Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 3, 2018

Central United Methodist Church
We Have This Treasure
Pastor David L. Haley
2 Corinthians 4: 7 – 12
June 3rd, 2018

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“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. 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 in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” – 2 Corinthians 4: 7 – 12, the New Revised Standard Version

It was Sunday, September 2, 2007. I still remember the walk from the parsonage to the church, one of the longest walks of my life, to meet Central’s congregation for the first time.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to meet you; it was that I had been at my last church for 17 years and had put down deep roots there, with people, with the church, and the community. Having said goodbye to them, it was time to start all over, and say hello to you, also knowing that the day would come when I would also have to say goodbye to you. Now, after 10 ¾ years, that time has come.

If this were a church as old as Chartres Cathedral in France, which has been around for 900 years, ten years would not be much. Not even as much as my former church, founded in 1835. But for Central, founded in 1930, with not even a good solid century yet, a decade is a long time. Not as long as my friend and predecessor, Bob Burkhart – no slouch – who did 20 years. Which means that, with Bob’s predecessor, Harry Connor, who did ten years, Central has only had 3 pastors in 41 years. As I informed your next pastor, Timothy Biel Jr.: No pressure!

Since next Sunday (my last Sunday) there will be family and friends here and I want to reflect upon my whole ministry; today, I would like to reflect upon our time together at Central.

As usual, the lectionary delivers an appropriate reading, quoting the first Christian pastor, the Apostle Paul. Like me, Paul was an itinerant preacher, traveling from church to church, some of which he spent a lot of time in and also developed deep roots. Paul was always writing back, reflecting his pastoral heart: sending greetings and giving thanks, addressing controversies, and sometimes even defending his own ministry.

While Paul could occasionally get worked up with boasting, at other times his humanity and humility shone through, never more so than in today’s reading. He wrote: “For we do not proclaim ourselves, we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” But then he continued with lines that have resonated with every Christian pastor, every Christian since:

“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. 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 in our bodies.”

“Treasure in clay jars,” “earthen vessels,” some might even say, “cracked pots,” however you render it, we get the image: a precious treasure, stored in clay pots, easily broken, and the treasure spills out.

As all of us “earthen vessels” know, we are easily broken, fragile and mortal. And not just physically but emotionally: subject to joy and elation, discouragement and despair, sometimes in the same day. Especially as the pastor of a congregation; there are just too many factors beyond our control. Come to church on Easter, it’s overflowing; come when there 10 inches of snow or its 10 below; we’ll be looking at empty pews, a lot of lumber. Preach a sermon everybody raves about; preach another that makes people leave. Baptize a baby; but then do the funeral of a beloved parishioner. Confirm a teenager; never see them again. One step forward; two steps back; that’s the way church and ministry is, and that’s what Paul was talking about. In 2,000 years, not much has changed, only the details.

In our ten years together, as you know, I have never had grand dreams or ambitions. Rather, I have tried to do what Christian pastors have always done, and to do them as well as I could: lead worship, preach, teach, counsel, visit, and administer the congregation. No one person can do them all well; but every pastor must do them (or delegate them) because they are the basic skills of ministry. It is a peculiar skill set unlike any other profession, and can be – in turns – fulfilling, exciting, heart-breaking, boring, and often overwhelming, as Paul expressed well so long ago.

To many, what clergy do is best described by the phrase: “six days invisible, one day incomprehensible.” While I hope it is not true that I have been incomprehensible, it is true that I was often invisible, though not inactive. There is the weekly service and sermon, our primary time together, which never happened without preparation, planning, research, inspiration, and – yes – anxiety. It is our most important time together, when we gather as disciples of Jesus, seeking relationship with God, to reflect on the Scriptures, to pray, and to support and encourage each other. I don’t expect you to remember my sermons – depending upon when you ask, I probably can’t remember them either – but you probably also don’t remember the meals you ate yesterday or last week or in last years or 10 years ago; and yet, here we are, well-fed and alive. It might not be measurable, but spiritually, I hope I have fed you well.

In addition to our reflections on the Scriptures, I am grateful for our weekly celebration of Holy Communion. I have long thought it important, as it was for John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. From the beginning of Christianity, these two – Word and Table – were always together; it was only after the Protestant Reformation that they were torn apart. This remains true, even if our incentive was practical: I can still see the woman in my mind, a recent refugee who spoke no English, who came to Central on a Sunday early on when there was no communion: “No (hand-to-mouth gesture), she asked?” Of course – if you can’t speak the language, sacraments such as Holy Communion communicate. So, we’ve celebrated it every Sunday since. I will never forget the beautiful spectrum of skin colors of your hands, receiving the bread and the cup; this is the way it should be. I will never forget that Sunday when two vanloads of residents from local group homes showed up, many severely handicapped; the only way we could serve the bread and the cup was by helping one another: this also is the way it should be.

