Pastor Barbara Thrall
In the name of God, the one who brings us together and sends us out, in love. Amen.
Perhaps you sense it, as I do today, a certain fullness of emotion. That fullness is wrapped up in many facets of this day, to be sure. It’s here in being together in this house of God again after a long time away, and an awareness of what this place means and the importance it holds for us. It’s here for me in a deep sense of gratitude and humility, for the many blessings I have received from you these last nine and a half months, and an awareness that you are going through another loss. What a strange irony that we are finally here in the church on my last formal Sunday with you. On another level, we share a sadness and longing for life of Pastor Karen Safstrom, such a dear person, departed this life a little over a year ago. Do you sense her presence with us here today? I’m convinced she is smiling on us, in wonder at what has been accomplished among you. And then there is a sense of joy and hopeful expectation as we await the arrival of Pastor Martha and her ministry among you. Think about this arc of time, from March of 2020 up to this day in the middle of June, 2021. We have been through so much and have been on a rollercoaster of experiences. You are so good and you are so strong, and through it all God has been so good and so faithful toward you. In so many ways, your faith has made you well.
This morning we are beginning the season of Pentecost, this green church-time that lasts all summer and into the late fall. We will hear story after story, account after account of the gospel writer’s revelations about Jesus, of what Jesus was about, what he was sent to do, what drove him and what attracted people to him. A central theme of Jesus’ mission here on earth was to usher in the Kingdom of God, a new time when God reigns, not just in heaven, but here and now, in first century Palestine and in our own days. Jesus uses a number of images, often told in parables, to bring his hearers into an understanding of what the Kingdom is and what it means for us.
As you’ve heard, today Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed and he is drawing from the image of the tree of life in Ezekiel. Now, from your cooking or your gardening you may know about mustard seeds. They aren’t all that tiny, but when we consider that from one such seed can come a bush that is twenty feet high and just as wide, that is a lot of something packed into a very small package. I think one thing Jesus means to convey is that from something seemingly small and insignificant, a mustard seed, can come great things, great possibilities and that is never more true than in the Kingdom of God.
The images of the tree of life and the mustard seed are wonderful and helpful. If you will allow me this indulgence, I would like this morning to switch it up a little and to put forth a different image for the Kingdom, one that is close to the hearts of members of this church. That is the image of people making a quilt. I was in a quilting group once, a long time ago, and I suspect my experience was something like the one many of you shared here. Let’s see if quilting and the Kingdom can come together for us now. And if you’re not a quilter, try substituting some other communal activity, being on a team or being part of a building project, and see if the analogy holds.
First, you can make a quilt by yourself, but it is a lot easier, faster, and much more fun if you are part of a group. The talk, maybe the singing, the camaraderie, carry us along as the tasks get done. So it is with the Kingdom. We can all pursue our own ministries, following our own lights, but often don’t things go better if we are part of a group that is committed to the same thing? For us, that group has a name. It’s called the church, and we manifest our faith most powerfully in community. That’s a hallmark of the Kingdom Jesus came to build, our working together.
Then by its nature a quilt is made up of many small pieces that gradually, sometimes haltingly, come together to become a unique and beautiful creation, one that is greater than the sum of its parts. This is true in the Kingdom, that from something small, great things come. One great thing is that along the way we can help people discover how they might combine their own small pieces to arrive at a place they had never expected in a million years. Believe me, that happens. It just did here, in the working of the Profile and Search Committees.
Being part of a quilting group means people bring their own individual gifts and talents. One person is really good at hand sewing and others are glad to let her do it. Another person has a flair for design and the group allows that person to steer the project. Still another loves to iron, or cut, or purchase, or make the coffee, and together something unique takes shape, hopefully with a minimum of friction. The group is adjusting, and flexible and is committed to the project. Those are the dynamic qualities of the Kingdom of God as it evolves, with our help.
Quilting teaches you to be humble, and that there are limits to how much control any one person has. As my friend Molly Scherm says, a plan for the design comes together and if you’re lucky, it will look like what you had expected, but never just exactly like what you envisioned. So it is with the Kingdom and human beings and all the things in this world that have a life and a destiny of their own. We never know quite how it will go. The Kingdom is ultimately in God’s hands, not ours.
One truth in making a quilt with others, is that you are going to make mistakes. That’s just part of the deal. You may have to rip something out and start over. You might have to take your lumps and leave in something that is a minor flaw. This can be really annoying. Hopefully the group will learn not to make the same mistakes again, but that is also part of life and God gives us credit for trying. The trajectory of the Kingdom of God is not a straight line, but a series of starts and stops, twists and turns. We carry on. The process is calling us.
And one more truth about quilting is that we don’t always see things the same way. For one person, a finished quilt might be a bit of a disappointment, if the colors aren’t appealing, or you just don’t like stripes. For another person the overall effect is perfect. Who’s to say what’s right? In the Kingdom of God about which Jesus is talking, it all works, if things are moving toward the reign of God among us. The truth is, we set out upon something – a quilt, a book group, a gardening project, working with DCF, raising a child, taking a stand on racial injustice, choosing a new pastor, and we can’t entirely control the outcome, and that is true about a lot of things, isn’t it?
Yes, the building up of the Kingdom of God and making a quilt share a few similarities. St. Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians that if anyone is in Christ, that person has become a new creation. Everything old has passed away, everything is becoming new. If we think about it, God, who is always doing a new thing, be it a quilt or the Kingdom-transformation of the world, season after season, year after year, is showing us the way to live in Christ’s light and life. God is always showing us ways to build one another up. As God did a new thing in bringing Pastor Karen and her many gifts to this church, which helped to further bring you together and achieve the federation a year and a half ago, and as God did a new thing in bringing me out mothballs to serve you as your bridge pastor for these many months, so God is doing a new thing in bringing Pastor Martha Sipe and her spouse Tricia to this church family. As God is doing a new thing in bringing us out of our COVID isolation and fear, as God has been doing a new thing in teaching us about white privilege and racial inequality and climate justice in this past year, so God is giving us reasons for hope and joy as a church, as a culture and as individuals. We are alive, in Christ.
Now we are coming to the end of our formal time together, though I will be back once in July and once in August to be your Sunday supply clergy. I want you to know how much it has meant to me to get to know you and to shepherd you through this time. You didn’t need all that much shepherding, actually, as you are pretty self-directed, but still, I think this has been a time of growth, change and healing for us all. I hope I have helped you along the way and I know you have renewed my faith in what a church can do and in the power of what can happen when a group pulls together with Jesus Christ at its center. I will miss you and I thank you for this time with you in your gracious home. Now it is time, as the Bible says, for me to decrease so that another may increase. Departures are tough, and yet I look forward to hearing about the beautiful things you will do for God and the Kingdom with your new pastor. Good for you, good for her, good for the Church, good for the Holy Spirit!
May the mustard seeds you are sowing flourish in the garden that is planted in Wilbraham at CTK-Epiphany Church. May the quilt of blessings you are creating cover those in need of comfort wherever they may be. May the possibilities of the Holy Spirit’s work in you reach out to draw others in, so that the goodness of this part of God’s Kingdom may touch a waiting world. With a very full heart and every confidence in God’s providence, I wish you God’s profound and loving blessings, this day and always. Amen.