Selected Sermon Texts


a sermon by Dan Saperstein
Synod of the Rocky Mountains Opening Worship
June 7, 2013
Texts: Isaiah 43:16-21; Revelation 21:1-5

Sometime in the early 1970s, the president of AT&T, which then had a legal monopoly on the telephone business, called all his managers into a large room for an emergency meeting. Attendance was compulsory. Speculation ran high as to what announcement would be made: was it a new breakthrough in technology? a disastrous quarter on the stock market and immediate downsizing? Perhaps someone important had resigned or died. They could tell by the grim look on his face that something extremely serious was about to be revealed.

When all were seated, the president went to the podium and said, "The telephone as you know it no longer exists." Muffled giggles rippled through the room. What was this? They all knew he was wrong. They had used phones that morning. He continued: "Anyone who does not believe that statement can leave this room right now and pick up their final paycheck on the way out of the building." Sober silence prevailed. No one left. They all just stared.  The president continued, "Your job today is to invent a new telephone." He broke the group up into small teams and they spent the rest of the time coming up with a new phone.

Now, you must remember that at that time, most phones were the standard black rotary dial variety.  There were some novelty designs, but the same basic technology as had been in use for 50 years. The 12-key touch tone phone had only just recently been introduced.  But they started to imagine what a new phone might look like.  Some people wanted one with no cord. Others wanted one in the car, or to carry around all the time. Still others wanted to know when another call was coming in, or to be able to forward calls to another number, to see the person on the other end, to send other kinds of messages on it. All told, there were about sixty items that distinguished the telephone they invented. Many of those items are now the features that we take for granted, from call-waiting and caller ID to cell phones and smart phones and text messaging, and the list has not yet been completed. (From ADying Church - Living God@ by Chuck Meyers pp 37-39, quoted in on-line sermon by Chris Lockley, AThe Church as You Know It No Longer Exists@)

What if I were to duplicate what the president of AT&T did with that group of managers? What if I said to you: "The church you have always known no longer exists; it is gone - walls, pews, hymnals, hierarchy, and – dare I say it – Books of Order. Now break up into groups and come up with a new vision, a new church." Would you be ready for that?

When I was in seminary, my worship professor, Donald MacLeod, a crusty old Canadian Scot, would counsel us eager-beaver seminarians that life in the parish moves more slowly than we were used to in seminary.  Change, even necessary change, is usually met with resistance.  I remember him telling us in his most earnest preaching voice, AYou know what the seven last words of the church are, do you not?  >We=ve never done it that way before!=@

But I am frankly less interested in the seven last words of the church than I am in what I=d like to call the seven first words of the church, or more properly, to the church.  We find them spoken by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel in exile in Babylon.  They were in despair because the future seemed bleak.  The song at the top of the charts was Psalm 137, ABy the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.@  The glory days were in the past.  To this people, the Lord said, ASee, I am about to do a new thing,@ or as the original Revised Standard Version put it, ABehold, I am doing a new thing.@

The same message was given to the Christians undergoing persecution in the book of Revelation.  It occurs after Satan and his minions have been cast into the lake of fire, and a new city of God descends from the heavens.  At this point, the one who is seated on the throne B that is, the Lord B says, ABehold, I am making all things new.@

These are important words to hear when the going gets tough and things look bleakest.  Earlier this week, the annual statistical report for the PCUSA was released, and the news was not good.  As a denomination, we experienced a net loss of over 100,000 members last year. It’s actually worse than that. Not counting membership gains, over 150,000 persons left the Presbyterian Church last year for a reason other than death. The single largest category of departures was an estimated 66,000 who were lost out the back door, going to no church or to another faith community without a membership transfer.  And while we dismissed “only” 110 congregations to other denominations last year – about 1% of the total, many more are withdrawing in place, refusing to pay per capita or share resources with the wider church contributing to the financial meltdown in mainline churches that Loren Mead predicted 15 years ago.

It is in this situation – in the Synod of the Rocky Mountains, in the Presbyterian Church USA, in the post-Christendom era – that God speaks to us these words:  Behold, I am doing a new thing.

The story is told about a man who worked for the highway department. He was hired to paint lines on a newly resurfaced portion of an interstate highway. The first day he painted 10 miles, and his supervisor, impressed by his effort, told him he would recommend a promotion and a raise if he kept up that pace. The next day he was only able to paint 5 miles. And on the following day he painted only 1 mile. When he reported at quitting time he was fired. "It isn=t my fault," he muttered to his boss, shaking his head. "I kept getting farther away from the paint can."  There are times when we have to go back to the beginning to accomplish things. But eventually we have to let go of what worked in the past and make adjustments. The Israelites neglected to make adjustments. They were counting on the past experiences to help them in the present. The Israelites were stuck. They longed for newness and refreshment. But rather than strike out into the wilderness they remained where they were in exile, thirsty, empty and unfulfilled. The Israelites were traveling with an old map. In the past God had led them through the Red Sea, provided manna from heaven and delivered them from their oppressors.

Those past experiences where God intervened on their behalf were spectacular. But as wonderful as the "good ole days" were, the best was still yet to come. Clinging to the past would not help them in the future. God had prepared a "new thing" for them and this newness awaited them in the wilderness.

Just about all of us resist change, like the man who kept going back to his paint can. We fail to trust in "new things" to carry us into the future. Or, we are using outdated maps to take us where we want to go. We are like the Israelites who were looking to the past for deliverance rather than to the future. Isaiah is telling us that the same God who led us through the past will continue to lead us in the future, only with new navigation aids and newly built highways.  (Keith Wagner, Sidney, OH,  ANavigating the Wilderness@ on-line sermon April 1, 2001) 
Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: "People wish to be settled; (but) only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them." [quoted by Charles G. vonRosenberg in “on the go” online sermon]  What makes the difference, what releases the power of God in our lives is faith.  A willingness to let go of those things that hold us back, that bind us to the way things are, and to follow in faith to a future that God has prepared.

