Bible verses for reflection: Romans 12:1-13
Our congregation has felt birth pangs over last year. Paul writes in Romans 8: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our body.” (Romans 8:22-23) In some ways, the body of our congregation has been groaning with labor pains over the past year. We are in the midst of becoming something new. The former life is over; something new is being born among us.
To be honest, 2015 was a challenging year for me personally. During all of 2015, the church was understaffed. We have been understaffed since Ken Hughes left almost two years ago to return to his home state of New York after 40 years. Our interim, Joan Gray, was wonderful, but we only had her half time. Then Amy Chastain left her part time work with children’s ministry for a full time position with Agnes Scott, and Rebekah Abel Lamar received her call to Idlewild Church in Memphis. And so we were understaffed, and grieving our losses.
But during 2015, we prayerfully discerned a reconfiguration of our church staff. Rev. Jamie Butcher was called to bring her unique pastoral gifts and passions to a full time position as the Director of Children’s Ministries, and Rev. Alex Rogers, who is gifted in building relationships, was called as Associate Pastor for adult faith formation and congregational care. No one is more thrilled or relieved than I am to have brought these two new pastors on staff in these last few weeks.
Early in 2015, we recognized that we had hit a plateau as a congregation. A congregation on a plateau will either eventually change and begin to grow again, or will stagnate and begin to decline. We came back to you this time last year to ask for additional pledges in what we called the “Beyond the Plateau Campaign”, and you responded. You provided funds critical to our mission. We were able to make difficult but needed changes, and thanks be to God,
2016 is going to be a great year for this congregation. God is birthing something new in our midst.
The Today’s English Version of this text from Romans 12 reads: “Do not be conformed to the standards of this world,
but let God transform you inwardly…” Then it continues: “Though we are many, we are one body in union with Jesus Christ, and we are all joined to each other as different parts of one body.” (Romans 12:5) If one part of the body receives transformation, the whole body is being transformed.
Worship is at the heartbeat of the congregation. Over the past year, we have had many visitors coming to worship –
averaging over 40 per Sunday and we grew again, slightly, in membership in 2015. When we receive a new member from a different part of the country or a different continent, they bring their own experiences of faith and worship to us, and we all are being transformed. When the young man who has spent time in prison is given a warm smile by the sweet lady who sits in the pew in front of him, both of them – and our whole worshiping body – are being transformed. When we gather this Wednesday evening and a teenager receives the cross of ashes on his forehead, reminding him of his mortality, and then receives a piece of bread, reminding him of his salvation in Christ, we are being transformed.
We had 14 funerals last year. When we lose beloved members, whose lives are interwoven with our own, who were for decades a significant part of the strength of this community, the rest of us need to be transformed to fill the holes they have left. When the sanctuary was packed full last Monday morning to celebrate the life of Anne Jackson, whose warmth and hospitality graced this church for 83 years, her life of faith inspired us to be better people, and our body was being transformed.
Our music ministry remains strong under the McMahan’s leadership. Music, both by choirs and congregation, is a big part of who we are. Last spring, we dedicated new Glory to God hymnals. Many of the new hymns are beautiful, contemporary, and easy to sing. Two weeks ago we sang a powerful new hymn that holds the promise of becoming a favorite of the next generation. Some of these new hymns will have a lasting, transformative impact upon our worship for years to come. Their words and rhythms are becoming part of the daily soundtrack of our lives. When a child in Mrs. Mac’s choir walks around their house singing songs of faith, we, the body, are being transformed. When a new person joins the choir and spends Wednesday evenings under Matt’s tutelage, we are being transformed.
Our youth ministry is deepening under Allysen’s guidance. When a confirmand and her mentor sit in a small group and wrestle together with difficult questions of faith, we are being transformed. When an 8th grader misses their Saturday ball game for the sake of a confirmation retreat, we are being transformed. When a family that has been away from worship for years begins to attend because their youth is coming on Sunday nights, we are being transformed.
Our young adult ministry is developing with help of our interns. When young adults gather for a weekend retreat at the lake, in the context of faith and worship, we are being transformed. When we baptize a young adult who has never been an active part of a church family, we are being transformed. When college students gather at the church on Sunday evenings to pray together, we are being transformed.
Our budget ended with a surplus in 2015, providing critical funds for this year’s full complement of staff, and once again, the resources needed were provided. When a couple decides together to give up some desired travel because they realize the church’s mission needs their support, we are being transformed. When a significant purchase is deferred because a family feels led to participate in the church’s capital campaign, we are being transformed. When a person of faith decides that they want to share with their decedents a last testament to their faith by including an offering to God’s work in their will, we are being transformed.
Our session and congregation addressed the question of same gender marriage last year. Most everyone stayed in conversation with each other, even in disagreement or confusion. It was not an easy process, at least not for me. We lost a few wonderful folks, but we also gained a few as well. When a choir member and a member of the Evangelism committee can disagree on a challenging issue, but then gladly share bread and cup together at the Table of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are being transformed, and the community around us notices that something is different about this place.
Our leadership this year has been strengthened with a breadth of new elders. When a Beryl Taylor brings the spiritual practices she is learning at seminary classes into her work as an elder, we are being transformed. When David Wiley, who has his hands full running his own company, serves faithfully and well as the chair of Missions Council, we are being transformed.
Our missions, local and global, remain at the core of our congregation’s being. When we welcome the Turks or another of our missionaries into our class or into our home and are inspired by their work as our ambassadors in the world, we are being transformed. When a Threshold volunteer hears another tragic personal story, but then is able to connect someone to needed mental health care or shelter on a cold night, or an genuine employment opportunity,
we are being transformed. When we spend our time engaging in hands-on mission –making sandwiches in the fellowship hall, or serving dinner at Hagar’s House or building stoves in Nicaragua, we are being transformed.
Our faith formation opportunities are beginning to ripen. When new individuals arrive in a Sunday School class or a Bible study and renew the engagement of their minds in the life of faith, we are being transformed. When a lifelong skeptic is encouraged to verbalize difficult questions in the Faith in Real Life group, and begins to take to heart
a different understanding of themselves and of God’s grace, we are being transformed. When an elder takes on a prayer partner, and receives prayer from another, we are being transformed.
Transformation is more than incremental change. Transformation is not subtle, but life altering, “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.” Transformation is not something that a congregation can do, but something that we receive. Transformation is something that happens to us, by the grace of God, beyond our control. We cannot manufacture transformation any more than we can make it rain this afternoon. But we can put ourselves into situations where transformation is more likely to happen, just as we could travel from the desert to the lush mountains if we are seeking rainfall.
The power of the Holy Spirit is at work in this place among individual members, and as a result, God is birthing something new in the whole body.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, a Sunday to remember the transfiguration of Jesus’ appearance when he was on the mountain with his disciples. Transfiguration is similar in definition to transformation. Transfiguration is defined as “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.” With the new birth that God is bringing to life in this congregation, every child of God here has the opportunity to be transformed, but more than that, perhaps even to be transfigured, by the grace of God, into “a more beautiful or spiritual state.”
I am grateful for all that you have done and given over the past year, but more than that, I am humbled and overwhelmed when I consider all that God has done, in and through this body of faith, all the things that God has done for us that we are not able to do for ourselves. To God be the glory in this church, now and forevermore. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
February 7, 2016
Annual Meeting of the Congregation