The Rev. Laura Dalton

September 25, 2016

First Churches Northampton, MA

Romans 8:35-39

(Click on the below to hear the sermon)

 

I am very grateful to our pastors, Todd and Sarah, for the opportunity to bring the message this morning. For those of you who don’t yet know me, among other things, I am an American Baptist pastor. After I graduated from Eastern Baptist Seminary in 1999, I served a congregation in Western New York for almost 9 years before beginning a very different ministry path. This path began in the fall of 2007, when my husband’s work took us to southeast Ohio. We became part of a United Methodist congregation in Athens, OH, and I served in a variety of volunteer roles before being hired as their part-time Director of Communications in 2013. Every once in a while I also had the opportunity to preach. Matthew’s work brought us to Amherst 11 months ago, and in the spring of this year, we made our church home here at First Churches.

 

      I am not sure what you may have been expecting when you got here today and saw my name on the front of the bulletin, but these are the important facts you should know: I am a Baptist preacher who hasn’t had a chance to preach in over a year.

 

Fasten your seat belts, friends!

 

No, I’m only joking with you a bit. But I really am glad to be here, among my new church family, and I am thrilled to be a part of the transformational ministry that is happening through this body of Christ known as First Churches in Northampton.

As we prepare to reflect on the passage of scripture which we have just heard, would you please join with me in prayer:

*prayer*

If you attended our annual meeting last Sunday, you may have experienced something which I believe occurs in a lot of churches who gather to talk about what has been happening and what they hope will happen in the year to come: Affirmation of the good things that have transpired, sharing of ideas and plans for how we might move forward, and, to be honest, sincere concern about how we implement the vision and maintain the facilities while staying financially responsible and not overtaxing the faithful volunteer base. In our congregation, we are also discussing the development of a new governance structure which is more closely aligned with the vision, priorities, passions, personnel, and resources embodied by First Churches at this moment in our history. Change is in the air! These things are true of many community and service organizations as well as churches, and it can seem overwhelming.

 

I have a lot of thoughts and ideas myself, but I am not yet well enough acquainted with the structures of this particular congregation to offer much critique. I am not your pastor, so it’s not up to me shepherd us through a visioning process. I am a member of this congregation, though, and I have a pastor’s heart —- and today, a preacher’s voice. The message I want to share with you is not just for members of this church, however. Whether today is your first time at First Churches or your 2001st Sunday in these pews, I believe there are words of comfort and encouragement to be found in this passage from the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.

 

Last week, when I sat down to begin preparing for this morning, I admit I was a bit daunted by the task. With thoughts sprouting in all directions, and wanting to choose a relevant passage which speaks to this season of our church’s life and ministry, I landed here at what may for many of you be a familiar passage from Paul.

 

Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome, the epicenter of the empire. The church community there was comprised of both Gentile and Jewish Christians who were living in the tension of how to be church when there were two valid expressions of the Christian faith—traditional Jews who had accepted Christ as their Messiah and non-Jews who came to their beliefs through faith and experience, but without the long-held traditions of their Jewish counterparts. Some scholars have described the situation to which Paul was writing as a community in need of racial reconciliation, if you will. The Jews had been expelled from Rome a generation before, and at the time of Paul’s writing, they had only begun to return to Rome a few years previously. So there were, in a sense, “old timers” and “newcomers.”  In addition to this tension within the Christian community, there were of course the other societal and political factors which affected the church, including economic and educational disparities, and the myriad other hardships of first century life. These were a people in need of hope, direction, encouragement. A lot of that sounds familiar to us as people of faith in the 21st century, doesn’t it?

 

So Paul writes this letter to a struggling collection of Christians who were facing trials, some of which echo with familiarity today, but also perils which Christians in modern America have never endured. Yet we know that the Christian church in America, as we find ourselves halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, is facing challenges which we never could have anticipated a generation or two ago, back in the days when the majority of people were active in faith communities and places of worship.

 

Yes, it’s a challenging time, and challenging times require change. Change often precipitates fear and anxiety, and this is completely valid. It’s true in society, in church, and in our personal lives as well.

 

Last summer, my husband Matthew was invited to interview for a job at the University of Massachusetts. He was excited, and I was pleased for him, because he desperately needed a change from a work culture that was becoming increasingly toxic. After the initial interviews and visiting the area, we knew we would make the move if he were offered the job. It was an exciting opportunity, to be sure, but the prospect of selling a house, packing our belongings and moving 700 miles away from the life we had known and our dear friends and family presented numerous challenges! I’d guess that many, if not most of you here today have been faced with such a situation at some point in your lives, so you know what it’s like.

 

When you make a move, there is so much to be done, so much to organize, get rid of, pack—you know the drill. But perhaps the hardest, most upsetting part, for our family, at least, was the upheaval that was wrought in our lives at having to leave a church and a neighborhood we had come to love dearly. So much change, and so little time, it seemed to me, to process all of it. And then, once the move is made, the stress is not over, as there is unpacking, sorting, re-organizing of one’s belongings, one’s life, one’s sense of place and self in a brand new environment. Overwhelming to body, mind and spirit.

