Ten Years

A sermon based on 1 John 4:7-21
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 10, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott

So today I get to preach on one of my favorite topics . . . me.

This great topic comes up because Friday was the tenth anniversary of my ordination as a minister in the United Church of Christ, and given my history that is a really big deal.

And even as I kid a little about it, I do not raise it as a matter of conceit. It is important that there be context to the stories I tell and the sermons I preach and theology I teach. I also want to celebrate the Holy Spirit’s efforts to get me this far and here together in this awesome ministry in Mount Vernon, Ohio! So that’s why we have the red paraments that represent the spirit up.

Who knows, if I am lucky enough, I will get to do this again in this sanctuary on the twentieth anniversary in 2026. (Hopefully even then I will still look like a young Tom Selleck)

To look at me today you’ve probably noticed I look way older than ten years in the vocation should have me looking. While being a minister can take its toll, it is not responsible for all of this aged look. I am what they call a “a second career” minister.

Most of you know that I was a lawyer for sixteen years before going to seminary, but before going to law school in my mid-twenties I was a restaurant manager and before that I was, of course, the world’s greatest undiscovered actor (even now I still suspect that I still am).

But if we go way, way back to the early 1970s, back to my teens, I began attending a neighborhood church in fulfilment of a promise to God if alcohol abuse would stop in my house.

In that church I first felt love and acceptance, pretty powerful stuff for a troubled adolescent. I believe that finding love in that church saved my life. And it gave me an unshakable conviction that “God is Love” the touchstone of my personal theology to this day.

Shortly after discovering the God of Love, very early in my adolescence, I felt called to be a minister and became very involved in local and statewide youth leadership.

But within a few years my insistence that the God of Love could not condemn anyone to hell caused a rift and I left the church that helped save me.

And I wandered from church to church trying to find a place where I encountered a theology centered on the God of Love.

Eventually I gave up looking and the idea of being a minister was set aside too since, well, it is really hard to be a minister if you don’t have religion.

Shortly after my decision to leave church, I know it may sound odd, but I had a powerful dream, so vivid a vision, that it has never left my senses and continues to influence me.

It is impossible to adequately describe in words, but the gist of it is that a friend’s father was dying in a hospital, I did not know that, but he mystically appeared to me in a dream and he was dying in the dream as I later learned at the exact same time he really was dying.

The vision was the most dynamic moments I have ever experienced the whole thing was bathed in a warm golden glow exuding a love and joy and peace that soaked everything.

That amazing blessing of a dream confirmed and kept alive in my soul my experience that God is love – even as I stopped going to church for twenty years. I then became “spiritual but not religious” before it was popular to do so.

Twenty years later in Oregon I was walking my dog on a sunny Sunday morning when what to my wondering eyes should appear through a UCC church window, but a friend singing with the rest of the congregation. So I thought I’d go check it out.

Thankfully I’d stumbled upon – or as I like to think now, God guided me to – a group of Christians who practice and preach a Christianity of love and compassion, where the God of Love is followed with structure, community and tradition.

I soon learned that this love-filled church was not an aberration, but one of many in a “God-of-love” centered denomination called the United Church of Christ.

I was soon walking hand-in-hand with others down a progressive compassionate Christian path to the Sacred. A path that led me to a new ways of seeing religion, Sacred text and Sacred rituals, and especially new ways of experiencing Christianity and church.

The Christianity I experienced in that UCC church was not blustery and did not require unquestioned belief and intolerance of other paths or the need for a god who sends folks to hell, but, a Christianity of a Christ so loving, so peaceful, so inclusive, and so genuine that I happily embraced it.

I came to see it as the Way of experiencing and serving the very God of the warm golden glow and love and joy and peace I encountered in my dream, and the God of love I first glommed onto as a young teen.

Through that UCC church in Oregon I finally found a window that I could daily look through and experience God, not just in remnants of a dream remembered or chance encounters, but through what theologian John Cobb calls a “field of force,” the Way Jesus created with his life and death and resurrection– the Way that’s been passed on from generation to generation by love centered Christians.
Once I embraced this love centered Christianity in mid-life the old call to be a minster began to ring out loud. So I looked all over the country for a seminary, and only one appealed to me Eden Theological Seminary in St Louis. I was not sure how we’d pay for it, until I was offered a full scholarship and I knew then we were going.

So there was this grand conspiracy, decades in the making to save me and get me to ordination.

At the end of seminary I was in an airport on the way to my ordination exam in Oregon when by accident, or design, or as a part of the Divine conspiracy I ran into the dean of the seminary at the airport. She bought me a latte’ and we chatted about our children and then she offered this advice about the exam “It all comes down to being about relationship.”

She was right. Christianity and church is all about relationship. . .with God, creation, others and our self. I rocked the ordination exam and the ecclesiastic council ended with a very tearful standing ovation that I will never forget.

The day of my ordination was even more memorable. My family was flown in. My beloved in-laws and sister were there. Friends from law school and lawyering came. Even a very dear friend from my teen years who lives in Alaska was by happenstance – or conspiracy– nearby in Oregon camping and she came too with her mom and husband. The church was packed with many other friends and church brothers and sisters and beloved pastor peers.

That ceremony was filled with so much love and the very, very palpable presence of God.

At one point everyone in the church stood and gathered around and laid hands on me, a traditional part of ordination. (a picture of it is in your bulletin).

I was on my knees and the weight of all those hands upon hands upon hands was almost overwhelming as I bent to the power of God in the hands of all those gathered.

And in that bending I was uplifted in another indescribable moment of conspiracy by God to send me on this remarkable ten year journey as a clergy person. The moment of my ordination was one of love drenching that moment, that place, and me. It was remarkable. Best mid-life crisis conspiracy ever.

