Rev. Shari Prestemon
Conference Minister, Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ
November 5, 2023
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4:7–18
© 2023 Rev. Shari Prestemon
It’s a joy for me to be here with you this morning. Thank you, DeWayne & Beth & Seth, for your invitation to be in worship, and to each of you also for your precious ministries here in this place. Each church visit I make now feels especially poignant and important as my ministry in Minnesota comes to a close, because it gives me an opportunity to offer my gratitude. In Plymouth’s case, you may not technically be a United Church of Christ congregation but you are nonetheless a covenantal partner in ministry. Over my ten years in the Minnesota Conference and long before that, I’m sure, many of your members and your pastors have faithfully served on the Conference’s Board of Directors, Committee on Ministry, Personnel Committee, and other groups of the Conference. You have shared your financial gifts with the Conference and with the wider ministry of the United Church of Christ. We have consulted with one another and worked together during times of pastoral transition here at Plymouth. And sometimes, too, we have shown up together in marches for justice, in rallies against gun violence at the State Capitol, at vigils in the sanctity of George Floyd Square, and in many other places where we have joined in solidarity as the Church in our public, prophetic witness. For all of this, and so much more that could be said, I am grateful. You have shared in our common life together and you have consistently pursued here at Plymouth a ministry of purpose and faithfulness. And I do not take that for granted.
I hope you don’t take your life together as a congregation for granted either, or minimize the importance of the choices you’ve made and will yet make in your congregational life here at Plymouth. Truth be told, it has perhaps never been more important than it is right now, in this season of the Church universal, to take stock and be prayerfully intentional about how we are shaping our life together as church and tending to our relationships and ministries. This is not a moment when any of us in the Church should be taking anything for granted.
Social media posts of pastors and church folk across the country were buzzing a couple of months ago with an article written by a pastor in Arlington Heights, Illinois. It was titled “Departure: Why I Left the Church”. It was a screed he’d written after he decided to leave the parish ministry and had delivered his last sermon. In it he offered a long litany of reasons he could no longer stay in the church, a host of burdens he’d experienced as a local church pastor in suburban Chicago. Reaction was swift in the mainline Protestant world of clergy. Some pastors chimed in to echo his experience and share their own struggle with whether to stay in the ministry. Others criticized him and his decision for a whole host of reasons. One even responded by writing his own article titled “Why I Stayed a Pastor”.
It was all kind of fascinating and sobering to read. It reflected the larger struggle and conversation in our culture about the church and religion today. It lurks around the edges of nearly every meeting I have with other church leaders. It shows up even in publications like the New York Times, which recently featured a multi-part series about how Americans are moving away from religion. And it’s the subject of all sorts of books, including one published this year called “The Great De-Churching”, which said: “We are currently experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country.” Indeed, the landscape of church is changing rapidly, and it is creating all sorts of questions, anxiety, challenges, and (I think) opportunities for we who remain in the Church and long for it to thrive.
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
The apostle Paul wrote those words to the Corinthian church, a church he had painstakingly established. For nearly two years he had organized, preached, cultivated leadership, and worked to bring into being a community patterned on the ministry and message of Jesus. He poured his heart into it. Loved it to distraction. And then his call took him away to do the same in Ephesus. But he didn’t lose sight of the young Corinthian Church. He stayed in touch and soon learned that the church in Corinth was having trouble. There were squabbles distracting them from their ministry, and behaviors that were troubling, to say the least. Paul must have agonized over it, wondered how something with so much promise, a ministry that was so very precious, could have gone so terribly wrong. And so he sits down to write them a letter, and it says in part, “We have this treasure in clay jars.”
That image most of all captures my attention. Something deeply valuable inside something so breakable, a thing so vulnerable, easily jostled and cracked. Precious cargo carried in an imperfect, fragile container. That is the great treasure of the Good News of Jesus Christ entrusted to the Church. By some miracle, God looks to we who call ourselves Church to do all those things the example of Jesus and the mighty prophets commanded: to love our neighbor as ourselves, to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly, to heal the sick and clothe the naked, feed the hungry and visit the prisoner. To forgive seventy times seven, and to love the person who is nothing like us as much as we love the one who’s very much like us. We have this treasure in our ordinary clay jar of a human institution we call church, as broken and fragile now as the Corinthian church was then.