 

When you find yourself uprooted in this fashion, the number of changes thrown at you all at once can be disorienting, to say the least. In your mind, you may know that the change is for the better, that new opportunities help you grow and that it’s not always good for things to stay “just as they’ve always been.” You anticipate that there will be growing pains, but the uncertainty is still a lot to bear. I can’t paint a rosy picture of what it was like for me. It has been a hard year. There were some very dark weeks, some very real grief. And even though we had prayed about the move and felt deeply that this was the next thing to which God was calling us, there was, mixed in with all of that, an unsettling sense of being far from God, farther than I’ve ever felt. In truth, God wasn’t ever far away, but to me, overwhelmed with exhaustion, sadness and worry, it sure felt that way.

 

Those first few months were especially difficult for lots of reasons, but there was something at the core of the experience that was the hardest of all, and that was the process of finding a new church home. Something which I thought would be the easiest part of the transition for me turned out to be one of the most difficult. We just didn’t seem to fit anywhere, and I couldn’t understand why.

 

On one bitterly cold early Sunday morning in February, through tears I wrote this prayer in my journal, “O God, please help us to find our church family, to trust in your leading, and to know when we are home. God I don’t know how we will know when we we know, but please work within our spirits to confirm for us that for which our souls are longing has been met, and that we have found the place to call home.” Later that morning, Valentine’s Day, we got into our minivan and set out in the chilly air across the river. The night before, we had talked it over as a family and decided to visit “just one more” church before making a decision. We parked on a side street and through the bitter cold, walked about 2 blocks and entered this sanctuary. We sat down behind Harriet and Greg. We sang familiar hymns, and my spirit quickened at the words of the prayers and readings. Our daughter Helen, who is an artist, couldn’t stop looking around her at the walls, the windows, the architecture. We weren’t halfway through the service before she leaned over close to me and whispered in my ear, “Mom, I want THIS to be our church.” And here we are. We stopped looking. But it wasn’t just the beautiful building and the familiar hymns, although they certainly enhance the experience of worship in this space. From that first Sunday and in the weeks and months since, it was clear to us that this is a faith community where everyone is welcomed wholeheartedly, loved unconditionally, encouraged to ask the difficult questions, and supported in being still to hear God’s still-speaking voice as well as in being active in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. We feel very confident that good things are happening in and through this congregation. God is here among us, within us, and loving the world through us.

 

Friends, I share this personal story with you for a couple of reasons. First, because this church has, for me, been the answer to a very specific prayer, as well as the instrument through which God has, in this season of my life, affirmed for me that “nothing can separate us from God’s love,” not hardship or distress, or upheaval, sadness, grief, confusion, or anything else in all creation.

 

But I also share this story and this passage with you because I know how distressing it can be to face change, whether it’s in your work, your family life, or in the life of the church. It’s never easy, and there always seem to be more questions than answers. There are a lot of unknowns when you’re forging a new path, reorganizing, and stepping out in faith. It requires trust. Believe me, I know this from personal experience in my life and in the past two churches of which I’ve been a member! But this is a truly wonderful time. Good things are happening. God is love and God is with us. It is true as we live out our calling to be the church. It is true as we live out our calling to be like Christ in the world:

 

When difficult conversations need to happen, God is with us.

When we feel stumped by challenges we’ve never before encountered, God is with us.

When we look around us and feel frightened, asking ourselves, “what on earth is going on here?” God is with us.

When we look around us and feel joyful, asking ourselves, “what new, surprising thing is going to happen next?” God is with us.

In council meetings and choir practice, God is with us.

In the fellowship of coffee hour in Lyman Hall and the Pride Parade in the streets of Northampton, God is with us.

When we are weeding in the Common Ground garden and sharing the bounty of the harvest, God is with us.

In private conversations and congregational sharing sessions, God is with us.

When passing the peace to our neighbor in the pew or extending the invitation to worship to our friend in the neighborhood, God is with us.

When we pray, and when we play, God is with us.

When we make mistakes and have to begin again, God is with us.

Whether we farm forty acres or call a third floor apartment home, God is with us.

In the church’s sacred work of both feeding the hungry and balancing the budget, God is with us.

When we vote for a new church vision statement or a new national president, God is with us.

 

In all of these things, God is with us. Listen with your whole heart, pay attention with your whole body, let your mind and spirit ride the wave of emotions, whether good or bad, but also know this truth with your heart, your body, your mind, your spirit: God is with us.
What shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? Nothing. Because God is daily demonstrating love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness. Why? Because it is what God promised us when Christ came into the world. This is the good news for each and every one of us this day: no matter what changes are before us, in life, in church, in the world, we need not be afraid. God is love and God is with us. And there is nothing, nothing, nothing in all the world that can ever change that. God is love. And when all is said and done, my friends, we already know how the story ends: Love wins! AMEN