As we part company, I offer you the sermon preached on the Service of Release on Sunday June 18th.
With deep blessings,
Three Wise Words
Scripture: Genesis 18:1-15
Seven years! Who would have thought?
This morning there have been many reminders of my beginnings here at WCC with you all: the books we have read together; the songs and hymns we have sung; the traditions we have begun (like lighting the votive candles during our time of prayer.) One powerful reminder for me is the scripture passage from the book of Genesis that we read this morning. This is because I chose this scripture to be read during my Installation service at WCC. And now we have come full circle. Rev Patty is here to “uninstall” me, so to speak.
I have learned many things from this time among you all. This week I’d like to remember and to share three of those things:
– God has called you, not someone else. And God has called you now, not at some other time.
– Hold (that call) lightly.
– and Let go (of the thing you are holding onto most tightly).
(God has called you, not someone else. Hold it lightly and … let go.)
Those seven years ago, I chose the story we heard today with a focus on Sarah’s laughter.
You may remember from last week’s reading that the two were first called by God to leave their home country and travel to a new land. God would bless them so that they would be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Although Abraham and Sarah were without children, God promised them offspring, so that they would be the parents of this new people in the new land. We are told that Abraham was 75 years old at the time.
This week, we meet Abraham and Sarah again, toward the end of their wanderings through the wilderness. There have been many challenges along the way. They have not always risen to God’s calling to be a blessing to the people they have met.
Sometimes, during these wandering times with their entourage of extended family, enslaved people and livestock, they have prospered. Other times they have struggled to get by.
Occasionally there have been moments of clarity and glimpses of the call and promises of God. Like the time when God speaks to Abraham as he looks up at the night sky, inviting him to count the stars and then imagine that his descendants will be as numerous as those stars.
In this week’s story, we meet the couple, still childless and much older. As is the case today, people who long to be parents suffer terribly when they are faced with infertility. It may seem that the world around them does not care. It may seem as though there are babies everywhere and they are the only ones who struggle to conceive. Perhaps this is how Abraham and Sarah feel now that their time to have children has passed.
We can imagine that they are weary from their years of wandering. Perhaps they are cynical about God’s supposed promises.
In the heat of the day, when all the camp is resting, Abraham is sitting under the cooling shade of the Oaks of Mamre. In this moment, perhaps in a vision or a dream, three strange men appear to Abraham. He immediately springs into action, true to Middle Eastern hospitality. He runs to fetch water, runs to instruct Sarah to bake bread and runs to tell one of the servants to prepare a calf for the men to eat. And he begs the men to take a rest and eat with him.
Sarah hovers in their tent, eavesdropping. She is the topic of their conversation. One of the men says that he will return in due season and that when he does, Sarah will have given birth to a son.
Sarah laughs out loud. This is an absurd prediction. How will she – in her advanced age – become pregnant and give birth to a son? Sarah may think that no one has heard her laugh from inside the tent, but God is eavesdropping on her.
At this point in our scriptures I believe there is a typo. This belief is not a result of advanced scholarship in Biblical Hebrew. I’ve come to this conclusion from the context. The scripture says that the Lord asks Abraham why Sarah was laughing. But I think that God asks Sarah herself. I know I’m not supposed to edit the text, but go along with me will you? (Let’s hold this lightly.)
God goes on to ask “is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Sarah is embarrassed and denies it, “I didn’t laugh,” she says. “Oh yes you did,” says the Lord.
When I chose this passage for my Installation Service, Kate, our volunteer administrator, asked me about the choice. Was it because I was coming to the church, as my first call, as a woman – like Sarah – advanced in years? Was it because my calling to minister with you all – to imagine what might be birthed in this place – seems unlikely, even funny? She was spot on. That was exactly why I chose this passage back then.
It may seem irreverent to laugh, like Sarah, at God’s calling for us. But, I think that God laughs too. There’s humor in the back and forth between Sarah and the Lord. A bit like a trope from the pantomimes I used to see as a child in England: “oh yes you did!” “oh no I didn’t!”
