Presbytery Sermon

My wife and I have known each other since we were 13 years old.  We dated all through high school and were together until a bad breakup our freshman year of college.  

That breakup lasted five years.  We were still in love with each other, but had traveled life for so long apart that the idea that we might one day travel together wasn't even a possibility in our minds.

But all that changed one night that probably should have never happened.

My wife decided to try to call me on a whim, but she didn't know where I lived or what I was doing.  And she didn't have a number for me.  It was the five year reunion of our high school graduating class that year, and she had heard that I wasn't doing all that well in life.

So she called my mom.

Of course my mom gave her my phone number, and she called me that night.  I just so happened to be home alone when she called.  We had one of those old fashioned answering machines that had cassette tapes, and that you could listen to the voice message while the person was leaving it.  

So as I was sleeping, I heard the phone ring in the other room and the answering machine pick it up.

Then I heard her voice.

I thought that I was dreaming at first.  But then I realized that I wasn't.  I sat there for a second in my bed not really believing that I was listening to Merideth--my Merideth--on my answering machine.  

And then I ran to the phone like my life depended on it, and snatched it off of the receiver before she could hang up.

As it turns out, my life did depend on it.

She was about to married in three weeks.

We talked for three hours that first night.

And even longer two days later.

After she had dumped the fiancee.

Six months later we were married.  

25 years and three boys have passed, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't thank God for the fact that when the wind of reformation blew right through our lives that night all those years ago, and that we were awake enough to see it and hear it.

And brave enough to embrace it.
I’ve had the opportunity to learn and relearn that valuable lesson—the lesson of being both ready and brave when the moment of reformation happens—more than once since then.  

In fact, the passage of Scripture I am going to preaching from today from the prophet Habakuk also connects us with that important and life-altering truth.  I want to share it with you now by using words I shamelessly purloined from Walter Brueggeman. 

When it comes to reformation—-if you don’t perceive it, you won’t receive it.   

We live in uncertain times, and the passage of Scripture I am going to be preaching from today is a passage that speaks right into that uncertainty.  The uncertainty that we feel is a product of the culture within which we now live---a culture that some have described as a "Culture of Fear." 

Sometimes I feel like our society lives on the edge of collective cardiac arrest---worrying that the next bit of bad news will send us over the edge.  We have lived for so long with a kind of low grade societal anxiety that we've begun to see the effects of it in all aspects of society. 

Including the Church… and more specifically, our little corner of the Church, the PCUSA. 

Almost a year ago to this very date I was returning to Florida from Portland, Oregon and the 222nd General Assembly of the PCUSA, where I had served as a commissioner.  

After his historic election, our new Stated Clerk, J. Herbert Nelson coined a phrase that he has since used more than once.  He said that the Presbyterian Church wasn’t dying, it was reforming.  

I’ve thought a lot about those words over the past year.  

It’s hard to ignore the statistics, and the statistics are telling us a pretty grim story.  Out of the nearly 10,000-odd churches in the PCUSA over half of them have less than a hundred active members.  

In a survey I conducted in my previous presbytery, only 13 out of its nearly 80 churches could be classified as a “growing” congregation according to a Pew Research study that was done a couple of years ago.  

And when you look at the state of the Church overall in the United States, it doesn’t look much better.  Over 4,000 churches will close their doors forever this year alone.  The fastest growing religious affiliation in America is none.  

But still… Despite all of that terrible news…  

There is something in the wind—It feels to me as though God is doing something new and exciting among us, in us and through us.  There are more and more churches who are starting to ask the question—“If we cease to exist tomorrow, who would miss us?”  

I used a strange title for this sermon: "Blowin' in the Wind."  You might remember the song from the 1960's with the same title.  It's a Bob Dylan song that has been recorded by Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Hollies and probably a few other bands along the way.  

For some reason as I read Habakkuk 2:1-4, I couldn't shake the tune and the following line of the song from my head:  

"The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind….the answer is blowing in the wind.”

I see this in my own church—these winds of reformation change, as we struggle with that important question—“Who would miss us?.”  I am having more and more conversations with people who are leaning into openness and approaching their faith with open hands instead of clenched fists. 

We are also discovering that unity doesn’t mean conformity, and that we can hold our disagreements in tension while we hold tightly to one another.  And we’re being watched as we do this—mostly by those who have given up on church, but who long for community. 

I feel that God is calling the Church to be both deep and wide.  Deep in faith, deep in it’s struggle with the interpretation of Scripture and the inevitable questions that struggle leads us to… But wide open in our embrace of all people, wide open to possibilities…  

The PCUSA isn’t dying—it’s reforming.  I can feel this in the wind… a hint of the wind I believe is about to blow in earnest…   

But we have to be ready, and paying attention and brave enough to embrace it—or the winds of reformation may just blow by us.  We have to be open and flexible, not closed off and rigid.  We have to be outsider, not insider focused.  

