By the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal
Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ
Now that we are officially convened, let us begin with testimony. Scripture well- describes how we’ve all felt for the past two weeks – our hearts and prayers have been filled with “sighs too deep for words.” As our time together today is both meeting and worship, let our liturgy for the next few minutes follow this pattern:
As we begin, I want to invite two of our pastors to join me up here – pastors who we should be bold to refer to as heroes – who have been ministering in the center of this whirlwind:
And as you come up here, let me offer an apology, and say that no amount of time on this agenda would be enough to begin to communicate the ministry you and others have poured out these past two weeks. Nevertheless we begin our time together with this focus. And please allow me to offer each of you a prayer shawl. Our UCC churches in Abington, Scituate, Norwell and Hanover have contributed these beautiful offerings for you... and others in your communities.
Thank you for that commitment.
Ian... Bob... and all who are standing:
As you return to your communities, know that you are not in this alone. As you have so vividly testified, God is at your side, and so are we. Later in this meeting we will hear words of consolation from the leader of our partner church, the Pentecostal Church of Chile, Bishop Ulises. And we will also receive a special offering which any number of our churches collected last Sunday that will help address the needs you’ve identified. In response to this challenge – thank you for being God’s hands, and God’s heart, and God’s hope. You may all be seated.
[Dr. Jim Antal then introduces the Board and Staff, and acknowledges the departure at the end of the year of staff members Paul Nickerson and Dale Hempen]
And so it’s right to say that “the state of our conference” is all about compassionate ministry in the face of unimaginable loss. And it’s also right to say that “the state of our conference” is all about exemplary servant leaders in the persons of our Board and our staff.
And to connect with the scripture-theme of our Annual Meeting, it’s right to say that “the state of the conference” is about becoming a NEW CREATION.
Becoming a new creation is both the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge that our Lord Jesus Christ offers to us as disciples.
Raise your hand if your church is experiencing some kind of challenge? Now: keep your hand in the air if you sense – even vaguely – that the challenges your congregation is experiencing could be engaged as an opportunity to become a NEW CREATION. Thank you.
The Conference is helping congregations turn challenges into opportunities through our twice-a-year Super Saturday gatherings. Raise your hand if you, or someone from your congregation, attended either of our two Super Saturday gatherings. I hope to see all of you at our next Super Saturday on October 1 at Mass. Bay Community College in Wellesley Hills. As a delegate, you’ll get a discount. And if you go, I’m sure you’ll find a workshop that will help make your congregation a new creation.
Another challenge in the changing landscape of ministry is the challenge of ecumenical and interfaith engagement. Now stay with me on this. The second Sunday in September is the 10 anniversary of 9-11. Every one of our congregations can make this anniversary an opportunity for interfaith engagement. How? Visit the table hosted by the Ecumenism Commission. We have developed resources your congregation can use to turn this anniversary of a tragedy into a new creation. Ask someone wearing one of these 9-11 buttons what they’ve committed to. Join them in those commitments. Invite your community to a special commemorative worship service on September 11 ... because I can assure you that there are scores or even hundreds of people living within a few miles of your church that cannot imagine that a church like yours – a church like the UCC exists!
Perhaps the greatest challenge that represents an opportunity for the church is the accelerating reality of climate change. Those people living within a few miles of your church I was just referring to — if they are in their 20s, chances are they care passionately about our environment and climate, and chances are they’d be pleasantly surprised to learn that your congregation joins them in that passion!
This past Lent, your Conference launched a Lenten Carbon Fast that attracted 6,000 participants from every state in the union, every province of Canada and 14 countries. Over lunch, you’ll hear how your congregation can become a Green Congregation – and a year from now we hope to give out some awards.
But scripture tells us that “if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation.” If we are going to face the greatest challenge humankind has ever encountered, we really need to embrace the “new” part of the Apostle Paul’s assertion. Here’s one way you might do it:
What if the first announcement at every worship service – and this would work for a synagogue or mosque as well – went something like this:
As we do every week, I’d like to ask those who contacted either their congress-person or the White House this past week to advocate for new laws that will make our earth sustainable.... would you please rise as you are able and receive our applause.... Thank you, and I hope to see all of you rise next week 1.
Seems to me that such behavior might represent becoming a “new creation;” and if the religious leaders of our world can become a new creation in this and other ways, then I’m confident that the citizens, towns, corporations and countries of the world can make the necessary changes to make our earth sustainable.
For centuries religious leadership has been the key to social change. Later in this Annual Meeting, you will hear more about how your congregation can show leadership in committing a portion of your congregation’s mission budget to support our Conference’s Hispanic Ministry Coordinator. Changing demographics are a crucial part of the changing landscape of ministry in the Mass. Conference. I hope we can make Hispanic Ministries part of every congregation’s mission.
So let me say again: Religious leadership is the critical ingredient in helping our world become the new creation God is calling us to be. And for almost 10 years, your Conference has done more than any setting of the United Church of Christ to promote religious leadership through our
Pastoral Excellence Program.
And research now tells 2 us that if your pastor is part of our program (and over 60% are!), he or she is much more likely:
Later in our meeting, you’ll hear more about how you can help support this program as we kick off our Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Endowment Campaign....
But for now:
Let’s have a round of applause for what God is accomplishing in our midst, and the horizon of hope that lies ahead!.... You may be seated....
Perhaps you’re already set to attend one or another of our hearings when this Plenary ends; but in case you’re not, I want to encourage you to go to the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Endowment Campaign HEARING where you will learn how you and your congregation can participate in this vital work. (and by the way, this is the only hearing that will have a band!)
In your folder you’ll find these materials - a brochure, inserts, ways to give chart, response form. Do not add this to some random pile of stuff when you get home!! Please.... complete and return this response form and bring this material back to your church council so that you and your congregation can be part of creating the new story that is emerging here in the Massachusetts Conference.
Sisters and brothers, God has called us to becoming a new creation. This is both the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge that our Lord Jesus Christ offers to us as disciples. Wrapped in God’s embrace.... supporting, nurturing and challenging one another.... the new creation that God has in mind is unfolding. God bless you. And thanks be to God. Let the people say, “Amen.”
1. Note: I suspect many evangelicals would support this. See the recent post by Dr. Russell Moore, Dean of the
School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
2. 2008 Faith Communities Today (FACT) Survey
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