June 1, 2003
Rev. Virnette Hamilton
First Congregational Church, New Milford, CT  06776
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Scripture Reading

John 17:6-19

6 "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. (NRSV)

Acts 1:15-26

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16 "Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus -- 17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry." 21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us -- one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection." 23 So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed and said, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. (NRSV)

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I have this strong memory of the humiliation of waiting to be chosen for the team in grade school. We would elect 2 captains – which by the way were always boys and then they would always pick their best friends first… then later, when they could no longer avoid it, they would choose among the girls… the lesser of all evils – in their eyes. Now, I was tall and gangly and didn’t look at all athletic and I wasn’t. I couldn’t hit a baseball, and I ducked when it came toward me in the field. I didn’t have the right kind of courage for soccer, or even kick ball. I remember waiting until the end, and then the two worst players were split between the teams. I was often the last person chosen. And rarely did I actually get to play, so there was no chance to actually improve. I can remember thinking that I would have preferred to say no thanks when they called my name – a book would have been much more enjoyable. But saying “no” was not an option. My Name had been called, no matter how late, and I had a responsibility to try, at least. I am still better at “Non-ball” type sports.

Being chosen early is an honor, it means that you are trusted, that you have something to offer to the team, that you are special in the eyes of the one choosing. Just think of how Matthias felt after the apostles choose him to replace Judas. He was to be the one who would fulfill scripture, to witness to the truth of the resurrection. That’s an honor… not to be denied, but also – it sounds like a lot of work and dangerous… being chosen…

You – and you, and all of us are here because we were chosen. Chosen by God. God knew that when the truth of the resurrection lodged in our hearts that we were the ones who would witness to the world. We were called to live and breath that truth, to witness with our very lives. God called us into this place, to do that work, despite the fact that it is one big job and not always easy. Think of it, Jesus Prayer was for us, for he recognized that our challenges will be the same as his were – to live in the world, but not be of the world.

And Jesus knew all about that challenge. He prays that we will be protected from the evil one, from Satan… he prays that we will be protected from the evil that lurks in our hearts side by side with the truth of God’s love. That evil is in our fear, jealousy, hatred, and suspiciousness, which all add up to be characterized by the trait of self-centeredness.

Jesus knows that if the Church is to survive we need to be operating out of the opposite trait – selflessness – a willingness to participate in a visioning process, to hear what the future could hold for the Church… even if we don’t agree with it. When the Social Concerns committee put out their survey in the early spring and asked all of you where you thought the mission of this Church should be directed, they did so with one question lurking in the back of their minds… “what happens if we don’t like the results.” That is always a risk. Tomorrow night the senior high parents are invited to join the advisors team to give us direction on the future of that program. We run the risk that we may not agree with them…. But we have asked and we will listen and respond.

Jesus knew that if the Church was to survive we would have to continually put the Church first. We are to consider the future of the Church before we consider ourselves. That all may be one… Jesus never thought that we would all think alike, but rather that we would unite in the goal of building the Church.

That is what our Deacon’s installed today have been asked to do – unite their hearts around God’s goal of preserving and strengthening the faith of all the members of this congregation.

Currently a team is being recruited to lead us in a needs assessment, strategic planning process for the future… we together as a Church will try to ascertain what we do well, and what we can improve on. We will look at our history and we will look at the norms, the behaviors we expect and find acceptable. We will look at our dreams and our wishes. We will look at our mistakes and we will look at the times we wandered lost, down the wrong road.

Now here is the tricky part. We are not going to all agree on the answers that we discover. For some the dream will look like wandering away from God – or we might discover that we need to change in order to be faithful to God’s call to us as a congregation.

That all may be one! If we take the lead of the early apostles and of our Lord, we will take prayer seriously. As a matter of fact, without prayer the process of assessment and planning cannot work. It will still just be a gathering of individuals who all bring their own separate ideas and identities to the table. With prayer we become the body of Christ. Before, we commit to embark on this process, we, as individuals must pledge our support in the form of prayer, unceasing prayer, every step of the process.

That is what makes the Church “in the world, but not of the world”. Prayer is our connection with God. I am convinced that through prayer, through our conversations with God, we will be led into our future.

In the next weeks, you will get a letter asking if you want to serve on the steering committee for the needs assessment process- you might even get a phone call saying that you have been chosen to serve. Prayer should guide you in your decision. Prayer should be our anchor as we face the truth of who we are as a Church and the path that we need to take to become who we want to be. Prayer should help us to discern our future.

I am willing to say that most of us are not practiced in the art of discerning prayer… we are more skilled in using the God given gift of our own good intelligence. Which is wonderful, but until it is coupled with prayer, we are in the world and of the world. Letting God lead us through prayer is what allows us to live as Jesus prayed that we would live as people of God - in the world,

This morning we come to our Lord’s table, as people of God, and we open our hearts that our communion with each other and with our Lord might be complete. May this morning be the beginning of the conversations we will have with God that will lead us to an even deeper faith and a strengthened body of Christ. Amen.
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