Renew and Rejoice

The Rev. Sally E. Norris

O God of amazing grace, we are grateful to be gathered in your presence to reflect on your word together. May your truth and inspiration find a place in our hearts and minds. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts together, be acceptable in Your sight, You who are our Rock and our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

The year was 1796, a small church had no means of heating its building. So parishioners carried foot stoves to worship and replenished the coal at neighboring houses between the two morning services.

The year was 1828 and this same small church decided to move its building to a new site. The
church members dismantled the building – piece of wood by piece of wood – and moved all of it by ox and cart and then reassembled it, piece by piece.

The year was 1848 and a steeple and 1000-pound bell were added to the church building, that
had been moved by ox and cart just 20 years earlier.

The year was 1850 and the leadership of this same small church took a public stand against
slavery stating:
“When a great social evil exists…we believe it is the duty of the Church to be foremost in
exhibiting the nature of the evil, (and) in rebuking those whose actions tend to the perpetuity of wrong. In view of these convictions, be it resolved that Slavery is a great and unparalleled
wrong… it is a direct violation of God’s immutable Law and an opposition to the Principles with
Christ promulgated…It surpasses in injustice all other social evils.”
There were 17 signers of this proclamation – 9 with the name of Crosby. (Could they be distant relatives of Music Minister Karen?)

The year was 1879, and this same church called a minister who had served in the Civil War
under the command of General Custer.

The year was 1902 when a minister by the name of the Reverend Hohannes T Torosyan was
called to the church and decided humor was the church’s friend. He stood in the pulpit to preach one morning after a big community celebration, and he said:
“An item of my creed is that repetition is often unpleasant and unnecessary.
Our honored speakers last night spoke most eloquently upon the importance and power of the church. To add anything to what they have said will be, in my judgement, superfluous.”
And then Rev Torosyan sat down. Shortest sermon ever!

And then the year was 1996. Each Sunday of that year – all 52 of them – something
“unexpected” would happen at a random point in the worship service. Out of nowhere a small
bell would jingle and someone dressed in period costume and carrying a blue and gold banner which read “An Historical Moment” would walk down the aisle and — in Town Crier-style – tell the congregation about some charming “historical moment” in the life of the church.

It is probably evident at this point that I am describing your story, your history – South
Congregational Church – since your beginning 227 years ago.

These moments from your history represent the forward-thinking and creative-thinking which
characterize who you are as church. This is your DNA!

These moments also illustrate the perseverance, the fortitude, and the faith which has sustained you as a church over these years. A perseverance and fortitude and faith not unlike those determined people who managed to dig through the mud, reeds and wood beams of the roof of the house where Jesus was speaking and lower the paralyzed person down to Jesus’ side.

But we are in a different era now in 2023. And it is not just because you are voting today on a
new minister. It is a different era because unlike the previous decades – indeed unlike the
previous two centuries of your history – 2023 is an especially challenging time to be “the

Our Gospel story may seem a bit unusual for a Sunday such as this one, but I think if offers a
compelling message. This is actually a story that could command a series of sermons!

There are several “characters” (or groups of characters) and I have already mentioned one – the people who use all their muscle strength to dig through that roof in order to bring the paralyzed person to Jesus.
But there also are the overflowing crowds who have come to hear Jesus.
There are the questioners.
And there is the paralyzed person – before and after.

This a story which invites you to consider where you fit among the characters.Who you identify with?
Think about your life – over the years, or perhaps right now.
Have there been times when you had, or desired to have, the fortitude and perseverance like the roof guys?
Have there been times when you just needed to take your place among the crowds and simply listen to what Jesus has to say?

Have there been times when your doubts led you to question and question something about your life often to the detriment of taking a bold risk of faith?
Have there been times when you experienced paralysis in the emotional and spiritual sense – that is, you were held back from living fully because of despair, discouragement, apathy, or feeling powerless?
Or have there been times when you were – or deeply desired to be — strengthened and liberated to walk with unabashed joy and possibility?
This pretty much sums up the various ebbs and flows of our lives. And it’s all in one story.
The story actually holds up a mirror to our lives to reveal the whole gamut of human emotion
and yearning.