But you know what? However much our context is changing, even if we are witnessing the most dramatic shift in religious participation ever, we still have so much ministry to do. In fact, I’m convinced that what we have to offer is exactly what our culture so desperately needs in this moment. We were made for just such a time as this. I’m going to briefly name just 3 things I think the Church uniquely has to offer in this very moment.
First—Beloved community. Did you know that our nation’s surgeon general Vivek Murthy recently issued a report saying loneliness is an epidemic in this country that is literally killing us? The report says that the effects of social isolation on mortality are equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes every day. It offered objective data that show Americans are more isolated and lonely than ever. The report recommended six pillars of action needed to address this epidemic of loneliness. The sixth of those was to cultivate a culture of connection. Murthy wrote in the report: “We are called to build a movement to mend the social fabric of our nation.”
My friends, the Church can play an enormous role in building that movement. Everything about our faith calls us to create beloved community, to offer a place of belonging and purpose that is meant to be radically different than the fractured world that swirls around us. Our specific tradition in the United Church of Christ invites us to build communities of extravagant welcome, to draw the circle wide….and I know this congregation is proudly & authentically committed to those same values. We can offer the beloved community so many truly need. We are uniquely positioned to stem the tide of our nation’s epidemic of loneliness.
Second—the Church today can offer a counter-cultural example of what it looks like to love one another and to care for the communal good as much as we care for our own personal good. Our nation is deeply polarized right now. The divide between urban and rural has widened. Our politics are ripping us apart. And we’ve seemingly lost the ability to simply talk to one another civilly, to disagree while maintaining some semblance of mutual respect. Op-Ed columnist David Brooks recently penned a piece titled “How America Got Mean”. In it he wrote: “We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein….In a healthy society, a web of institutions helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.”
Church, ‘moral formation’ is our core business! Christ’s Church can offer a model for what it looks like to live together in a spirit of love and grace, mutual respect and abiding forgiveness. Many of our congregations in the Minnesota Conference are “purple” places; there are people of vastly different politics and backgrounds sitting together in the same pews, attending potlucks together, reading scripture together, and maintaining relationships that matter. Our communities have become so polarized that the Church in many places is often the one remaining spot where that kind of mingling and relationship across various differences still happens. Now, I’ll be the first one to admit that we are far from perfect in this regard; we suffer our own share of internal conflicts in congregations and have our own learning curve when it comes to being in healthy relationship. But our life together as Church is fundamentally shaped by sacred texts and story that constantly call us back to right relationship. We are called to witness to a way of living and being with one another that is decidedly different than the world around us. We have the tools we need to offer an alternative witness. That’s a witness that could be a profound gift to this mean, divided moment in our country if we are true to our own calling and moral formation as Church.
Last, we have this thing called resurrection hope. And that’s something that a nation and culture increasingly steeped in despair and fear desperately needs. A little over a week ago I was talking to a friend the day after the horrific mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine. She had multiple family members in that area and was understandably worried about their safety. She said to me: “I just feel so awful… about this tragedy, the intractability of Israel/Palestine, the declining intelligence of so many politicians, guns in this country….It’s hard to stay hopeful.” Yes; these are days when it’s difficult to sustain hope. But hope—resurrection hope—is core to our story and message as the Church. It’s a hope that knows death is never the last word, that God can wrestle something redeeming and good out of even the worst messes, that there is always something more than what we can see with our own eyes. It’s resurrection hope that allows us to see with eyes wide open the real pain and chaos of things now and yet trust in new life and enduring possibility. It’s why Paul could write to the Corinthians even amid his worries and all their upheaval: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible.”
My friends, you showed up today despite whatever challenges and hurts each of you may personally carry, despite the war and suffering in our world that is so overwhelming, and despite whatever imperfections may be present in this church (like all churches), because some part of you knows that what you do here matters immensely, that this congregation has something to offer to your life and to this world that is deeply important. I believe that too, or I wouldn’t be here with you today.
The world needs what we can offer. The world needs what YOU, Plymouth Congregational Church, have to share. You can be a living witness, together, of a beloved community that each and every day strives to be a place of extravagant welcome, unending grace, unmatched mercy, and an uncommon love. You can carry this precious treasure of a sacred story and an enduring hope into a world that hungers for the very things we in the Church can uniquely bring.
So go and do that. Be the Church, faithful and good. Be mindful of your own fragility, “clay jar” that you are, and make certain you take care to keep yourselves whole so that you can fulfill God’s call to share the treasure you carry. God has need of you. I give thanks for you. May your ministry and your future together be abundantly blessed. Amen.