On Sunday, June 28, 2015, I led worship at the North Anderson Community Church, Presbyterian in Anderson, South Carolina. When I arrived the rainbow was being installed behind the pulpit. The prelude was a beautiful rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Below are the call to worship, the readings for the day, and the sermon I preached.
Remembering our Mission (from the NACCP Mission Statement):
Leader: As a family of God’s people, and believers in the teachings of Jesus Christ, we will seek to be
People: a haven of safety for those who might need one, a light of hope for all who seek healing, and a ministry of compassion for those who feel left out.
L: We will be vocal as we actively seek peace and social justice
P: and brave as we lovingly speak the truth in a world that might not wish to hear us.
L: We will endeavor to live into our hopes of what is just
P: and not be governed by fear of persecution or the unknown.
L: With open minds, open hearts, open doors and open arms
P: we will move forward as a diverse community,
embracing everyone’s unique faith journey and
empowering not only ourselves but those outside
our congregation as well.
1st READING: The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
2nd Reading: from A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
3rd Reading: A rendering of 2 Corinthians 6:1-3, 11-13 (The Message)
Companions as we are in this work with you, we beg you, please don’t squander one bit of this marvelous life God has given us. God reminds us, “I heard your call in the nick of time; the day you needed me, I was there to help.” Well, now is the right time to listen, the day to be helped. Don’t put it off; don’t frustrate God’s work by showing up late, throwing a question mark over everything we’re doing. … I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!
Sermon: Living Large
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.”
“Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. … Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!”
In a sermon a few weeks ago*, I heard a metaphor that I’ve been turning over in my mind. Imagine that your life is a jigsaw puzzle. And what God sees is the picture on the outside of the box – the whole, connected, image of who you are – complete and spectacular. But what you keep looking at is the chaotic table with pieces scattered here and there. A little bit is done in this corner and most of the edges are put together, but there are all these places where things just aren’t fitting and all you can see are these broken up pieces of the picture that don’t quite hang together.
I don’t know about you, but that image works on any number of levels for me. Some days I’m convinced that there are too many missing pieces for the picture to ever come together. Sometimes I get very absorbed with one corner of the puzzle and get great pleasure out of feeling that small part of the picture come together. Other times I stare at the unfinished parts and feel overwhelmed at how much is not yet done. Sometimes I’m so frustrated with the piled up chaos, I just want to sweep the whole thing off the table.
Imagine – every day, God looks at this same set of pieces and sees the whole beautiful picture. Every time.
“… please,” Paul writes, “don’t squander one bit of this marvelous life God has given us.”
Imagine. And imagine this is not only true for you personally, but for us, collectively.
Imagine it’s true of your family and your most intimate relationships – you may be holding onto one piece that just doesn’t seem to have a home, while God is seeing the whole painting.
Imagine it’s true of the place where you work or the neighborhood where you live.
Imagine it’s true of this community of faith.
Imagine it’s true of South Carolina.
Imagine it’s true of the United States of America.
Imagine it’s true of our world.
God looks every day, every moment, at the whole beautiful picture and invites us to see this splendid possibility. To see the world as complete and fabulous. To see our neighborhoods and states as brilliant and beautiful. To see this congregation as talented and gorgeous and having a light so bright that it can’t help shining into every dark corner of this community. Imagine!
“I don’t know exactly what prayer is. I do know how to pay attention …”
This congregation is at a cross-road. You have been wounded and you have taken time to heal. You have been broken apart and you have worked to pull each other back together.
As you prepare to call a new minister, I’m sure there is both hope and trepidation. Will we grow? Will we change? Will the new leadership bring a fresh energy to enliven us?
As a woman who has served as the pastor of three congregations and who has been part of many other ones over the years, let me say a few things to you.
Your new pastor will not make or break this congregation. He and she may need your new energy as much as you need theirs – or more! There will most likely be a honeymoon period, followed by a let-down – for both you and them. This is just how it goes. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong. It just means you’re moving into another stage of a relationship.
All of your questions and hopes and dreams and concerns are pieces of the puzzle. And the good news is that God sees the front of the box. God already knows what beauty and light is here. So you don’t have to see the whole picture, you just have to trust that it exists – your perfect wholeness, your absolute brilliance, your full-on energy is intrinsic to who you are, as individuals and as a congregation.
