Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
February 12, 2012

Scripture:

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

We just heard stories of the healing of a person we have always called a leper, as if a disease someone has defines that person. It doesnít, of course, so letís call it the healing of someone suffering from some sort of skin disease that the ancient world called leprosy. Maybe Naaman and the unnamed man from the story in Mark had what science today would call leprosy, or maybe they had eczema, psoriasis, or acne. The ancient world didnít make distinctions between different kinds of skin disease. They just called them all leprosy. Having leprosy in the ancient world was a pretty big deal, especially in Israel. It made you ďunclean,Ē impure. It made you an untouchable, an outcast, someone shunned by society, even by your family. Having a skin disease in that world excluded you from society, from family, from friends, from the synagogue or temple. Having a skin disease was a very big deal in that world. It excluded you from fullness of life. Those poor souls afflicted with it were in a sense the walking dead.

In both of our stories this morning people with leprosy, with some sort of skin disease or other, were healed by the power of God. Yes, Naaman the Syrian commander was healed through the words of the prophet Elisha, and the man in the Mark story was healed by the touch of Jesus. Yet both the prophet Elisha and Jesus would have attributed the healing not to themselves but to God. God was acting through them to make a couple of suffering people well. The prophet and the Messiah were Godís instruments in these healings, but the healing came not from them but through the power of God acting through them. So these stories not only tell us something about Elisha and Jesus, they tell us something about God. They tell us that God wills health for Godís people. Yet because having leprosy in that world, especially in Israel, was a kind of living death, these stories tell us that what God really wills is life for all of Godís people. Full life. The abundant life that in the Gospel of John Jesus says that he came to give to people. God wants all of Godís people to have life, and God works through Godís people to restore to life those whose lives have been diminished by disease, indeed by anything.

Today after worship we will hold our annual meeting of the congregation. It will be my tenth such annual meeting as your pastor. Many of you who are here now were not here in 2002 when that congregation of Monroe Congregational UCC called me as their pastor. I suspect that it may be difficult for those of you who have come to this church in the last few years to understand what this church was in 2002 and how different from that church this church really is. When I first entered this pulpit I was 55 years old, and I was one of the young people of the congregation. There were no children. Not one. The congregation had had unfortunate experiences with a couple of my predecessors in this pulpit, had seen a much loved pastor leave after having been here only one year, and had gone for seven months without a pastor. In 2002 this church wasnít dead. There was life here, but it wasnít fullness of life. It wasnít abundant congregational life. The church was as welcoming of visitors and new members then as it is now, but there was little clarity about the churchís identity and mission. The church had adopted the mission statement that we see here one year earlier, but the church was not officially Open and Affirming. The people of the church loved the church and were committed to its survival and growth, but none of us knew how we were going to make survival and growth happen. In 2002 when I started as pastor here this church very much needed to be restored to life.

By the grace of God and through your commitment and hard work we have been restored to life. We have clarity about our identity as an Open and Affirming Christian church. We have clarity about at least one aspect of our mission, namely, to welcome and embrace those whom other Christian churches scorn and reject because of one aspect of their God-given, good humanity. We have grown. Sunday attendance now is roughly twice what it was in 2002. Just as importantly, the demographics of the church have shifted. We are younger now than we were then. We have children, lots of them when theyíre all here. We do things that werenít being done in 2002. Back then there was no regular adult Christian education or faith formation going on. Today there is. We do womenís retreats and childrenís retreats that werenít happening ten years ago. Some of the newer, younger families in the church have found connections with friends and other young families in the church that extend beyond the churchís doors. We have renewed our buildings. More importantly the spirit of this place has been renewed. By the grace of God we have been restored to life.

But hereís the thing. Naaman and the man in Markís story were cured of their skin disease once and for all. The disease was gone, the men had been restored to life; but with institutions like the church it doesnít work that way. Renewal is either a continuing process or it soon isnít renewal at all. Either renewal continues in new ways or stagnation sets back in, the kind of stagnation that I saw here when I first walked in the door nearly ten years ago. Continuing renewal doesnít mean keeping on doing the things that you did that led to the renewal that has occurred. What was new soon becomes of old way of doing things. Renewal is a process of always discerning what comes next, to discerning what is the Holy Spirit calling us now. That is the question that has been before us for the last couple of years, and it is the question before us today as we gather in congregational meeting.

I donít have a pat answer to the question of what comes next for this church, but then it isnít my job alone to do the discernment, to come up with the answers. It is the job of all of us, of every member and friend of this congregation. One thing I can do is identify some of the challenges that we face. We have children, but except for Anya and Frances we donít really have youth. How do we spread the message of Godís universal grace to more young people, many of whom so badly need to hear that word? Then thereís the money problem.

We run budget deficits, or what one of the presenters at the Conference clergy retreat that I went to last week put it, a revenue gap. Yes, the books show a modest surplus for 2011, but that surplus was due in considerable part to a grant from the Conferenceís Insurance Assistance Fund. We canít rely on getting that every year, and without it we would have had a revenue gap, not a surplus, last year. Money is always a difficult issue in a church. Many of my pastor colleagues say that the people of the church are more likely to talk to the pastor about their love lives than about money. We need to talk about money.

So hereís some talk about money in the church. I have become convinced that it is simply the culture of this place for us to give generously but to give just enough so that we end up every year with a small deficit. It happens year after year, and I know itís not because the people of the church simply donít have the money to balance the budget. Thereís something in the system of this place that functions always to produce a small deficit. Why is that? Is not quite balancing the budget a subconscious part of this churchís identity? Iím beginning to think that it may be, that maybe subconsciously we think of ourselves as a church that never quite balances the budget to we donít balance the budget. At the congregational meeting later today you will hear a proposal that, if accepted, will only make the budget challenge more challenging. We need to talk about money. We need to decide what weíre going to do about money.

The experts all say that the best way to get money is to ask for it. So Iím asking for it. Iím asking you all to examine what this church means to you; and if it is important to youóand I know that it isóto re-examine your pattern of giving to the church. I donít know what each of you gives. Personally, I tithe. I tithe to the church. Maybe you canít do that, but I am asking you to take another look at what you can do. We canít keep having a revenue gap year after year after year. Sooner or later the financial reserves on which we draw will run out. Then what? Think about it. Pray about it. Talk to me about it. In the long run our culture of running a deficit is self-defeating. This year, letís change it.

God has restored this congregation to life. You folks constantly amaze me with your talents, your gifts, your eloquence, your courage. It is indeed the greatest honor of my life to serve as your pastor. God has restored us to life, but challenges remain. Challenges will always remain. Thatís just how it is with human life. In the year ahead let us be honest about our challenges. Let us face them openly, and as we do let us remain open to the calling of Godís Spirit, open to renewal, open to restored life. Amen.