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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
November 26, 2006
A sermon delivered by Rev. Ron Botts

Endings and Beginnings, and All That’s Between

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; John 18:33-37

It’s wonderful to be back after these three months of sabbatical, time which I could structure to best serve my needs, time where I could come and go as I wished, time which I could use to sort out the clutter in my space and life, time where I could step back to gain a perspective of myself, my faith, and my calling.

Well, maybe “wonderful to be back” is a bit of an overstatement in light of all these benefits. Let’s just say that it’s so very nice to see all of you again.

To be away from family, in this case my community of faith, is the downside of a positive experience. No matter how many churches you visit on Sunday mornings, or how gracious and welcoming their members may be to you, it’s not the same as where you have a regular place set for you and when you’re gone, you’re also missed.

Ours here may not be a perfect family—whose is?—but it’s made up of folks you love, who work beside you for the common good, who you support in times of need, who you pray for in anticipation and concern, and for whom you shed a tear in periods of distress. In today’s impersonal world, our biological and adoptive families take on even more importance. And in those places where you truly feel at home, it’s because your soul tells you this is where it is most right.

Now lest you think I didn’t have any goals for my time away nor avoided work at all cost, that really wasn’t the case. One of the primary intentions I had was to continue my work on the series of contemporary psalms I’ve been writing. I have now completed a total rewrite of all my previous material and I’ve added new pieces as well. If you’ll bear with me, I plan to use some of these in worship during the months ahead and then, if ready, submit the whole set for publication in 2007. We’ll see how all this works out.

During the sabbatical I also continued my various responsibilities with the United Church of Christ and the term I began in June as President of the Columbus Metropolitan Area Church Council. The latter is our regional equivalent of the Ohio or National Council of Churches.

I also had some great retreat opportunities these last three months, and one was especially memorable at St. Meinrad Archabbey. This is a monastic community in the rolling hills of Southern Indiana where your day is attuned to the liturgy of the hours and where the call of the church bells replaces your need for a watch. I’ll share more about St. Meinrad with you later, but it’s a place where I’d love to take some of you for a weekend as a church trip.

 

There’s plenty of other things to share with you from this time away but, over the weeks and months ahead, I’m sure that I’ll find numerous ways to communicate all this. Thank you for providing this opportunity for me. I hope you’ll see good results from the investment you made. I have another five years before this benefit will come again, but I’ve already got some ideas in mind for the next time.

All good things must eventually come to an end. Today also marks the end of the church year as we celebrate it liturgically. We started with Advent and Christmas, then Epiphany and Lent. We walked the days of Holy Week with Jesus and joyfully proclaimed the risen Christ on Easter Sunday. We felt the surging power present in Pentecost and then lived in the reflective second half of the year known as Ordinary Time. Today the annual cycle ends and Advent begins next week as we look forward again to the coming of the Messiah within human experience.

Customarily we think of all this activity as “beginnings and endings” but, in my sermon title for today, I have reversed this to read “endings and beginnings.” That’s intentional. More than we might think, the new in life grows out of the old. Something starts, but only after another finishes. Some things have to be completed before others can be initiated.

This cyclic reality is so much a part of life that we can easily miss its prevalence and its importance. One school year must end before the next can begin. You have to graduate from high school so that you can go on to college. You need to complete the bachelors level prior to entering the masters or doctoral programs.

An election marks the completion of one term of office or even a change in its holder. Two can’t sit at the same legislative desk, unless of course if they haven’t finished counting the absentee ballots. Eventually, though, even that will be decided and only one person will be declared the winner.

A person has to leave one career before embarking on another. A young person has to say good-bye to a childhood home before joining in union with a soul mate.

A couple has to give up a more carefree lifestyle to take on the role of parents. An old house has to be vacated before the next home can be established.

Sometimes these transitions are entirely of our own choosing and sometimes they are thrust upon to make of them what we will. Whether change is voluntary or mandatory, these are the dividing points of life and often they are some of the most creative times as well. These call not only for the exertion of time and energy but they, in turn, can energize us for the future. Out of the old comes the new, in all aspects of life.

There is one catch in all this, however. Sometimes the changeover doesn’t go like clockwork. One thing stops but, whatever is future, is not ready to begin yet. Then

we’re in the “in between” and that can sometimes be a very uncomfortable place. We know where we’ve been, but as yet don’t know exactly where we’re going.

Two times in my life I have left a job before I had another offer. If you’ve had that experience, you know how insecure that can make you feel. The first time I cleared out my office on a Monday, but by Thursday I was invited to become the Director of Common Cause in Ohio. I knew the job was pending, but Tuesday and Wednesday were exceedingly hard. There’s never any guarantee to employment and anything can happen between “probably” and “definite.” The second time of waiting was much longer, but eventually that, too, came through.

What we don’t know has a way of bothering us more than what we do. I’d be very surprised to hear any of you say that this isn’t familiar territory for you as well. Things end. Things begin. But the gap is what often does us in. The longer it is, the harder it is.

On March 20, 2003, the United States launched pre-dawn air strikes on Baghdad, Iraq, followed by the first contingent of ground troops entering from Kuwait. May 1, 2003, George Bush, aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, announced that the U.S. was victorious with the words, “mission accomplished.” A fifteen-year-old boy watched the President’s speech at his farm house in Iowa, never imagining that he would one day lie dead on the sand near the town of Faluja, victim of a sniper’s bullet.

Before this day is over the length of the Iraq War will supersede the length of WWII, from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day—1348 days. The war is over, but it’s not over. We live in the “in between” and it becomes more painful all the time.

In our text for today Jesus is confronted by Pilate who picks up on the rumor that he claims to be king of his people. Such self-acclaim would not be tolerated by the Romans who were great captors | but always uneasy in their role as occupiers.

“So you are a king?”

“You say that I am a king... I came into the world to speak the truth and everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me.”

The author Lloyd Douglas writes that he once lived down the street from a violin teacher. One morning he stopped by to see his friend and asked, “What’s the good news for today?”

Holding up a tuning fork the teacher struck it and replied, “The good news is: that is A... It was A yesterday; it is A today; and it will be A tomorrow. The good news for today is: that is A, and it won’t change.”

Now I would suggest that whenever the old ends and the new has yet to be, we need to latch onto whatever stabilizes our life in such precarious times. A tuning fork may be predictable, but it’s not really of any help.

Strange, but perhaps where we find Christ most clearly is in life’s “in betweens.” Where our strength and our ability are not enough to get us through the bleak days, Jesus comes to reach out his hand to us and invites us to walk with him. He well understands that we still have to journey without knowing our future, but he can help us to believe there is a future. We are loved by God who created us, and God will not fail to sustain us in love—though whatever is to come is now obscure | and may be far different from what we imagine.

Jesus’ story doesn’t stop with his inquisition by Pilate nor even by his death on a cross. The Good News for today is that whatever ended on the crest of a hill, something far greater ensued from its pain. The church year is ended, the story of Jesus is over, but really it has just begun.

Like him we die as well—a thousand little deaths before our ultimate time—but through it all Christ lets us lean on him and strengthens us to be ready for whatever the next day will have in store. The truth he brings us is the truth that will endure.

Whenever we’re caught in one of those “in betweens” we can nonetheless find comfort and endurance from believing that we were loved yesterday, we’re loved now, and we will continue to be in God’s love wherever the journey takes us tomorrow.

Friends, Christ is our one sure bridge in the inevitable gaps we encounter in life. We can and will get through them when we recognize that the road we travel is wide enough for two.

Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church