously, the bed is now made as it is, and we (I and the congregation) must lay in it. But as we go forward, I still am really puzzled as to what those so-called "appropriate" moments are. In the eyes of the heterosexist world, no moment is "appropriate". In the eyes of liberation, every moment is "appropriate". In the eyes of Second Con? Who knows!?!

At heart, the crux of all of this from a theological/pastoral lens comes down to this: How can I make the claim that the Church is supposed to be a place where we can be who we truly are, when I am still have worries and anxiety about the dynamics (whatever they may be) of people finding out who I truly am?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Annual Report 2007

I don't really think too many people will want to read this, but I'm rather pleased with what I wrote for my annual report to the congregation for their annual program meeting this coming Sunday. So, here it is:

The Rev. Matthew Emery, Associate Pastor
April 29, 2007

Grace and peace be with you all!

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In the opening chapters of the book of Acts in the New Testament, we read about those very first moments in the life of the Christian church—-that period when the earliest Christians had to figure out exactly who they were and what their mission was as followers of the risen Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit. As the very first converts joined the community of the disciples, the author of Acts shares this description of just what the church was: a gathering of people whose identity consisted of their devotion to “the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

I believe that we, this gathering of people known as Second Congregational United Church of Christ, are ourselves on a journey of re-discovering our true identity as an authentic Christian community of disciples and on a mission of renewing our commitment to live into such an identity. As this journey and mission goes forward, I think we will find that this identity and life together looks an awful lot like that earliest description in the second chapter of Acts. In other words, we are finding ourselves called once again by God to be a community “devoted to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Our work of re-devoting ourselves to this identity takes many forms. One of these is through our worship life: our reading of “the apostles’ teaching” in scripture, the preaching in our midst of the still-speaking Word of God, our prayers for the world and all in need, and our gathering around the table of grace for the “breaking of bread”. I am thankful for the numerous opportunities I have already had to preach among you, and hope that the ministry Pastor Mike and I both carry out in this area continues to faithfully call all of us deeper into the Word that God speaks to us today and the life demanded of that Word. I am also very thankful for the ministry of Paul Laprade, Bob Bates, and all of our church’s musicians in supporting our worship together, and particularly for their commitment to connecting the music with the scriptures of the day and with the overall ‘work’ of the whole congregation in worshipping God. A number of members of our community have offered their gifts and time to visually enhance our worship space for each season of the church year. This church has together explored a few new and renewed ways of enriching our liturgy (the pattern of the worship service); I offered much input, planning time, and logistical execution in the renewal of some of the ‘special’ services on the church calendar: Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday, Palm/Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter Sunday. Our continued work to live more fully into the rich practices of Christian worship helps us journey toward the identity to which God is calling us.

Of course, the “apostles’ teaching” and the “breaking of bread” around which we gather in worship also calls us from inside the church walls to live out that teaching and that gracious meal in the world. Many ministries of mission, justice-seeking, and community outreach continued here at Second Congregational United Church of Christ. I believe our partnership with the Boys and Girls Club has and will continue to transform lives, both among the Boys and Girls Club youth and among the people of our own congregation. Even though mission and outreach is not part of her official job description, I continue to be amazed at the behind-the-scenes “social work” our own Becky Erbe does when a crisis arises, for both church and Boys and Girls Club families. Our very capable Board of Missions has taken the lead on many other areas of our mission ministries. One area of this work in which I have been more directly involved, though, is the process of re-visioning the purpose and work of the cooperative downtown ministry currently known as ‘Neighborhood Ministries’. As of this annual report, it remains to be seen what new form this ministry might take. As concerns all of our mission, justice, and outreach work, though, I am thankful for the growing awareness among us that the mission of the church out in the world is essential to the vitality and life of the church within the church walls.

Our devotion to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship” also shows itself in our ministries of Christian education and formation. It has been good to see a growing interest in education/formation opportunities for adults as we began including adults in our Wednesday night programming thanks to the work of Fred Krauss. I am sure you will read much about this and other Christian education/formation ministries in the reports from Becky Erbe and the Board of C.E. As for myself, though, I have been directly involved with these ministries by leading our high school youth ministries and by assisting with the confirmation program. Our high school youth ministries have been in a sort of ‘re-building’ phase for this year, as the recent years’ turnover in associate pastors has taken its toll on both the program and on the youth themselves. I am encouraged by the relationships I have been able to build with our current 9th-graders, as well as with this year’s 8th-graders in our confirmation class—these two classes together will form our core group of high school youth for the next few years. Our annual junior-senior high Snow Camp was again a huge success. This year also saw the beginnings of a semi-regular newsletter to all of the youth connected with our church, a newsletter currently written by myself but which I hope will begin to include contributions from the youth themselves in the future. As we face the changing landscape of our society and our youth, we will need to continue to expand our vision of youth ministry beyond the confines of simply youth group. For example, some of our older high school youth have been active this year in other ministries within our congregation, including worship, music ensembles (Sanctuary Choir and Martin Ringers), and fellowship and athletic activities. In the coming years, we will need to challenge ourselves into a more comprehensive vision of the ministry possibilities with and among the youth of our congregation and our neighborhood.

