Date: June 14, 2015
Title: “Unexpected Blessings”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
You’ve heard it said that “Truth is stranger than fiction”. Mark Twain put that into perspective for us when he wrote: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but that is only because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth is not so limited.”
I thought of that comment when I read Paul’s second letter to the early Christians in Corinth, and when I considered our own experiences of “Unexpected Blessings”. After all, who would have imagined it a possibility that the Corinthians would finally get their act together, and get beyond their internal conflicts and controversies? It turns out that truth was stranger than fiction. Who could even begin to think that those early believers – or even we believers here today – could live out the image of God which was implanted in us when we were first created? Truth IS stranger than fiction! And unexpected blessings are surprising us all the time.
At Annual Conference this year I got into a conversation with a couple of lay members from the Sherwood United Methodist Church. Gerry and Dotty Edy are pretty amazing people. They coordinate the food pantry and the children’s backpack program to feed hungry people in Sherwood. They have recruited an ecumenical group of volunteers who help them to feed about a hundred families every month, and to raise over $40,000 each year to stock their pantry and to help establish emergency food assistance in other communities. So far, they have planted three new food pantries in three other towns in Oregon. I am always impressed by the volunteer work they do.
Yet in this conversation over a cup of coffee Gerry said to me, “I really admire you clergy and the work you do, and the way you willingly move around to different churches and different communities. It must be hard,” he said.
Now all I could think of were the countless unexpected blessings of ministry – the opportunity to be with people in powerful and poignant moments, the chance to serve God and to love people and to care for the earth with all of you. I particularly remember the year I was asked to leave the Albany United Methodist Church and become a District Superintendent. My oldest daughter Sarah was 16 years old at the time, about to be a junior in high school. And my youngest, Kate, was heading into the 6th grade, the dreaded “Middle School” years.
I remember thinking to myself, “I can’t possibly ask these kids to move at these critical points in their lives!” But in deference to the Bishop, I called the girls together. Now Sarah, who wasn’t a P.K. (Pastor’s Kid) for nothing, looked at my face and immediately said, “You’ve had a call from the Bishop, haven’t you?!”
So, I spilled the beans. I told them both about this possibility, and then asked them to talk about it and pray about it and help me to decide my answer. I would have to be a family decision. Off the girls went into another room and we said no more about it that night. The next morning, when we gathered for breakfast, they told me: “Mom, we’ve talked about it; we’ve prayed about it. And we believe God is calling you to be a Superintendent. And we want to support you in that calling… so let’s get packing!”
That was certainly unexpected! And it was definitely a blessing. But what happened next was even more remarkable. You see Sarah had apparently been a bit under-challenged at the Albany High School, where they just didn’t seem to have the resources to keep pace with her learning. And when we landed in Eugene, we discovered the International Baccalaureate program at Churchill High, where she could take college level courses while still in high school. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for both of my girls! I couldn’t have imagined it, but it turns out that truth was stranger than fiction; and unexpected blessings ran rampant in our lives.
I wonder, though, how many times we settle for the possibilities of fiction and give up on the blessings of truth. It can be exhausting, living life (as Paul would put it) from the human point of view, pretending to be something other than what we are, expecting only the possibilities of fiction and missing out on the blessings of truth. Nadia Bolz Weber suggests:
When it comes down to it, we just do so much pretending. The effort we put into trying to pretend something about us is true, or that we are less than we are, or more than we are, is based in a fear of being really known, of being truly seen. But in the end, the only real love in the world is found when you are truly known and really seen.
Perhaps that is a little of the truth Paul wants us to have today. When we are in Christ, when we allow the image of God implanted in us to show up and to shine into all the world, it is like finally being seen, really seen, and truly known. When we are in Christ, when the indwelling God – that Divine Spark in us – guides us and grounds us, unexpected blessings flow all around us.
Unexpected blessings flow all around us. That is certainly true for this church, where homeless families are given shelter and food and the tools they need to get off the street and into a home. It is true of this church, where children are loved and supported, nurtured and encouraged as an integral part of the community. Unexpected blessings are a part of this church, where reconciliation is a fact of our ministry, as we seek to not only welcome but truly to include everyone. Unexpected blessings flow around us as we seek justice and peace going hand in hand, and we seek to change the world because of our deep love for it. Blessings abound as we see the world as our parish and as we even surprise each other with unexpected blessings… like the Volunteers of the Year Awards.
Volunteers are the lifeblood of this church. While we appreciate each and every one of you, this year once again the church staff has chosen to honor three of you as “Volunteers of the Year” – three persons who exemplify high standards of service and leadership and love.
Our first award is the Wesley Spirit Award, which honors someone who combines a deep faith with an attitude of service. This is an individual who leads others into a deepened spirituality by putting feet to their own faith. This year’s honoree holds a deep and abiding love for God and God’s creation. He takes that love and uses it to fuel his passion for creation care – calling us all to pay attention to the realities of climate change and pollution and disappearing animal life and threatened wilderness. And then he calls us to join him in doing something about it. Through his work with Planet Church and his leadership of the First Church Birders and his tireless efforts on behalf of the church library Bob Wilson puts feet on faith and encourages others to do the same.
Our next award is the Guy Wheaton Award for extraordinary service to the church. Our recipient this year is an obvious choice for this award, thanks to her consistent, helpful presence for staff and other members. She truly embodies loving service and volunteer commitment. For years, she has served on the church’s Board of Trustees, where she has become invaluable for her knowledge, her wisdom, and her can-do attitude. Whenever staff has a question about insurance, liability, or just need help in the office, she is the one to call. Her consistency, dependability, and positive approach to church extends into the rest of her life. This is not someone who shies away from challenges (even long distance biking in a foreign land!), nor is it someone who makes hasty decisions of careless plans. Through her service on the Trustees, and now as an important part of our Sanctuary-Plus renovation project, Sharon Graver makes her love for First Church a reality.
And then, finally, we come to the Lewis Hughes Award for extraordinary service in Portland and the world beyond. This year we recognize someone who has spent her life developing a passion for service to the world. Growing up in the Seattle area and then in Portland, she paid attention to neighbors around her. Through Sunday School and bell choir and youth group and book group she learned to ask questions, and to value a community of learners. She left us to attend college, where her passion for public service only increased. And in this “gap year” between her Bachelor’s degree and her law school education,
Emily Wright joined with Planet Church, Church & Society, and the United Methodist Women to organized, coordinate and direct our community action form. She has helped us all to find specific ways to advocate for change and to serve the world beyond the church.
All of this is unexpected! But oh, what blessings abound! Dawna Markova perhaps says it best in her poem:
I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me,
To make me less afraid, more accessible.
I choose to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise.
I choose to live so that which came to me as seed
Goes to the next as blossom
And that which came to me as blossom goes on as fruit.
Because, in the end, the Truth is full of unexpected blessing! Thanks be to God! Amen.