Turn-around: Transformed Leaders, Transformed Community

ehemiah 1:1-2:6, Isaiah 43: 1-3, 18-21 (1/13/19) and Acts 2: 22-41

Pastor's Note: We are going on a journey this fall! We don't know exactly where it will lead us -- but our goal is to discover more about God's mission for our congregation! Please join the conversation on October 6 to brainstorm after worship on our core values -- those essential things to carry into the future. And please join us for a second conversation on October ___, again after worship. We need all of our value-holders and creative thinkers to help us understand our mission here in our community and beyond!

If you would like a copy of the book, Canoeing the Mountains, please let Pastor Katherine know. If you miss a Sunday, we are posting the sermons for you here, or you can call Katya and she will print a copy for you to pick up during office hours.

Yesterday I went to the “Skin in the Game” workshop in Downers Grove where we were digging deep into racism. We talked in pairs about how we saw ourselves, and how race was a factor in our view of others. Everyone present was concerned about the negative impact of racism in our culture, and particularly for our children and youth, as we heard about the ways that Evanston Township School District has been implementing a program to provide more equal opportunities for students of color. But we began with ourselves. The first step is knowing what is going on with us – and that there is a need for change. For US to change our thinking, and our behaviors. We start there.

When we get off-track in some way, we have two choices: we can keep going and hope we’ll find another way to get there OR we can turn around. Our GPS systems are helpful with either choice. If we miss a turn, it will tell us to go another two miles and then turn – or it will say, “When possible, make a U-turn.” Sometimes we may think, “If only LIFE had a navigator!”

Both of our texts today talk about a specific kind of turn-around. In Nehemiah’s story, he has heard that Jerusalem lies in ruins and has no walls to protect it. This concerns him greatly. But his first actions are to grieve for the loss, then fast, then pray. And in his prayer, after praising God, he asks for mercy.

5 Lord God of heaven, you are great and fearsome. And you faithfully keep your promises to everyone who loves you and obeys your commands. 6 I am your servant, so please have mercy on me and answer the prayer that I make day and night for these people of Israel who serve you. I, my family, and the rest of your people have sinned 7 by choosing to disobey you and the laws and teachings you gave to your servant Moses.

The Bible calls this pattern REPENTANCE. It is “returning” – RE-TURNing to God. That means paying attention to God, keeping God’s commandments, and making what God wants the FIRST thing in our thoughts and actions.

Our Acts reading helps a bit more. Peter’s sermon includes some instruction on REPENTANCE. After he has explained what has happened in the life-death-resurrection of Jesus, the people ask, “What shall we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Peter implies that REPENTANCE means turning away from competing beliefs and values – what St. Paul calls “the worldly” values – and towards Jesus. If Jesus is Lord and Savior, then Jesus and his values, his mission, should have their first and best allegiance – not what is leftover after work, family, friends, getting ahead. REPENTANCE is exchanging old beliefs or world views for a new one that focuses on God and God’s purposes.

Repentance isn’t a one-time thing. It is a course correction for anytime we have gotten off tract, any time we have gotten distracted and taken a wrong turn. We get off tract regularly. And instead of getting defensive about it – we just need to REPENT – to turn-around.

Nobody is going to tell you that REPENTANCE is easy. Nor that once we do a turn-around, either in our lives or our churches, that all goes smoothly. Some pastors would tell you that there are just as many troubles in life for people with a strong faith relationship with God as those with a more tangential relationship. I’ll tell you there might even be more.

Look at the Biblical evidence: Consider the people chosen by God in the Bible – they didn’t have it easy.

  • Not the patriarchs: Abram/Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob.

  • Not the Kings: Saul, David, Solomon.

  • Not the prophets: Samuel, Jeremiah, Hosea.

Certainly not Jesus, Peter or Paul either. Actually, following God puts us out of step with most of the world and our world is not kind to people who don’t share the predominant values. Jews through history would attest to that. That’s why there are so many Christian martyrs. And why religious leaders and governments are often in heated conversations. Our priorities clash. Following God as primary allegiance is not easy, and we stay in trouble with the world – sometimes even with the institutional church. (Pause to let THAT sink in.)

(GOD) So with trouble, conflict and turmoil – we need to remember who God is. It is important to remember that we can be confident in God as the source of our blessing. Not prosperity, necessarily, but meaning and purpose and life. That is the start of Nehemiah’s prayer:

5 Lord God of heaven, you are great and fearsome. And you faithfully keep your promises to everyone who loves you and obeys your commands.

We are accustomed to hearing about the resurrection of Jesus, but imagine how astounding this was in Peter’s day! That someone who was put to death by the government, at the request of the religious authorities, was raised by God from death to life again! Vindicated by God.