But today – this morning – is about the church. And these very same ebbs and flows apply to the church – the faith community.
Let’s look at your history and this current year of 2023:
Think about the times when this church experienced exceptional fortitude, perseverance and
Think about the times when it was important for the church just to listen to what Jesus has to say.
Think about the times when doubts led to question and question – often to the detriment of the church taking a bold risk of faith.
And think about the challenges in this day and age, when the church – both South Church and
the “Church” in the wider sense – is vulnerable to despair, discouragement, and feeling
powerless – all those things that can paralyze.

Our challenge today is seeing if we can begin to chart a course of faith-filled ways to strengthen and liberate the church to walk with a new unabashed joy — an unabashed joy that will enable the church to renew God’s love and purpose for your life; and that will inspire the church to become a transformative light for love and justice in the wider community.

But this is not easy.
Everything we read about the church today can lead us down the path of feeling overwhelmed, or simply giving-up – which is what the paralyzed person in the story was doing when he brought to Jesus.

The newspaper articles and the Pew Research polls are all saying the same thing:
Churches are closing. Attendance at weekly worship services has dropped to its lowest level
ever, and this all started well before the Covid pandemic. More and more people identify either as being “spiritual but not religious.” More and more people report that their spiritual yearnings are more adequately fulfilled by walking in nature or getting a latte a local café.

Commentators, denominational leaders, and scholars all ponder the reasons for this decline and come up with multiple solutions to reverse the trend. But as yet, none of these ideas has changed the tide.

And truthfully, I do not know the answers. But I believe God does not want us to give up. I
believe that church – faith community (emphasis on “community”) matters. I believe that God
desires the church – and this means you, South Congregational Church – to reclaim your position as a vital living community that is faithfully rooted in and joyfully open to the transformative power of God. We follow a living Gospel! Our faith story is 2000 years old and it still lives!

So I wonder if we collectively – together – we can envision a renewed posture of joy, laughter,
Spirit alive, a church without a walls, a light of healing and resilience and renewal for you
individually lives and for the wider community? How can the church engage more imaginatively with the words of Jesus? Where and how does the church need to take a stand of love and justice today, just as it did in 1850?

Here’s a challenge: We will make mistakes. (Indeed the only promise I will make is that I will
make mistakes.) We won’t always get it right. But mistakes are the fodder of forgiveness. And it is through forgiveness that we regain surprising new strength and vitality, just as it was for the paralyzed person brought to Jesus.

The cellist Yo-Yo Ma was asked how he can play the same Bach pieces over and over again.
He said that even though the notes on the page are the same, each time he plays something
different happens in the interpretation and yet the music is always beautiful, always deeply
moving. He made an analogy to a river. When we look at a river (or a lake, pond, bay, sound,
ocean here on Cape Cod), it looks the same, but it isn’t. It is a living stream of water. The water
is never the same. It keeps changing from day to day, from season to season. Always beautiful, moving, but different. And when you touch the water or listen to it, you are in touch with something much bigger than yourself.

This is a good description of church, and of faith, as we potentially move forward to a new era.
Our faith is the same – a constant – the extravagant love and compassion that Jesus teaches us. But the ways this extravagant love and compassion take form change from day to day and
season to season and year to year. It takes on different interpretations, different expressions,
different applications. But it is always beautiful and moving and connects us to the power of
God which is so much greater than ourselves.

You are standing upon a strong spiritual foundation and God is entrusting this foundation to you. It is for you for you to discern with the guidance of the Holy Spirit how that spiritual foundation continues with a renewed and rejoicing power – just like the healed paralyzed person. If through God’s grace, we are to be in ministry together, I will do all I can to work with you in making South Congregational Church a radiant vessel of God’s amazing grace and love.