I am thankful for the diversity of Central’s congregation, as my last, it was the fulfillment of a dream. I grew up in a place in which there was no diversity, where almost everyone was white and Protestant and mostly Scots-Irish. My previous four churches were predominantly white, with a sprinkling of others, so I am so thankful to end my ministry with a congregation like Central, made up of people from different countries and cultures, who come together in worship and service. There is a saying that “nothing is real until it is local.” Here at Central, God’s global church, in embodiment and anticipation of the Kingdom of God, has been made both local and real: I thank you for this.

My greatest sorrow in regard to Central? Those we lost in death; the remembrance of them fills me with grief and sadness. Most of us clergy enter the ministry thinking a church is like a photograph: a still life, all our ducks in a row. In reality, it is more like a video, a passing parade, herding cats. The baptized babies grow up, become rebellious teenagers, get confirmed, and go away, never to return. The middle-aged wake up one day to find ourselves “old!” As someone once said, life is divided into thirds: youth, middle age and “You look good.” Over time – over a decade – people we love age and die. In our congregation, as every congregation, in our imagination we can still see them sitting in their pews, in the same seats some of you now sit in.

One of the most shocking statistics to me is that our highest average worship attendance during my tenure was about 4 years in: from 102 in 2007 to 124 in 2011. In succeeding years, we lost two large extended families that alone counted for almost 25 people. I personally officiated at the funerals of about 45 people during my time here, and would estimate twice that number moved away, for various reasons. So, given that our average worship attendance is now 95, it means that we have exchanged much of the congregation. The congregation I met in 2007 is not the same congregation here today. Given this, over my ten years here, given the trends and troubles of our time, I am thankful for all of you who make up our congregation.

I’m also thankful we were able to make progress on our buildings and facilities, if progress is the right word to use. Christianity is the religion of the Word made flesh, the incarnation of God in the world; in the same way, a congregation’s buildings are the incarnation of a congregation in a community; how they look and how they are used speaks volumes about the congregation. The Sanctuary, the Educational Building, and the Log Cabin are busier than ever thanks to improvements and updates.  However, with buildings the vintage our buildings are (as most Chicago church buildings), there is always more to be done, and the “fix it” list is never-ending. That’s why I’m asking any gifts given in honor of my retirement be made to the Building Fund, as one of the very best things I can do for my successor, Rev. Timothy Biel. In the future, I hope Central’s facilities can become an even more active and attractive venue of God’s work in the world.

Finally, I’m grateful we were able to embody our congregation’s motto, “Keeping God Central in hearts, minds, and lives,” in a way we never imagined: not only in our congregation but by sharing it with five others: Jesus Love, New Harvest Haitian, St. James Episcopal Filipino, and the Arab and Assyrian congregations, consisting of recent refugees. While the overlap and logistics often us crazy, by hosting these congregations we are able to reach out to our community, have a significant outreach to spiritually hungry people (especially new immigrants), and also help support our facilities for all of us, in a way we can no longer do only by ourselves.

My final hopes and prayers for you? That you can continue to grow and to change and to reach out. When print advertising has died, when the promises of social media have evolved into problems, the very best way for congregations to grow and reach people are the very same they have always been: people reaching people by word of mouth. If they like what they find, each new person will bring others; as opposed to those who have been here a long time, who rarely do.

Care for each other. The problem with diversity is that it is sometimes hard to build community. That person with a different skin color, speaking a different language, maybe wearing different clothes and practicing different customs, can be intimidating. Cross that anxiety barrier and reach out: learn names, ask about family, tell them you’re glad they are here.  Whether you grow as a congregation or don’t grow, care for one another. This was Jesus’ command.

Finally, get out there: cross barriers, have conversations. I have always been amazed what happens when you do that. I have often said I can’t wait to retire, free from the responsibilities of ordained ministry, to begin my real itinerant ministry: to get out, walk around, and talk to people, to do what Jesus did.

One of the people I have gotten to know by doing this, is an older African-American man at the Leaning Tower YMCA by the name of Bobby. Bobby is usually on the rowing machine, dressed in three layers of clothes, sweating like crazy. So first we do a fist bump, and then in response to my asking how he’s doing, Bobby usually says this: “Everything’s going according to plan.” In these crazy, chaotic, times, not only in our congregation but in the world, I keep taking heart in Bobby’s word: “Everything’s going according to plan.”

Meanwhile . . .

“we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and not us. 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 in our bodies.”

In the days and years to come, may the life of Jesus be visible in me, and also in you. Amen.

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