"Breaking New Ground": Installation Sermon for Rev. Esther Rendon Thompson, Union Congregational Churh, East Walpole, Mass

                                            Breaking New Ground

                                             William McKinney

A Sermon Preached at the Installation of the Rev. Esther Rendon Thompson as Pastor and Teacher at Union Congregational Church, UCC, East Walpole, Mass.

Texts: Matthew 16: 13-20, Romans 12: 1-8
October 20, 2013

All around us we have stories of the people of God breaking new ground.

We see this is today’s scriptures.

In Matthew’s gospel we have Jesus and the disciples in dialogue. Jesus asks his disciples a simple question: "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

Then Jesus said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answers, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

In this moment the son of Mary and Joseph, the friend, the teacher, the prophet is transformed from one among many to the long-awaited messiah, the Christ.

This was something new, a turning point. It broke new ground.

Then we have, in Romans 12, Paul’s description of the life of discipleship:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect.

This was the principal text of one of Dr. Martin Luther Kings’s most famous sermons. It is included in his book Strength to Love. Christians, Dr. King said, are called to lives of “transformed nonconformity.” That notion shaped his ministry. It reshaped a slumbering church. It propelled a movement that in turn transformed a nation.

This was something new, a turning point. It broke new ground.

My friend Carl Dudley was a pastor and teacher and consultant to local churches. Esther has recognized his role as a mentor in her life and ministry and has dedicated this service to his memory. He lived life audaciously. He actually enjoyed chaos and would sometimes use chaos as a pedagogical tool. One doesn’t always expect that from a Presbyterian. Presbyterians are supposed to place an emphasis on discipline and order. Not Carl.

Often, as a seminary dean, I would be called upon to soothe the feathers of faculty members who had experienced one of Carl’s chaotic moments. On one such day a seminary faculty member who had been the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company was nearly in tears after a session with Carl. “The SOB wants to design the plane while flying at 30,000 feet,” he protested. “He’ll kill us all.”

But Carl Dudley was fundamentally a pastor. His happiest moments were as a storyteller. He had the ability to find great meaning in the simplest incident, usually in a local church.

Early in his career Carl was called to serve a small black Presbyterian church in St. Louis. One day he had a visit from a young woman in the congregation who had recently had a baby and wanted to have her child baptized. The pregnancy had been something of a scandal as the teenager was unmarried. Carl’s response was “Of course. We’ll do it next Sunday.”

When Carl reported this to the church’s session a huge fight broke out. The matriarch of the congregation, a woman who was related to just about everybody in the church, was fiercely opposed. “Over my dead body,” she said. “Think of the message that will send to all the other young girls in the congregation.”

In telling the story Carl would point out that in the Presbyterian system the pastor has the ultimate say when it comes to the administration of the sacraments. He also knew that in most congregations there are people who control the destiny of the pastor.

The session meeting went long into the night and no-one changed their views. Sunday morning arrived and the time in the service came for the baptism. Carl called the young woman forward with her baby. You could feel the tension in the air as the pastor turned to the congregation and asked, “And who will stand with this young woman and her child?”

There was silence in the sanctuary until the matriarch of the congregation stood up. “I will stand with her,” said the woman, “and so will everyone else who is here this morning.” And the entire congregation rose and came forward to surround the mother and her child.

As Carl told the story, this was something new in the life of Berea church. It was a turning point. It broke new ground.

I remember sitting in my office at Hartford Seminary a long time ago, probably in the 1990s. As the seminary’s dean one of my responsibilities was to meet with prospective students who the staff felt were somehow “special.” Usually these students had some sort of special problems, like they seemed psychotic.

On this particular day the “special” person was a young woman, an immigrant from Latin America who was able to communicate to me in what was then pretty limited English that she had a call to ministry and wanted an education but that she had a couple of problems: no money, no husband, no green card, no job, no real denomination and two young daughters who needed her attention. She had studied at a Bible college back home but didn’t exactly meet the requirements for the seminary’s masters programs.

But she was clearly bright and she did have a call to ministry and she had passion: three attributes that were and remain somewhat lacking in the world today.
I remember thinking to myself that to encourage this young person could be a mistake. At the time Hartford Seminary didn’t have many Latino students or very many students who had come to us from conservative evangelical backgrounds. We weren’t an institution that took a lot of risks.

But we did figure out a way to admit that student and walked together with her for several years as she followed her call to ministry. And today we install that student as your pastor.

That was something new for Hartford Seminary. It was a turning point. It broke new ground.

I’m told that Union Congregational Church was founded in a tavern in the 1870s and that you’ve been breaking new ground ever since. One hundred years ago you broke ground on this building. You have known old things and new things. You have known turning points.

Today you break ground on a new pastorate. You are doing another new thing.

We call this new thing an installation but that strikes me as the wrong word. I don’t know about you but when I think of “installing” something I think of furnaces or carpeting. I don’t think of installations as something we do to people. What we are doing today is more like a baptism or a marriage. We are blessing the coming together of a pastor and her people.

I suspect none of you knows exactly what lies ahead in your relationship. You have hopes and dreams but probably also some fears and anxieties. That’s what happens when you break new ground.

In this sense you are no different from Jesus and the disciples and the Apostle Paul from ancient times or from that little black church in St. Louis or that young woman at Hartford Seminary or those people worshiping in a tavern. You know that you have turned a corner and that something knew is being born. And you know that this new thing is good. Savor that feeling. Enjoy that transformed nonconformity that comes with breaking ground.

Thanks be to God!