This is a God-given truth and your holy calling is to live into it. To show up, pay attention, to pray for the eyes of God to see what you can’t yet see and to trust where you can’t yet know.
Your call is to live as if the picture is fully in place, as if every good possibility were already true.
Because it is true. God’s vision is the real vision. We are created in the likeness and image of God and it is God’s spirit who has called you into being and God’s spirit that will guide your steps.
“You may ask yourselves, Who are we to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are children of God. … We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.”
This congregation came into being at a particular moment in history and with a special purpose. This congregation’s reason for being is to provide deep welcome in a region where the church did not always feel welcoming. You came into existence to let your own light shine, so that others could see your light and find the light inside themselves.
Look around you this week. And let me ask you: six months ago, could you imagine this week? Could you imagine the whole nation rejoicing over the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage? Could you imagine the White House lit up with rainbow colors and the President and Vice-President running through the portico with rainbow flags?
Could you imagine your governor calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from your state house grounds? Or Walmart and Amazon and other retail giants refusing to sell that flag any more?
Six months ago could you imagine more than 10,000 people of every race and creed joining hands across a bridge in Charleston?
What a week this has been. I’ve had to rewrite this sermon several times. Because I can tell you that ten days ago I felt as despairing for this country as I have ever felt. And there have been plenty of times I have felt awfully bleak – can I get an amen? But the massacre of those nine African-American children of God at prayer in their own church opened a grief in my soul that I have seldom known. How, I wondered, do my black friends find it in themselves to get out of bed for another day? After so many years of being pushed down, beaten back, lynched and murdered, how do they not walk into the streets and rip this nation wide open? How?
And then, not only did they not answer with anger. The families of the fallen found it in themselves to answer with forgiveness. Amazing grace.
Asheville held an interfaith service a week ago Friday at our local African Methodist Episcopal Church. The pastor of that church** grew up in the Charleston AME community and knew every single person who had died. They were friends, family, mentors, and colleagues.
He stood in that pulpit in Asheville, bearing more personal and communal grief than I can possibly imagine, bearing not only his own anger and sadness, but the anger and the sadness of his community. His church community and the black community. And here’s what he said to us that day:
“It’s our turn now.”
It’s our turn now.
Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth: “Now is the right time to listen, the day to be helped. Don’t put it off; don’t frustrate God’s work by showing up late, throwing a question mark over everything we’re doing … Open up your lives.”
It’s our turn now.
On Sunday, I returned to Asheville’s St. James AME Church to listen to Pastor Edwards again and I sat with Robert in a church full of black Christians, from babies to grandmothers, who sang praises – loud, joyful, uninhibited, unabashed, praises – for more than two hours. Only four days after that massacre, they danced in the aisles of that church, they applauded their recent graduates, they prayed over their newlyweds, they clapped, they sang, they welcomed these white strangers, they encouraged their preacher with their voices and their bodies, and they lifted up the vision. “God is still God.” Amazing grace.
This week I watched those people walk on the Charleston bridge, I watched people gather on the state house lawn, I watched as politicians bowed to the will of the people and heard the call to do the right thing. This week I watched as our African-American president stood on a chancel filled with black preachers and called our nation to live up to the grace we’ve been given.
Who could ever have imagined this week? With mourning turned to joy for black Americans and gay and lesbian Americans, as activists and politicians and people of faith stood up and declared, inequality and second-class citizenship do not belong in this great nation. We have to live up to the grace we’ve been given.
Who could have imagined? God could. God has always imagined us at our best.
It’s our turn now.
And God is ready for us to show up, to pay attention – we can’t be late. This state, this region, this nation, this world, needs for us to let our lights shine. Needs for us to step into the brilliance that God has placed in our souls. It does not serve the world for us to live small when what God needs is for us to live large.
Paul wrote, “I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. … Live openly and expansively!”
It’s our turn now.
Our turn to trust in the bigger vision of who we are and who we can be. Who we are as individuals, who this congregation is, who this nation is. The pieces may seem confusing, but God is holding the front of the box and inviting us to see the final product – the gorgeous, multi-colored, picture of the whole creation, God’s whole creation, God’s perfect vision.
God can imagine it. Can we?
“We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.”
It’s our turn now.
So, my friends … “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
*The Reverend Darlene Strickland, Unity of the Blue Ridge, 6/13/15
** The Reverend Brent LaPrince Edwards, St. James AME, 6/19/15 and 6/21/15