We have to be brave and ignore the voices that tell us that the end is nigh.  

What we'll be learning from this passage of Scripture in Habakkuk is that reformation happens in God's time, in God's way and sometimes the timing and the manner of God's reforming is unexpected, like the wind.  You have to be paying attention or you run the risk of missing it.

Remember, if you don’t perceive it, you won’t receive it.  

Habakkuk 2:1-4
1 I will stand at my watch 
   and station myself on the ramparts; 
I will look to see what he will say to me, 
   and what answer I am to give to this complaint. 

The LORD’s Answer

 2 Then the LORD replied:    “Write down the revelation 
   and make it plain on tablets 
   so that a herald may run with it. 
3 For the revelation awaits an appointed time; 
   it speaks of the end 
   and will not prove false. 
Though it linger, wait for it; 
   it will certainly come 
   and will not delay. 
 4 “See, the enemy is puffed up; 
   his desires are not upright— 
   but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness

What we find here in this text is Habakkuk waiting for a response (verse 1).  I like how he tells God that he's going to wait.  "Yeah God.  I'll just be over here.  On the ramparts.  Waiting. Take your time."

God does answer in verse 2 of the chapter when he delivers a vision.  The imagery that is used in verse 2 is of a runner or a herald who has been given a message and has to run with it to deliver it.  The literal Hebrew translation is "pants toward an end."  It was kind of a colloquialism from the ancient world that Hebrew speakers would have gotten without all of the extra imagery that is thrown in our translation.

In verse 3 God says that the revelation will happen in the "appointed time."  The Greek translation of this is kairos, which is a different understanding of time.  This is God's time.  It's a redemption moment.  A glimpse of the kingdom of God.

Let's recap this a bit... God says that the time of reformation is coming, and the time of reformation is going to be full of revelation, and the time of reformation is going to be pregnant with the kingdom of God.  

So what are we supposed to do in the meantime?

Verse 4 is the key to Habakkuk.  "See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright---but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness."   This verse has also been translated, "The just shall live by faith."

When we choose wisely...  the kairos is visible and the kingdom of God comes a little more into focus.

We can also miss it when it's happening if we're not paying attention. 

In the Jewish tradition this little verse in Habakkuk packs a huge punch.  The Talmud reveals that in this verse all of the 613 commandments that are found in Leviticus are wrapped up in one sentence. 

So what does it mean?

First, we need to understand the word "righteousness."  Lots of people like to think that this has to do with leading a holy, upright life.  A person who keeps the rules, so to speak.  That is part of it, but to make that the sum total of what "righteous" means doesn't do justice to the text itself.  

In this context "righteous" means that you are ready to fulfill the demands of a relationship with God through faithfulness.

And "faithfulness" means placing your whole life in God's hands despite all of the fear, the guilt, shame, sin, circumstances, trials or tribulations that surround you.

It means making a choice when the wind of reformation blows---when that moment arrives and you see it, and know that you can choose it.

Remember how I said that verse 4 was kind of the key to his whole passage?  

God's plan for reformation begins with a choice—to be ready to embrace it or to allow it to blow by you.  Will you make the right one when the kairos moment comes, when the reformation wind blows through your life?  Through your church?  Through our denomination?  

Or will you miss it? 

Will you be so entrenched in your nostalgia for what was that you cannot step into what God is about to do and is doing? 

Years ago, when I was serving a small church in Central Florida, I led a creative, artistic, experiential worship service that averaged about 50-60 worshippers.  We were messy at times—okay, we were messy all of the time.  

People created art and got pastels on the carpet, chalk on the tables and clay embedded in the pew racks.  The fountain that was a centerpiece of our worship leaked water on the floor, and sometimes some coffee ended up on a pew cushion.  I would spend most Monday’s cleaning candle wax off the floor with my trusty iron.   

One day as I was going through my tidying up paces, one of our elders came in to give me a piece of her mind.  She railed on and on about how we disrespected the Sanctuary, and how it was an incredible waste of resources… and a few other wonderful things to pick me up on a post-Sunday, Monday.  

Funny.  This woman was an art teacher.  She had dedicated her whole life to helping people engage with the Creative through art.  But when it came to church—she just didn’t get it.  

By contrast, I had an older lady who attended the experiential service, who gleefully engaged in all of our prayer stations, got her hands dirty with chalk and pastels, and who was probably my biggest culprit for spilling candle wax.  She was fully engaged in what God was doing among us.  

I’ve often asked myself—who am I in that scenario?  Am I the curmudgeon who has fallen asleep, lost her nerve and forgotten who she is and to what God has called her?  Or am I the woman who is awake, alive and brave enough to be shaped and molded by the new things God is doing?  

Beloved, when the reformation comes, If you don’t perceive it, you won’t receive it.  

I for one want to be ready.  When the wind blows I want to stand fully in it and let it move me wherever the Spirit of God behind it wishes me to go.  


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