Our increasing efforts to welcome new members into our church community forms part of our sharing in “the apostles’ ... fellowship” and our sharing of “the apostles’ teaching” with them. Our own morale and sense of positive excitement as a congregation-—the evidence of vitality within—-serves as a key component in our efforts to welcome newcomers. It has been wonderful to hear from many about the sense of new energy and positive mood shift within our congregation in the last year or so. No doubt that as we live into our true vocation as a Christian community, this will continue. Newcomers and guests among us will see and sense that there is some good thing here that they want to be part of. In fact, this is already happening. Since our last annual meeting, we have welcomed 21 new members into our congregation, and we have seen a higher percentage of them remaining ‘active’ since their joining than in some recent years. It was a joy for me to teach our January-February inquirers classes, and I look forward to another series in June for which we already have 8 to 12 potential participants. We will also welcome up to 10 new members on May 6th as our current confirmands affirm their baptismal vows and join our fellowship. Other efforts within my work around ‘new member welcome and evangelism’ have included active participation with our Board of Membership and Church Growth and Vitality Task Force, work on our forthcoming church website reconstruction, the creation of the guest stations and guest information packets located in our two narthexes, and participating in our March evangelism event with David Schoen. As always, though, all of these efforts are only secondary; our primary task as a congregation is to continue to live into our true identity as that community dedicated to those teachings, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers that mark us as a community of the Gospel. Only when others can experience the substance, gift, and good news of this kind of life together will they find themselves seeking to join us.

Finally, my work since coming here in September has included much in the way of ‘fellowship’ and ‘the prayers’ as I have accompanied you all in various fellowship activities and attempted to connect with those in need in pastoral care situations. Pastor Mike and I have begun using a more structured schedule for our own visitation of shut-ins, and we look forward to seeing some renewed effort in ‘lay visitation’ in the coming year. As always, the cycle of life on earth comes full circle for some people each year; since coming here in September, I have conducted four funerals myself and co-officiated four others with Pastor Mike.

I want to express some special thanks to some of the folks with whom I have worked most directly over the past year: Pastor Mike, Becky Erbe, Paul Laprade, Bob Bates, church secretary Mary Jensen, bookkeeper Nancy Yoeckel, Deacons chair Linda Tolodxi, Membership chair Dick Nielsen, Moderator Karen Olson, all the adults who helped with Snow Camp, and so many others. And most of all, thanks to the wonderful search committee that brought me here to be among you all—-were it not for their efforts, I would not have the gift of working and living among the wonderful people and staff of Second Congregational United Church of Christ.

Looking Forward

In addition to the continuing of the ministries I’ve discussed already, I am very excited about some of the things we are looking forward to for the coming year.

As I mentioned above, I am encouraged about the possibilities for greater vitality in our youth ministries this coming year, with the rather cohesive group of youth that are currently 8th- and 9th-graders forming the core body of the youth group and other ministries with and among the youth. I hope that our mission trip this summer to Washington, D.C., will provide a formative experience for the participants that will be a springboard into the fall. Also, on the date this annual report is being presented, I will be doing some continuing education time at the Princeton Forums on Youth Ministry, and I hope that this experience will also impact our program.

In addition to continuing with our high school youth ministries, I will be taking the lead in our 8th-grade confirmation program beginning in the fall. Mike, Becky, and I have selected a new curriculum for this program that I hope will greatly enrich the confirmands’ experience. Also, with me taking the lead for confirmation, Pastor Mike will be more available to teach as part of an upcoming expansion of the adult education/formation opportunities offered during our Wednesday night programming.

We are looking forward to some greater intentionality around various forms of small groups within our congregation in the next year or two. We already have some types of small groups here, such as athletic teams, circles, the book club, fellowship groups, and so forth. As we move forward, though, we hope to both diversify the types of smaller groups available for our members to plug-in to and help make all of our small groups into supportive communities where folks can engage in conversation and exploration that can deepen their faith journey and provide support and care in times of need.

In our efforts to welcome new people in our midst, I hope that over the coming years we can begin to think about what it means not only to welcome people from other churches, but what it takes to invite people into Christian faith in the first place. A majority of people in my own age bracket have never been part of a church at any point in their life. As Christians, we believe that we have good news to share, a reason that someone would want to part of a church community (never mind whether it is our church community specifically). Much of our society, though, doesn’t know this-—and doesn’t know what it means to be Christian in the first place. If we are really going to be serious about inviting people into our congregation, we are going to need to challenge ourselves to stop providing merely education about our church and to begin providing formation into our faith. There are many possible answers of how we can begin to live into that challenge, and I hope that together we can explore some of them over these next few years.

As a congregation, we are definitely moving in the direction of that early Christian community we read about in Acts: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Our congregation’s new mission statement expresses that direction quite well:

Second Congregational United Church of Christ is a welcoming, historic, and progressive Christian community in the heart of Rockford.

As a people gathered in response to God’s call, our mission is to proclaim the good news of God made known in Jesus Christ and to courageously live toward Christ’s inclusive reign of justice, mercy and peace.

In fulfillment of this mission, we covenant to…
-- join together faithfully in worship of our Triune God, through preaching, prayer, sacrament, and music;
-- grow continually in our understanding of our faith through ministries of Christian formation;
-- deepen our discipleship through service, justice-seeking, and reconciliation;
-- act as stewards of the abundant gifts we receive: physical, spiritual, financial, and relational;
-- intensify our commitment to the downtown Rockford community; and
-- celebrate and strengthen each other’s faith through friendship, compassion, and care in times of sorrow and rejoicing.

I am excited to continue watching this congregation live into these words—-and for me to live out my calling to help enable you in that work.

Yours in the journey,

The Reverend Matthew C. Emery
Associate Pastor