God is calling our denomination out of our settled, comfortable, and familiar ways into a new and risky venture secured only by God’s word, God’s promise.

In his new book, A Sustainable Presbyterian Future, former Union Seminary President Louis Weeks describes what he calls the new ecology of the Presbyterian Church.  An ecology is a system in which life grows and thrives.  It is defined by the environmental factors of its particular setting, but it fosters those organic adaptations that will thrive in its particular setting.  Twenty years ago, he articulated the traditional Presbyterian ecology in the Presbyterian Presence series as rooted in the traditions of family devotions, Sunday schools, and Sabbath observance.  Those had seriously eroded by that time and have now been supplanted by a new ecology.  The new Presbyterian ecology, he says, is marked by five characteristics.

First, the new ecology is ecumenical at its core, rather than exclusively Reformed. In the old ecology, we were Reformed at the core and ecumenical at the fringes. But we aren’t raised with a Presbyterian identity as we used to be. Churches do not look exclusively – or even first – to denominational programs and curricula in shaping congregational life, but draw on resources that come from a variety of traditions, or none at all.

Second, the new ecology construes the Christian family inclusively, rather than narrowly. The principal community of nurture and devotion is no longer the traditional family unit.  Families exist in all shapes and sizes, including virtual and ad hoc gatherings of spiritual nurture and support. Norms which excluded or were suspicious of single or unwed parents, same-gender relationships, and happily single people are changing rapidly.

Third, the new ecology defines Presbyterian work and worship in fluid terms. Changing economic and cultural norms have pushed “work” into Sunday, so “church” has broken out of the Sunday morning sanctuary into a variety of times and settings. The days in which “church” and “real life” are easily compartmentalized into different times, places, and spheres of action are gone.

Fourth, the new ecology relies on digital technology and social media. Presbyterians have historically been “people of the book” who value a literate, well-educated clergy.  And while we still value books and other printed media, the new ecology expands the kinds and scope of words and images that inform and communicate our faith and common life both within the church and to the world. 

And last, and perhaps most important for our future as a synod, institutions and practices bubble up from the interests and passions of members rather than being received from persons in authority.  Similarly, leadership bubbles up rather than being authenticated externally from participation in successive parochial institutions. Institutional structures based on preserving and enforcing hierarchy are doomed to fail. The new ecology is more conducive to innovation, peer networks, and flexibility rather than conformity, hierarchy, and control.

There is plenty of room to disagree with Weeks, and other descriptions of what is a sustainable future abound. Nevertheless, we can say one thing with certainty. The old models aren’t working. The denominational battles in which we have been mired are less about birthing a new church than fighting over the estate of the dying old one.

Niccolo Machiavelli – with whom I have sometimes been compared – wrote in The Prince, “It must be realized that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more uncertain of success, or more dangerous to manage than the establishment of a new order of [things]; for he who introduces [change] makes enemies of all those who derived advantage from the old order and finds but lukewarm defenders among those who stand to gain from the new one.” In short, nobody likes change. But standing still is not an option. Change is the new normal.

God is in the business of doing new things.  The central act in the history of the world was when God did a new thing on a Sunday morning in Jerusalem, and the stone was rolled away and what was once dead is alive forevermore.  The church is an Easter people whom God continually raises from the dead.  We are set free from our bondage to the shackles of the past, and like those disciples on the Emmaus Road who broke bread with the risen Lord, become ready to see the new work of God in our midst.

There is only one prerequisite to the resurrection future that God can create, which is that we must first die.  We must die to the illusion of our own self-sufficiency and start living the life of God-sufficiency.  We must die to the belief that if we keep doing the same thing the same way over and over again, the result will somehow be different.  And most difficult of all, we must die to the future we think we can create out of sheer willpower.  We must place even our most cherished dreams, into the hands of God.  Only then can we emerge from our tombs into new life.

As you know, I am soon to leave our synod and my ministry as Executive Presbyter for a new position as Co-Leader for Mission and Partnership in the Synod of the Sun. It is a new model of being a synod and a new model of synod leadership. It might not work. We know that as with all new ideas it will fail in many ways before it succeeds.  But the alternative to trying and failing in order to succeed is not to succeed at all.

Many of you are familiar with the famous poem, “Footprints” in which the author asks God why in his life’s journey there were two sets of footprints most of the time, but when the times were toughest only one.  He asked why God would abandon him in those toughest moments. Of course, the answer is that those were the times God carried him.  It’s a sweet poem.  But there is another anonymous poem of a similar vein we need to hear.  It goes,

One night I had a wondrous dream,
One set of footprints there were seen,
The footprints of my precious Lord,
But mine were not along the shore

But then some stranger prints appeared,
And I asked the Lord, “What have we here?
Those prints are large and round and neat
But Lord, they are too big for feet.”

“My child,” He said in somber tones,
“For miles I carried you alone.
I challenged you to walk in faith,
But you refused and made me wait.

“You disobeyed, you would not grow,
The walk of faith, you would not know,
So I got tired, I got fed up,
And there I dropped you on your butt.”

“Because in life, there comes a time,
When one must fight, and one must climb,
When one must rise and take a stand,
Or leave their butt prints in the sand.”

Friends, the good news is this: the Synod of the Rocky Mountains, the Presbyterian Church USA as we know it, no longer exists.  The one who sits on the throne declares, ABehold, I am making all things new.@  And may our prayer be this day, ALet it begin with us, Lord.  Let it begin with us.@ Amen.