Surprising Investment

Surprising Investment


   x-the-disciple-scroll         Our guide in Israel on several occasions has been Alan Rabbinowitz. Those of you who traveled with Beth and I to Egypt and Israel will remember that Alan was our guide for the Israel portion of our tour. A couple of years ago Alan completed the novel he had been working on for a number of years entitled the Disciple Scroll. The novel is about the Old Testament character of Baruch who served as the scribe for the prophet Jeremiah. The reason Alan chose Baruch as the main character of his book is because he is one of the only characters from the Hebrews scriptures for whom we have direct archaeological evidence.


   x-seal-of-baruch         In 1975 a seal bearing the mark of Baruch son of Neriah was found when the “burnt house” was excavated in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. Burnt House was a home and incense factory dating back to the Babylonian siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.   Then in 1996 when part of the Old City of David was being excavated a second seal belonging to Baruch was found. And so Baruch Son of Neriah became the most archaeologically attested figure of the Hebrew scriptures, who appears in our scripture this morning.


  x-jeremiah          Jeremiah was an irritating prophet. Like some other preachers he told people what they did not want to hear — the reason prophets often end up dead. And when he became an irritating thorn in the side to King Zedekiah, the King made life difficult for Jeremiah.   The King had the prophet beaten with rods and put in the stocks, where he was subjected to ridicule and abuse. When he still kept preaching the doom of Jerusalem, he was thrown into an unused cistern where he sank into 4 feet of mud and ooze at the bottom up to his neck. The King hoped that Jeremiah would die in the muck, so he could claim he was innocent of shedding the prophet’s blood. Even in those days governments used double speak to deceive.

            Poor Jeremiah despaired of his life, until Baruch, disguised as a Cushite, pulled him out of the cistern. We can only imagine what he must have looked like, ragged, half starved, covered head to toe with the stinking slime from the bottom of the cistern. Zedekiah was so startled to see him alive, he relented and kept Jeremiah as a prisoner in the courtyard of the palace guard.   And then God told the prophet to make an unusual gesture of hope.


x-jeremiah-purchases-a-field        God told Jeremiah to purchased a field from his cousin on a hillside outside of Jerusalem, where the Babylonian army was encamped. Who would be stupid enough in the middle of a siege of the City to make such a purchase? But sure enough Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel son of his uncle Shallum, came to him and proposed that the prophet buy that piece of real estate that was being occupied by the Babylonian army. So, Jeremiah agreed to the sale and gave the deed to Baruch for safe keeping prophesying, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”


x-surprising-investment       In our own context what would an unusual gesture of hope look like? In a time when the demise of the mainline church is regularly forecast, and naysayers are prophesying the death of progressive congregations, I believe it is time to offer a gesture of hope. We can invest in the future of our congregation. We have begun our 2017 stewardship drive with the theme “Surprising Investment.”   We can dedicate our material resources, our time and our talents to helping this congregation thrive. And despite some expressions of doom and gloom, because our pastor is retiring, and the sky is falling, and the church is dying, let me remind you that in 2015 this congregation turned a corner. I and reading from the Annual Report from last year:


x-accomplishmentsThe year 2015 has led us into a new future. We have finished important portions of our renovation campaign including the reconstruction of the flat roof and the resurfacing of the Parking Lot. (And please note we are still making important upgrades in our sanctuary and our sound system.) We have lived out the implications of our Open and Affirming Statement. We finished construction and dedication of our Healing Steps Labyrinth, and together with our neighbor St. Stephen’s we are working together on programs of healing including the blessing of the animals today at 4 p.m. on the labyrinth.

During 2015 we received 17 new people into membership, bringing the membership to 201. Since the Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage, we have performed four wedding ceremonies for same sex couples.

We have turned a corner on worship attendance increasing average Sunday Morning worship attendance by almost 10% as well as reaching out to welcome new people into the life of our congregation. Our congregation has made a break through.


x-congregations-accomplishments         The Pastor didn’t do all those things, those were your accomplishments – victories and successes of this church. You all have been responsible for the growth and forward momentum of this congregation. And there is no reason why we cannot continue to move ahead, if during this interim period we are all willing to make a surprising investment.

