Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sermon: To Inspire and To Respond

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
July 6, 2014

To Inspire and To Respond

Song of Solomon 2:8-13, Springtime Rhapsody
8 The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills. 
9 My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice. 
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away; 
11 for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 12 The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land. 
13 The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.

One: This is the Word of God, for us, the people of God.
All: Thanks be to God.

            Today, as I stand before you, I do so with shyness and anticipation. The feeling I have is very similar to the butterflies and hope that one feels before a first date. And, truly, there is much in our meeting today that feels as though we are the partners in an arranged marriage. That is why this text speaks so well to us today, as it is a text that is rarely heard outside of the wedding liturgy. It’s sensual and evocative. It is the voice of a woman who is anticipating her beloved returning to her, and her voice reveals both her love and hope for the future. This text captures, in many ways, my own feelings about being here. The United Methodist appointment system is a strange and beautiful thing, and it has given me and my family the great gift of coming here to serve.
            I feel it is appropriate to tell you how I got here, a transplant from Atlanta who has shown up in your pulpit in Laguna Beach, so you can know my story since I have come to know yours. My husband, Matt, has been coming here for nearly 25 years to visit his brother, John. This has been a place of refuge, a place of beauty, a place of learning and always a place of great joy. When Matt and I met during our first year of seminary, among the first things he invited me to do was visit here with him. So, in June of 2001, I booked a ticket to John Wayne International Airport and joined him for a two week vacation. We spent our time those two weeks exploring all of southern California. John and Mark, my now brothers-in-law, were gracious and generous, taking us to the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, the zoo in San Diego, for sushi in LA. However, I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on the Laguna Beach UMC sign. We were heading to the grocery store as it caught my eye. I joked with Matt, “Well, that wouldn’t be a bad place to serve!”
            Almost exactly 13 years later, here I am. I almost cannot believe it. We have visited many times in the last decade. We were here in 2004 when I was pregnant with Jackson and my nephews were coming to make their permanent home with John and Mark. Sloan still totes around binoculars that we bought for Cooper in Dana Point in 2008. I have worshipped at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on numerous occasions and we have always kept Laguna Beach on our short list of places we’d love to live.
            You should also know that I have been serving as an associate minister at a marvelous church in midtown Atlanta. Saint Mark is located on Peachtree Street, just 3 blocks north of the Fox Theater where “Gone With the Wind” premiered. It has had a long, rich tradition as the “bellwether” church in north Georgia. Saint Mark embodies the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” slogan completely, and was revived in the early 1990s when they made the conscious decision to actively minister to the folks in the neighborhood, namely the homeless population and the gay men moving into Midtown. That year, during the Pride Parade which marched right in front of the church, our members – little old ladies and a few young families – handed out slips of paper that said, simply, “You are welcome here.” Across the street sat Atlanta First Baptist, who hired armed guards on horseback to protect the protestors holding up hateful signs. One of our members is famous for saying, "What were they afraid we were going to do? Break in and redecorate?!" The following Sunday, 30 new people showed up. By the end of the year, their membership had tripled. By the end of the decade, they had 2000 people on their roster, mostly from the GLBT community, who would drive for miles on end to worship in a place where they knew they were welcomed, loved and cherished, just as God had first loved them.
            I tell you this because serving at Saint Mark shaped me in a particular way. Serving in a community where even the most basic of human rights couldn’t be taken for granted caused me to be a fighter for social justice, a preacher of liberation and a pastor of the brokenhearted. God has called me, now and always, to be a voice for the voiceless, and I understand that serving a church that strives to be inclusive in all ways is the core of my calling.
            Eight months ago, my husband received some terrible news. While I was serving at Saint Mark, he had been working as an instructor of preaching at a seminary just outside of Atlanta. We learned in December that his contract wasn’t going to be renewed, and it was a gut-punch of devastation that we hadn’t expected. Our home was there, our children’s schools were there, our projected future was there, and the illusion of stability was erased in one horrible afternoon. So, we talked and prayed. Matt had moved to Atlanta for me, so it was up to him to make the next move. He told me that he’s always wanted to live near his brother. So, I sent an e-mail.