If I had not been able to laugh a little at my calling to this congregation, I would have been overwhelmed. This church has an esteemed history including a number of long-serving full-time pastors who seem quite intimidating from their plaques and portraits.
And then there was the ministry with the previous settled pastor, in which the church was declared “The Turnaround Church” with the publication of a book of the same name. I admit that when I read and re-read the book “The Turnaround Church”, trying to get a sense of where this church would be going next, I wondered if I could match the former pastor’s extravert energy.
As a borderline introvert myself, would I have the energy to do even half the outreach and relationship building that she had done? Then I remembered by wise supervisor, Cindy, from my first Field Education placement. On our first meeting Cindy said “We are here to find out what it means for you, Liz, to be a pastor. With the gifts and skills that God has given you. You do not need to try to be anyone else. You just need to be Liz, because it is you whom God has called.”
And so, we have the wise words:
God has called you, not someone else. And God has called you now, not at some other time.
Even so the work ahead, with a very small congregation and a very large and deteriorating building seemed enormous. During the first year or so, I would come in through the office door downstairs, trying to avoid looking up so I would not see the cracks in the walls and the chimney.
Thankfully I had the opportunity to take an educational program with the Shalem Institute, those first two years, called “The Soul of Leadership.” I remember, the very first day my cohort met, the fall of 2016, one of the facilitators held a fragile autumn leaf in the palm of her hand. She said, “as we begin this program together, remember to hold our work together lightly …. hold it lightly.”
Hold it lightly.
And now, over the past seven years, we have gone through a number of book studies and sermon series together. In our time together, we remembered that it is never too late to grow in faith. Our study of the book “Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps” by Richard Rohr was particularly helpful to a number of us. In the book Rohr says “all mature spirituality is about letting go.” If we are to become mature in our spirituality, we need to let go of what we think we know, what we hold onto so tightly. 
And so, from our Hebrew scripture this morning and our time together over the years we have three things:
Remember that God has called you (not someone else) and God has called you now, not some other time.
Hold that call lightly.
Let go (of the things you are holding onto most tightly).
Of course, none of us have done these things perfectly, least of all myself.
There are times when I have assumed that God must have made a mistake calling me to this place. I’ve imagined how much better it would have been if I had been younger or if I’d come to be with you at a different stage in the church’s life: when there was a busy church school and an active youth group, or a robust music program.
And there have been times when I’ve held my calling here like a lead weight. There have been days when the burden of responsibility seemed immense. Like the time when we had to act decisively regarding our COVID response. Or the times when the congregation has needed to face the hard truth that this building cannot be adequately maintained and managed, given our limited financial and human resources.
And there have been times when I have clung to my own hopes and dreams for this congregation. I recalled, during my exit interview this week, how I felt a good deal of urgency in the first year of my ministry here. I pushed hard on goals, such as beginning the Open & Affirming process, instead of taking the long view.
Fortunately, I am not the only one who can keep these wise three things present in our minds, when old anxieties attempt to derail us. One Sunday this past winter I had given a sermon on the violence in our culture due the spiritual poverty of our time. I try to end each sermon with hope. This particular week I could find no hope except in God’s coming kin-dom when every tear shall be wiped away. It was a sober message.
Now Alice, our accompanist, listens carefully to the content of the service and uses her musical sensitivity to choose the pieces she will play. That week, she chose was a lovely rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for the postlude. I sat here in the front, laughing at this perfect choice: light and delightful, wistful and longing. It was a perfect interpretation of the hope of the kin-dom of God.
And so my Wollaston Congregational Church friends, three things (or maybe 4)
Laugh like Sarah, not with cynicism but with surprised joy at the calling to which we are called. Because God has called you – not someone else – and God has called you now. Hold it lightly, and when it is time, let it go.
May all God’s people say,
 Rohr, Richard. Breathing Under Water : Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (p. 6). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.