We already have an interim search committee in place and a permanent search committee in place, who have begun work on their missions. And if you want my thoughts on how the rest of us can make this “Surprising Investment,” let me read from my Dear Friends for September:


x-balance-the-budget            Over the next four months we have opportunities to express our appreciation for one another. I hope I will be able to find adequate words and gestures to tell you how much I love you. I am not looking for a big celebratory leave taking. Your celebration of the 40th anniversary of my ordination was an event I still treasure. Also rather than a retirement gift, allow me to suggest that we all give a gift to United Church by balancing our budget and paying back what we borrowed from the other funds by the end of the year. A wonderful gift for me would be leaving behind a financially strong congregation for whomever is my successor. As part of that effort we have organized a mystery dinner as a fund raiser. That Dinner “Bullets and Bar B Q” is only a few weeks away. Let’s sell tickets and encourage people to volunteer and turn out for the event. The dinner is an important opportunity to help balance the budget.


x-communicating-sharing-our-identityIn case I have your attention allow me to suggest two other projects that would represent a “Surprising Investment” in the life and identity of this congregation. As a result of our congregational coaching we have discovered the importance of our identity as an Open and Affirming Congregation of the United Church of Christ, where no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here! As we welcome new people into our fellowship we need to be able to communicate our heritage with them. What do I mean by communicating our heritage? Understanding that our commitment to “God Is Still Speaking” is almost 400 years old. John Robinson the Pastor of the Pilgrim Congregation exhorted his people to be prepared for God to reveal new truth to them as they journeyed to the New World. Our understanding of the scriptures is not frozen in some kind of fundamentalist time warp, but we are free to re-interpret the Bible so our faith can speak meaningfully in our modern context.


x-congregationalAnother important piece of our heritage, we are congregational. We are a bottom up fellowship, rather than a top down organization. Everyone has an equal voice in the congregational meeting. We don’t tell people what they should think or how they ought to behave. And that brings me to another part of our heritage. In contrast to many other churches we are not a shame culture. We do not bring people in front of the congregation and publicly shame them. We believe in the sacred independence of each person’s conscience. We are not required to agree with one another, and we staunchly defend the right of individuals to disagree with each other, because we are not required to march to the beat of the same drummer.


x-diversity-is-following-way-of-jesusIs diversity in a faith community easy? No! Becoming a truly diverse faith community that embraces different ethnic groups, different sexual orientations, different socio-economic classes, different beliefs is a real challenge, a challenge worthy of following the way of Jesus. Matt Youngkin has proposed placing story boards at the entrances to our church to help communicate our United Church of Christ identity to visitors and new members.


Now one more project. The United Church of Huntsville was truly privileged to have as its founding Pastor the Rev. Ray Berry and his wife Shirley. They were a talented and blessed Pastoral couple. They lived the way of x-celebrating-ray-shirley-berryJesus. When Ray received a phone call from his old roommate and friend Andrew Young, to come to Selma, Ray went and was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. When Ray and Shirley left Huntsville they ministered in South Dakota on the Lakota Sioux Reservation. That is why we still send our offerings for the Sock and Glove Tree to the Lakota Association of the United Church of Christ. I have no doubt that if Ray Berry were alive and well today, he would be standing with the Lakota People at Standing Rock.


Anyway Ray and Shirley were real honest to God followers of the way of Jesus, and I would like to see their x-making-a-surprising-investmentministry celebrated as part of the heritage of the United Church of Huntsville. Shirley Berry gave a quilt made by the Lakota Women to the United Church of Huntsville, and I am wondering if someone would make a cabinet, where the quilt could be on display along with a tribute to the ministry of Ray and Shirley Berry. Part of our identity at United Church was formed by the mission and service of the Berry’s.

Join me then as we approach this interim time in the life of United Church by making a surprising investment in the future.




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