Let me begin by saying how pleased I am to be here among you today and for the next two months. The last year has been a time of transition for Trinity and I want to add my voice to those who last week expressed appreciation to Liz Bowyer for her caring, pastoral presence as she provided support and solace here and a nudge or two there.
The personnel committee was quite clear in speaking to me that they were hoping for continuity during this gap between Liz’ departure and Robin’s arrival. These eight weeks are an opportunity to do some work together to ready ourselves for the new era in ministry at Trinity that begins with the arrival of Robin Jacobson in April.
I cannot of course presume to anticipate where this congregation and Robin will decide to go together in the months and years to come. It would be inappropriate for me to introduce bold new plans and ideas or try to set a path for that journey. What I can do, and what I aspire to do over the next few weeks is inspired by the parable of the fig tree that we heard read this morning. In choosing that passage I am not meaning to imply that this congregation is fruitless or barren. But it is good horticultural practice and good congregational practice to enrich the soil from time to time. As we are about to enter into a new season of growth together I want to pose some questions and point to some of the resources that can stimulate our thinking about what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ in this place at this time.
I chose the passage we heard this morning from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome as a statement, briefer and more eloquent than what I’ve said thus far, of my aspiration for this time together. “I am longing to see you,” says Paul, “so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”
So, how shall we go about this task of preparing the soil for new ministry? I think the parable gives us a good suggestion when it suggests that looking at the soil that we have is a good starting point. It will not help to make the crops grow if our soil is lacking nitrogen and we add a phosphate-based fertilizer. We need to know who we are and what resources we have, before we can move forward.
In thinking about the future of this congregation we need to recall that who we are currently, the gifts and talents of which we are made up, are not all that we are. The General Council when it changed the structure of the church three years ago introduced us to the term ‘community of faith’ as a way of reminding us that we are not just communities, important as that is to the life of our congregations. We are gathered in faith.
Our historic roots are the Christian faith as it has been handed down through the Protestant traditions of the Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. But even those founding denominations are recent innovations in the millennia long sweep of Christianity. Our faith tradition has its roots in Israel, and the life of the nation that began as slaves in Egypt.
And here I come finally to what I am proposing to offer as, in Paul’s words, “a spiritual gift to strengthen you.” I want to spend the next seven Sundays revisiting our founding tradition as it is handed down in the Bible and to do so in a way that stimulates our thinking about what the Bible is and its role in our faith.
It has long been my sense that we ministers, certainly this minister, don’t do enough to bring alive the Bible as a whole. We use the stories and passages from the Bible that are assigned by the lectionary as a means of stimulating our sermons and guiding us in our choices of prayers and hymns. But I want to think about what it means to be a community of faith gathered to reflect on and be inspired by a collection of stories that are millennia old, yet still offer something to us on our journeys of faith.
Someone reminded me a few weeks ago about the image of going to the balcony that my wife Heather introduced us to in a sermon a few years back. If you imagine our daily routine as being like dancing in a ballroom we spend most of our time looking at our partner and the few couples around us. We don’t see what’s going on over the way or on the other side of the floor. But if we get up on the balcony we can see the whole dance floor. We can see the patterns and the flow that are invisible from the middle of the room.
Our practice of reading short passages from the Bible every Sunday is a wonderful discipline for engaging with the text. I think someone has even written a book called Dancing with the Text. If they haven’t they should. But when we are so intimately engaged with one or two readings for the week we lose the perspective that comes from stepping back and looking at the whole of the Bible.
Over the next couple of weeks I want to look at the origins of the Bible, how the stories were first heard, how they were preserved and how they were put together in what has come to us. I also want to look briefly at what modern scholarship and theological reflection have revealed to us about the Bible. Frankly I find all of this exciting and intellectually engaging. But more important is what such an overview might show us about the role the Bible has played in the life of the church and the role it can play going forward.
I’m not planning a series of lectures going forward, but there may be an inclination toward teaching/preaching. What I want to do is to dip into different parts of the Bible that illustrate different aspects of its role in our faith and also how it directs our faith journey. As we do that together I hope that, to quote Paul again, “we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”
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