32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.

NOW – if God can raise the dead to new life, who deserves our confidence – God or human society? I acknowledge that is a big IF. But the question is worth asking. We have heard the stories of faith passed down for generations. God has not abandoned God’s people, even in slavery and persecution. Here’s the thing: the troubles don’t go away. But God is present with us through them.

In what or whom do you place confidence? What do you turn to in times of trouble? If we took the time over coffee and snacks to discuss it at our tables, you might hear stories of hard times and a sense of God’s presence that gave us the strength to carry on. In devastating loss – God’s presence comforts and helps us find a different kind of peace than we had imagined. In uncertainty, trust in God gives us hope and keeps us from despair. In financial distress, we learn what matters and to let a lot go – and sometimes it is the community of faith that sustains us and even provides the support we need in the meantime.

Putting our trust in God doesn’t mean that troubles go away or life gets easier. It does mean that we feel less alone when troubles come. It does mean that we have resources and strength to face the troubles when they come. Turning towards God, RE-turning to God, offers new hope.

Life is an ever-changing situation. Science tells us that survival has to do with the ability to adapt. We adapt or we become extinct. Social sciences agree regarding our psychological and emotional adaptability. Adaptation is vital – and it helps us remain vital.

As a congregation, we have inherited some amazing gifts. But life has changed from 150 years ago. It has changed a great deal from 50 years ago. In fact, the pace of the changes in our world continues to accelerate. Our BIG question is how must we adapt in order to be in ministry in a changed and still rapidly changing environment? We’re going to talk about that as a congregation this fall. On Sunday, October 6 we will have a conversation after worship where we identify our core values as a congregation. It’s important to know, in the middle of adaptive challenges, what the things are that OUGHT NOT change, that are key to who we are as the people of God in Oak Park, or to what we feel God is calling us to do right where we are.

But that we will need to change, to adapt, is not in doubt. The world is changing and if we are going to do our job some adjustments are necessary.

Adam Hamilton, lead pastor at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, talks about the change in how we listen to music. He brings out an old Victrola – playing 45s. Then he switches the record to the larger size albums many of us remember. He talks about having an 8 track player in his first car, and then the switch to cassettes. CDs were a huge improvement over cassettes with tangled tapes. But most of our young people don’t have CD collections for their music. They download it directly to their devices and listen to it through earphones. I know many of us do that – but the difference is that they may have needed to show us how. (Pause for chuckles). Listening to music has changed a great deal over the past 70 years. Almost everything has.

So we have the task of figuring out, or at least starting to figure out, how we need to change in order to fulfill the mission that God has for us as a congregation. That probably won’t be easy. The good news is that we don’t have to figure this out alone. God is our cheering section – and we have a lot of great minds and creative thinkers among us. AND transformation usually comes gradually, hopefully in easy stages. It’s definitely a process. And we don’t have to map out the whole journey on the front end.

We’re more like Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery seeing new territory and figuring it out a bit at a time. We’ll figure out some additional people and skill sets that we will need along the way. Our goal is to experience the transformation that we need to fulfill our mission for God. It’s a learning process. We’ll have to experiment a bit. We’ll make some mistakes, and then we’ll correct them.

Thomas Edison: We need to have the mindset of Thomas Edison, who between 1878 and 1880 worked with his associates on at least 3000 different theories to develop an efficient incandescent lamp. He was accused of being stubborn to the point of being ridiculous at his persistent efforts. He said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”

Edison had such a strong sense of his purpose that he was not easily discouraged – and he kept trying new things until he found the one he needed.

Adaptive change in the church is, according to Todd Bolsinger, author of Canoeing the Mountains, “adapting to the changing environment and circumstances so that new possibilities arise for accurately seeing, understanding and facing challenges with new actions.” [i] Unpacking that – we want to adapt in order to see new possibilities and face the challenges with new possible actions. More than survive – for new opportunities! God measures success a bit differently than we do – we need to accomplish our mission for God! And to do that – we need to Adapt. Strategies from the past might not work now. Adaptation is needed in order to fulfill our mission with vitality in a changing world!

Sometimes we need a turn-around or course correction – to refocus on God and God’s purposes when we’ve gotten distracted or off-course. It won’t make all the problems disappear or make life any easier. It might make life harder because we’ll be out of step with most of the world. But we need to adapt to remain vital in our mission, to be able to fulfill God’s purposes for us. And we need to keep trying until we figure it out. God’s mission is too important – it is why we are here. And God will be with us on the journey. It’s an adventure – with God.

[i] Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains, 40-41.

Photo by Jim Wilson on Unsplash