To Be More . . . Daring
Psalm 84, Isaiah 35
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
1 March 2020
Last April I was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at the First Congregational Church attending a visioning and training session for the directors of the boards of our three United Church of Christ conferences in Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. During the Saturday sessions our goal was to develop a “Why” statement—why we do the work we do on the conference level of the church.
As is often the case in these sorts of meetings, we were broken up into various small groups seated at tables around the church’s fellowship hall. The facilitators invited us to begin the day’s work by telling stories of times in our lives when we were inspired by church.
I happened to be at the same table as Louie Blue Coat. Louie is a minister in the Dakota Association, serving Virgin Creek United Church of Christ on the Cheyenne River Reservation. The story Louie shared that day about a time he was inspired by church inspired me in turn.
In 2016 when the Water Protectors were trying to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Standing Rock Reservation, an international call went for clergy and faith leaders to gather in solidarity. More than 500 arrived on the given day, representing 22 faith traditions.
The morning began with a Native American water ceremony. Then, Chief Arvol Looking Horse invited the clergy to gather around the sacred fire to pray. And the first person invited to pray was the Rev. Gordon Rankin, then South Dakota’s UCC Conference minister. According to Louie Blue Coat, the crowd grew silent as Gordon spoke and his words inspired and encouraged.
“Who is that?” those around Louie began to ask. He was proud to respond, “That’s Gordon Rankin, my Conference Minister.”
Moments later, when the march began, Louie wanted to walk alongside Gordon, but too many people wanted to be near the man who had prayed.
The clergy walked to the site where the Water Protectors and Law Enforcement faced one another. As they gathered there, in that place of tension, a peace settled over the people. Everything became quiet. And then an eagle flew overheard. According to Louie, everyone, clergy, Water Protectors, and police, watched the eagle.
“God was there,” Louie said.
Then, he added, “That day, watching Gordon be a pastor made me want to be more, made me want to be a pastor too.”
Last year listening to Louie, I knew I’d heard my why. Why church can inspire people--it calls us to be more.
This Lent I invite you to listen—God is calling you to be more. “More what?” you might ask. Well, that will be unique to you, but each Sunday we’ll consider various possibilities, particularly how we as a church together might be or do more on behalf of God’s work in this time and place.
Today we consider what it might be like to be more daring.
According to Vocabulary.com “To be daring is to be bold, adventurous, and a little nervy. It’s a quality possessed by people who tend to take risks.”
Of course I Googled “To be more daring” to see what the results were and you wouldn’t be surprised to find lots of self-help sites presenting the “7 ways to be more daring” and the “10 rules for a bold and daring life.” Included in the advice were gems like “Stop Being So Scared of Looking Foolish,” “Constantly Push Against Your Comfort Zone,” and “Do Something You Think You Can’t.”
Consider the vision of the Prophet Isaiah. The desert shall blossom, the weak kneed will be made firm, the blind will see, the wild will be tamed. You might describe it as bold, daring, and audacious.
The prophet inspires us to think big. To share in God’s dream. To imagine a world transformed. And then to draw strength, courage, and joy from that vision.
The Psalmist adds to this image. As we follow along God’s path, we are strengthened and made happy. The psalmist inspires us to imagine how great and glorious is our vision of God and the home that God is creating for us to share together. God will withhold no good thing from us.
Back in 2015, my former boss the Rev. Mike Piazza, led a workshop here at our church entitled “Reinvigorating the Vintage Church.” He praised this congregation and the good hard work it had done. We had responded well to the changing demographics of our society and were enjoying vitality and growth. He said that of all the churches he had consulted with, ours was one of the best positioned.
He said we could stay where we were, in this good position, or we could now contemplate doing even more and moving to the next level. What would that look like for us?
The church’s leadership accepted that challenge. And the first thing we did was decide to turn the position of Christian Education Director into a full-time Associate Pastor position, which resulted in calling Katie here in 2016.
And then we launched a Long-Range Planning Task Force and assigned them the job of holding brainstorming sessions with the congregation in order to identify and prioritize a set of goals and objectives for the next decade. In 2017 that report was released, and we’ve been guided by its goals of accessibility, sustainability, neighborliness, education and outreach as we’ve introduced new programs, built up our digital and communications infrastructure, and made improvements to our facilities.
Of course if we are going to do all the things we believe God is calling us to do, we have to have the funding in place. One of the mechanisms for funding some of the projects will come about through our next capital campaign that is currently being prepared and will launch this summer.
Our congregation has the opportunity to be an even more vital center of community life in our neighborhood. A place where people come for help and support, where they experience spiritual formation and religious growth, where they develop friendships and find opportunities for service, where they experience beautiful music, art, and theatre, where they practice environmental sustainability and social justice in community, and where everyone is welcome no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey, breaking down barriers and building bridges. We want to open even more doors to possibilities.
[INTERLUDE: Atlantic article, Hannah Arendt, how can we think and act boldly?
We had a good example of it earlier this week in Katherine Johnson who died aged 101. Not that many years ago, none of us knew who she was. But once her story was told, she became a beloved American icon, a figure we can all admire.
Born in 1918 in a small town in West Virginia, she was educated in segregated schools and even had to move away from her hometown because there was no high school for African Americans for her to attend. But she was a math prodigy from the youngest age, and her teachers steered her to a career in math. In the 21st century, after civil rights and the women’s movement, math and technology remain fields difficult for a poor woman of color, and yet a century ago, with persistence Katherine Johnson received her education and launched her career as a computer for our nation’s space program.
When our nation dared to send human beings into outer space and fifty years ago went to the moon and back, we did so based on Katherine Johnson’s math. And if we do such daring things again, according to NASA historian Bill Barry, “If we go back to the moon, or to Mars, we’ll be using her math.”
Katherine Johnson is a reminder to us of how bold vision, persistence and determination can succeed in world-changing ways. She always knew she could be more and that we as a people could be more, and she was right.
Lent is a time of reflection and examination, as we prepare ourselves for the new birth of Easter. This year, instead of giving something up, I want to you listen to God. God who wants us to be happy, to experience joy, to receive all the blessings of this life. God who invites us to vision and dream and be daring in imagining the possibilities.
This year, what does it mean for you, for us To be more? What more is God calling us to?