And the conspiracy has not ended because my first call was supposed to be as an assistant pastor to develop a theatre youth ministry and other family related ministries in sunny Florida near the ocean.

But that led to a series of events that pretty quickly morphed my call into being the lead pastor there where I learned on-the-fly in a time of great crisis to lead a church about the size of this one.

And then two and half years ago somehow . . .ummmm . . . God conspired to bring me here to Ohio with you this wonderful church in this really great town full of a whole bunch of good people.

You may have heard me say this before, during the search that brought me here I had the chance to consider calls in a lot of other places including Florida, Hawaii, and Southern California.

I say that not to uplift me, but this church. I’d never been to Ohio before, but I did know its winter weather is quite different than Orlando, Honolulu and L.A and it is not so near the ocean.

I chose to accept a call here because God resonated in virtually everything connected to this church during the search.

What first drew my attention was when Nancy read the church profile and got excited. The church’s profile was the only paperwork in the entire call process that she literally hugged.

And when I saw that profile I wanted to hug it too. I read about a church that dove-tailed with my own written profile, both of us even quoted the Micah text on the wall behind me, and both clearly showed we shared an interest in actually actively seeking justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with our God. Which inspired some lyrics at two in the morning a few months ago that my friend set to music and we all just sang with Mike, Chris and Erin doing an awesome job.

It has also inspired – along with God– the difficult work we have done, and are doing, together on justice issues regarding the poor, women, LGBTQ and people of color. We are holding a conversation at noon about what we can do to end racism– to promote racial justice. We planned this months ago and there is no more pertinent issue this week than that. Wednesday is a peace vigil for the victims of the hate shootings here at 7 pm. Racism and hate shootings – of anyone– must end and this little community can do God’s work to help end them. ///

As Nance and I were considering this church for this call the conversations with the pastoral search committee and later the congregation convinced me that we did not just have nicely matching profiles, but were both really truly very much into expressing that “God is love” in worship and in the mission and ministries of the church all week long and we are trying to live that out.
It seems counterintuitive, but as I learned way back in my teens living into the belief that “God is love” in our words and our deeds is every church community’s expression in worship and in missions and ministries all week long.

And so I was very careful to look for a church whose cup of tea was this God of Love thing, this seek justice and love kindness thing, this humbly walking with God thing.

I does not always go over well. It sounds all nice and warm and fuzzy, and it very often is. But even though it is very Biblical, when we play it out in our lives it can sometimes almost overwhelm us as we get bent by negative responses.

One of the most difficult things about love is that when we offer it unconditionally and especially include people placed on the margins it can stir things up.

Love spread beyond acceptable boundaries disturbs.

Love put in action can bring discomfort.

That’s certainly a lesson I’ve learned again and again. Helping to put love into action may be my sense of call, it may be all of our sense of call, but at times that action does not bring a sense of comfort or even agreement on how to go about it.

The members of this church are serious about justice issues and by and large we hang in there through the discomfort and disagreements that’s how loving Christians live in covenant.

And it is not just on justice issues. Like Jesus we invite into community all manner of people. Many of us are broken and sometimes we are in the presence of those who make us uncomfortable. They don’t like us or we don’t like them. They, or we, act out in ways that create uncomfortable moments.

We want to church to be comfortable but like life it is not always so. And some leave. But it’s family so most of us try to stay and keep the loving part in front of us. Despite the loss, or the anger, or even the insults, gossip and the dislike that is sometimes generated in church it is best to try to work things out respectfully, lovingly.

That’s true even if we do not always like what is happening or for that matter one another.

So the hardest thing I’ve learned over the years that it is not easy to be a progressive Christian promoting love, people get upset about love and disagree about how to best do it or when to best do it or even if we should do it at all in a given circumstance.
Before I went to seminary a seasoned pastor in another denomination took me to lunch and cautioned me that a double digit percentage of the congregation at any given moment will not like the pastor.

The hardest thing I have learned is that my pastor friend was right. I regret that, I really regret that. It can be a hard realty to accept. But I believe that, regardless, we are all here to seek and pursue and try to be love.

And you know what? All that loving by those who are here, and of course by God, makes church an overwhelmingly positive experience.
Now the greatest lesson I’ve learned, the good and positive news, I’ve learned includes the same one I first learned, that church can lead us to the God who is love, but added to that is that we must love Love and be love.

And at the end of the day I am in a vocation now that lets me talk about love and research love and try to bring love into worship and into church community and out into the world and even into people’s homes.

And part of that is that I have the great privilege of being be a part of the most vulnerable and precious times, from baptism; to weddings; to praying; to times of death; to celebrating lives; to illnesses; to heavy concerns; and to moments like this in worship services where we intentionally come to be breathed on by the breath of God (one of my favorite hymns)

In all those moments I especially sense God’s presence – and aim to help others do the same.

And here on Sundays it tends to be extremely positive. We set aside our differences and we gather and turn to the Holy and for an hour (maybe more if we hang around and have fellowship or go to classes). We sense more of God here on Sundays, the God we live and move and have our being in– the God who is love. The God who is with us from our borning cry to our last breath (another or my favorite hymns)

Thank you for being a part of that–a very important part of that on Sundays and throughout the week as we struggle to do God’s difficult work in the world – to love Love and be love.

I am going to abruptly switch gears and tell you what I recall may be the funniest thing that I’ve done as a pastor so far– and it is humbling.

In Florida I got up in the pulpit one Sunday and introduced a sermon on the parable of “The Worthless Servant” instead I introduced it as a sermon on the parable of “The Worthless Sermon.” Someone immediately yelled out “Freudian slip!”

May I never be God’s worthless servant or preach a worthless sermon and should either occur . . . forgive me and know that despite any failings, I love you and God loves you and that you matter much.