So Very Blessed
Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay
January 14, 2007
1 Corinthians 12:1-11 John 2:1-11
When I was a teenager, the oldest of six children, I really wanted an older brother. Actually, I didn’t care so much about the brother, but I thought having a brother who had friends would be pretty cool. Maybe I’d be more comfortable with guys if I were around them more.
I was reminded of this childhood desire last summer, when I was looking for a student pastor position, and Bill Levering said, “We can’t pay you, but we’d love to have you. Think of it this way—if you can’t find anyone else to take you to the prom, we will.”
Several years ago I came across a book that I keep coming back to. It’s called Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, and it’s by a man named William Bridges. Bridges talks about change in a way that I had never thought of before. Usually we think of change as being the beginning of something new, he said, but it really starts with the end of something old. Actually, there are three stages: the ending, the neutral zone and the beginning. I think it’s pretty obvious that at Summit we’ve just completed the “ending” stage, and we’re moving into the neutral zone. There’s a whole process ahead of us before we’ll get to the beginning.
The “ending” means saying good-bye to the way things were, in this case the way things were with Bill Levering as our minister. Saying good-bye is never easy, but I think—and Bill said it at Wednesday night’s Session meeting—that we’ve done a good job of it.
But it’s not just saying good-bye, is it? It’s also letting go—letting go of the way things used to be, letting go of of the way we were under Bill’s leadership. I’m not talking about letting go completely—becoming an entirely new congregation with completely new ways of doing things. What I’m talking about is loosening our grip—being willing to let some new stuff in …
Bridges talks about folk wisdom that says, “You can't steal second base with your foot on first.” And actually, I think that’s a gift that this congregation has in spades. You’ve told me about it yourselves, in one way or another. “We’re pretty loosey-goosey,” I’ve heard. “We don’t get too upset about the way things go—it’ll work out.” It’s “The Summit Way” to not get too hung up about which base you’re on. Now I recognize that some folks get a bit frustrated about The Summit Way on occasion (you’ve told me that, too), but I think overall it’s a gift. A blessing.
William Bridges says that people need a “boundary event,” marking the boundary between the ending and the neutral zone. If you want to look at all of this in Biblical terms, look at the story of Moses and the Promised Land. The Israelites’ time in Egypt represented the “ways things were,” and they had a pretty extraordinary boundary event marking the end of that time: There was no going back across the Red Sea!
We had our “boundary event” last weekend, when we celebrated Bill and Abby’s time with us. And we know there’s no going back.
And that means that now we’re moving into what Bridges calls the “neutral zone.” This is a time that is full of uncertainty and confusion. Think of Linus when his blanket was in the dryer—or a trapeze artist who has let go of one trapeze and is flying through space. There’s nothing to hang on to. The way things used to be is over, and the way they will be, at the end of the search process for a new pastor—well, it hasn’t begun.
“The neutral zone is uncomfortable,” Bridges says, “so people are driven to get out of it.” Some folks try to back-pedal and retreat into the past. “Oh, it was so great when Bill was here. Why did he have to leave? Let’s just keep on doing everything exactly the way we did when he was here.”
Other folks rush ahead to get to the beginning of the new. “What do you mean it will take months to complete the process and get a new minister? How can we expedite that process?” Or they’ll be eager to make anything the new—to jump into whatever future is available. “Let’s just keep Jeanne and Jim forever.”
The Israelites in the wilderness weren’t entirely happy in their neutral zone, remember? “There weren’t enough graves in Egypt—you had to bring us out here to die?” And on that trek it wasn’t just the kids who were saying, “Are we there yet? When we will get there?”
But a successful transition requires spending some time in the neutral zone. It’s not wasted time. The neutral zone is the time when the most creativity emerges, where the energy happens, when the real transformation takes place. It was in the wilderness (the neutral zone) rather than in the Promised Land (the beginning) that Moses was given the Ten Commandments; and it was there, and not in The Promised Land, that his people were transformed from slaves to a strong and free people.
Now I can assure you that the neutral zone for us will not take 40 years, like it did for the Israelites, and we don’t need to get past everything they did. This is not a congregation for whom what has ended was problematic, not a congregation that’s been in trouble. Not at all! And that’s another blessing. Some of you will remember that a few years ago some students from Lutheran Seminary did a study of this congregation, and what they reported echoes what I’ve seen and experienced here. “A welcoming and inclusive community” … “an organic part of its surrounding environment” … a church that finds scripture, preaching and being rooted in the Gospel vital … a church where “openness, being accepting of others, and outreach” are important themes. A family that celebrates diversity in race and theology and gender and class. A family that’s willing to argue with each other, and also to hug and come to mutual understanding. What a blessing!
This is a church that understands Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” And this is the root of the challenge for us in this neutral zone—knowing that God has given each of us gifts and that together we have everything we need—to begin to explore the next phase of Summit’s history. Together—using all of our many and diverse gifts—we will be looking at who we are as a congregation. What does our heritage have to say to who we are today? In what ways are we the same as and different from other similarly-sized congregations? In what directions do we want to move? What do we want to make sure we retain? What does God have to say to Summit Presbyterian Church in 2007?
And there’s a promise there, isn’t there? It may have taken the Israelites 40 years, but they got to the Promised Land. It may take us more months than we’re happy about, but we’ll get there.
There will be dissension, and there will be surprises along the way. Sometimes our family may seem to be at cross purposes. Look at the scripture from John this morning. Even Jesus’ family wasn’t always serene. Mary told Jesus that they’d run out of wine at this wedding, and what was his response? “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?” Wow—sounds a bit snippy, doesn’t it? “My hour has not yet come.” But then, even though the hour had not come—even though the beginning, the new—wasn’t yet there, he turned the water into wine. How surprising! How wonderful—full of wonders! How exciting!
And in what ways will God turn water into wine amongst us here at Summit during these next few months? What an exciting time this will be, full of surprises and wonders. Let the transition begin!