Today is Rally Day in our congregation, as it is in many others. Family vacations and holidays are mostly over. The kids are back in school; high school students are back in class; college students have begun a new semester. And in the church, we’re gearing up for a new season of ministry. Before we get started, it’s good to remember why we’re here.
According to the “Why” statement you wrote when you began your search for a new pastor, we’re here as a congregation “to serve God by inspiring faith and passion through connections, so that we can nurture and fulfill our community and the world.” The key to that “Why,” I believe, for St. Timothy or for any congregation, is in the first three words: we are here “to serve God.” What follows is a description of how you plan to do that. How you plan to do that may change over time; the first three words – “to serve God” – will not.
“To serve God” might be a good description of why any of us are here, although each of us might say it differently. You might be here to love God, to praise God, or to give thanks to God. Maybe you’re here to affirm a set of values rooted in the source of life greater than yourself, and to recommit yourself to those values, or you’re here to renew your energy for the life you have to live every other day of the week. Perhaps, as was true for St. Augustine, you have found your heart to be restless until it finds its rest in God, and you’re here to rest in God for at least this hour of this Sunday.
Whatever the reason you might give for being here, and however you might personalize our congregation’s “Why” for being here, I believe all of us are here because God has drawn us here, and because in responding to God’s call by choosing to be here, we’ve chosen to serve God’s purpose in us, God’s intent for us. And that choice is the most important factor in creating the quality of life we experience every day. The quality of our daily life is affected most by the choices we make every day, in every moment. And in the end, the choices we make make us. They increase our blessings in life, or they increase our burdens.
Moses said it this way as Israel was nearing the end of the Exodus journey and preparing to enter the promised land: “I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, then you shall live and become numerous, and God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (Deut. 30:15-18, abbreviated). Choose which God you will serve.
Generations later Jesus would say to his disciples, “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). You cannot serve the God of your ancestors, the God of life, and the gods of the world around you. Choose to live a life in harmony with God, and increase your enjoyment of the blessings God gives; choose to be loyal to the values of the world around you, and you’ll miss the best life has to offer. The quality of your daily life is affected most by the choices you make every day.
There’s an old hymn, not sung much today, that starts out, “Once to every man and nation / Comes the moment to decide, / In the strife of truth with falsehood, / For the good or evil side.” James Russell Lowell wrote those lyrics in protest of the Mexican-American War. Sometimes it’s in such big, history-shaping moments that we’re called to choose which God we will serve. Sometimes the choice comes in more personal moments, as when we choose to be baptized or to have our children baptized, or when we confirm our faith, or join a congregation.
But most of the time, the critical choices come in ordinary, everyday moments: a job change, a decision about where to invest retirement funds, or whether to pad a deduction on your tax return. Or whether your offering for ministry, through the church or through some other service agency, is a convenient sum easily made and seldom missed or a generous offering that requires a change in lifestyle. The critical choices that most often shape our lives and open us to heaven’s blessings come in the form of small, daily choices we hardly notice but that deserve our best attention because they reveal what God or gods we serve.
And sometimes, the choices about which God we will serve, the choices that are most influential in shaping our lives, sneak up on us quietly, like Carl Sandburg described as fog coming in “on little cat feet,” like a vague discontent we hardly notice until it’s upon us. It was such a discontent or restlessness that led me to leave a career in scholarly publishing to enter seminary and answer a vocation to parish ministry. It was a discontent that nagged me for months, until in one sudden moment of clarity I realized I had already made the decision that would lead me in a whole new direction.
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” St. Augustine wrote, “and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” Sometimes the choices about which God we will serve in life are presented like writing on the wall, in letters so big no one could miss them. More often, in my experience, such defining choices come in whispers, “on little cat feet,” in a vague feeling of discontent or restlessness, in some sense of deep, unsatisfied hunger for something more.
When I give prayerful attention to my deep hungers, when I attend to the vague discontent or restlessness that sometimes rises within me, instead of trying to suppress the feeling with more activity or other distractions, then I’m more likely to hear what Elijah heard as a “still, small voice” or “sound of sheer silence” that is the voice of the one God who hungers for devoted, committed relationship with us.
So on this Rally Day, as we return from the places and activities where we’ve been scattered, let’s first of all remember and acknowledge – and celebrate – the God who calls us home, who gathers us as a hen gathers her brood under her wings (Luke 13:34). And let us choose again, on this day, whom we will serve.