            What happened next underscores my belief in God’s providence. In our fear and uncertainty, we made a radical choic to do something completely new. I contacted John Farley, the district superintendent, and told him we were considering a move to the Laguna Beach area. I told him I was an ordained elder, and sent him a copy of my bio from the Saint Mark website, carefully adding the words, “ministry for and with the LGBTQ community” as one of my specialized areas of ministry. In the most marvelous turn of events, he wrote me back almost immediately. He told me when we spoke that he had a church “in the Laguna Beach area” that may need a pastor. It was an idea. It was a hope. In a remarkable turn of events, we were the mutual answers to one another’s prayers.
            On April 4, I got a call from John Farley letting me know that Bishop CarcaƱo had officially appointed me as the Senior Minister at Laguna Beach UMC.  Three weeks later, I flew here to meet with the SPRC, and we got a chance to know one another and to celebrate this surprising marriage that we had both been anticipating and longing for.
            On this, our first Sunday together, I want you to know one thing. You are my beloved. Sisters and brothers, I have been praying for you since the first day I learned of this possibility. Over the last few months, I have learned your story, heard of your successes and disappointments. I have listened intently to your dreams for what is next. I have researched this community, the work you are doing to support the homeless, to reach out to your neighbors, to build up the Body of Christ through service and compassion. My heart, as John Wesley said, has been strangely warmed, because I believe that your dreams are my dreams.
            Our text this morning, which is one that is rarely read because it is sensual and passionate and tended to make the Puritans uncomfortable, highlights the absolute joy that two people can share when being united after separation. The voice we hear in this text speaks with unabashed desire as she imagines her beloved saying to her, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth and the time of singing has come.” This emotional place is where I hope we find ourselves, as partners in a relationship blessed by God’s providence. This season, for you and for me, has brought challenges and trials, but now we can watch and see what the rains will produce. The flowers of our prayers and discernment through the winter are, literally, blooming right before our eyes.
            Now, if I were to imply that I leaping over mountains and bounding over hills is how we arrived here this week, I would be wildly misleading you. A cross-country move is hardly elegant or rapid. It was anything but gazelle-like. In fact, we can only see ourselves in this text to the extent that it is a foggy view of our hopes and dreams for our ministry together. We are imperfect creatures, you and me, and we will love imperfectly. But this shall not stop us from trying every day to be better together.
            If you consider that this text is often used in weddings, you can see the beauty of the romantic love that is so evident between the couple in the text. You know as well as I do that the initial passion that fuels a relationship often tempers over time. But this has not impeded the desire for us to proclaim vows to one another before God and these witnesses. Consider the outrageous promises we make during in the marriage vows: to love and to cherish for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Truly, all it took was being the one to hand-wash the dishes one time too many in our first year of marriage before I started reconsidering what I’d done. I love my husband to the ends of the earth and beyond, but I really, really hate washing dishes. And yet, I grew to live into these vows. We learned to adjust our expectations and meet one another in the middle. We supported each other in difficult times and have loved every single joyous moment that we’ve shared. It took time, it took patience. And, it took what every pastor has preached at every wedding under the sun: God’s love for each of us as individuals and as a married couple, as well as the support of our whole community. Ultimately, this text, as well as our ministry together, is not about us. It’s not about the couple, or gazelles, or stags or you or me. It’s not even about Laguna Beach United Methodist Church. This text, and our work together is now and will always be about God. It is about God’s love for us. It is about our response to God’s love. It is our job to embody that love through worship, sharing the sacraments, service, and by welcoming people of every status, gender, orientation, age, nation and ability.
            So, today, I hope that we can have our own exchange of vows as we begin our work together. These are the vows from the wedding liturgy, and even if it seems a little strange to say them in such a setting, I believe they set the tone for what it is we will do together. If you will repeat after me:
In the name of God, I take you to be my partner in ministry,
To join with you and to share all that is to come,
To give and to receive, to speak and to listen,
To inspire and to respond,
And in all our life together
To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,
Your people shall be my people,
            Your God, my God,
As long as our ministry shall last.

I do pray that our Honeymoon lasts a very, very long time. I pray that we can be gracious and forgiving and hopeful and productive. I pray that we enliven our faith and worship with joy. I know that the Holy Spirit is here with us, to guide us on our next steps, and I rejoice that it is Christ who has prepared for us a reception at the heavenly banquet, which we will celebrate here at this table.

            Arise, my love, my fair one and come away. For the winter is past and the rain is over and gone. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. May all of God’s people say, AMEN.


HortonsInLaguna said...
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HortonsInLaguna said...

Mandy, the sermon was beautiful, really giving us a true picture of your ministry and your future hopes for each and every person of this congregation! Much love, Pamela & Amanda