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Ezekiel 1.15-21

Titus 2.11-15

The Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything

(Overlooked and Underpreached – V)

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

I have two numbers in mind this morning, and the first is the answer to life, the universe and everything.  Has anyone read Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?  The plot varies, depending on which edition your read, but the gist of it is that the Earth is actually a giant supercomputer, constructed by another supercomputer named Deep Thought, designed to find the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.  Following eons of calculations, the answer is finally discovered shortly before the earth is destroyed by the Vogons:  the answer is 42.  Unfortunately, the earth was destroyed before anyone could find what the actual question was.  I couldn’t help but think of The Hitchhiker’s Guide  last month when I passed the 42 year mark as an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ; I was ordained on July 13, 1980.  And ever since I moved to the Tri-Town region, I have been struck by the fact that my friend and colleague Tim Haut has been minister of the Deep River Congregational Church for 42 years – in other words, he’s been at Deep River for as along as I’ve been ordained.  Now that is longevity in a local church pastor.  So yes, the number 42 has been on my mind lately.

The other number I’ve been thinking about is equally important to me, and that is a number I – all of us – mark tomorrow, as August 15 will make 5 years that I have been minister to the United Church of Chester.  It’s kind of difficult to believe, because the time has gone by so quickly.  And I’m also mindful of the fact that Covid has taken nearly a two-year bite out of those five years, at least with respect to our person-to person interactions.  Then again, with all the scruffling and scrambling and reshuffling that Covid required of us, in another sense it seems like I’ve been here two extra years.  But still, it’s an anniversary worth noting, whether it is 3 or 5 or 7, and one for which I am very grateful.

So the question that vexed me before I left for vacation last week was, which of the overlooked and underpreached books of the Bible speak to the 42-year ordained minister on the occasion of the fifth year in his pulpit?

If you’ve ever stood in front of a rack of greeting cards, reading each one looking for the perfect thought for a special occasion, then you’ll get an idea of how I felt reding through the remaining Minor Prophets, the ones I have not used from the pulpit yet, to find the perfect text for this special occasion.  My remaining choices for this morning were four:  Obadiah, Nahum, Zephaniah and Haggai.  So I considered.  Obadiah?  God will pillage and slaughter the Edomites for their cruelty.  Well, maybe they deserved it, but Nope, not for this morning.  Nahum:  the consuming wrath of God results in imminent and inevitable ruin.  Ah, no thanks, we’ll take a pass on that one too.  Zephaniah:  the coming judgement against Judah, against Israel’s enemies, against Jerusalem itself.  That’s another Nope.  Which leaves Haggai:  the woes of the long-neglected temple.  Hmmm, that doesn’t seem quite right either.  Well, if the minor prophets don’t do it for us, where to turn for inspiration?

At the United Church of Chester, there is always one dependable source for inspiration, encouragement and insight, even on the days the minister is off his game, and that is our music.  Two weeks ago, when Rick, Pat, Cheryl and Paul were practicing this morning’s anthem, Rick asked if I was going to preach about Ezekiel’s wheel today, and when I replied that I’ve already preached from Ezekiel three times since coming to Chester, he reminded me, “Well, you may have talked about the dry bones, but I don’t remember hearing you say anything about the wheel.”  Of course Rick was correct, and with good reason.  What can you say about the strange and confusing image Michele described for us this morning?  Wheels within wheels, moving in any of four directions, or maybe all four directions at once.  Sometimes they even seemed to floating above the earth, as though those wheels could fly as well as spin.

One of the books I read on vacation last week is Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land.  Some of you may be familiar with his earlier book, All the Light We Cannot See.  One of the features of Cloud Cuckoo Land is a futuristic device called a “Perambulator,” a tire-shaped wheel that you stand on, and after donning a special pair of goggles, it takes you any wherever in the world you want to go, rather like a Google Earth that actually brings you to your destination; you can explore the four corners of the earth as though Ezekiel were your chauffeur.  Dr Elizabeth Pruitt, an archeologist at University of Maryland, suggests the wheel image our quartet sang about this morning, in African American culture “represents the universe, and the paths we travel through this world and in the afterlife… [and] the enduring connections between this world and the next, the power from above and the power from below.”

I think both wheel images, Ezekiel’s and Doerr’s, are apt metaphors for pastoral ministry.  There are times that ministry will carry you to unexpected places, there are times when it seems we are straddling worlds above and below, trying to understand the places and ways that heaven and earth intersect and connect, and sometimes going in four different directions at once.  “I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them.  As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction:  their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl; and the four had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel.  When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions without veering.”  It’s a vivid reminder that ministry can take you in any direction at any time, as often than not in more than one direction at once.  Last weekend provided a good example of this.  On Friday afternoon I stood at the grave of an old friend as a large chunk of the community came to pay their final respects.  Two days later I stood on the spacious front porch of a house high atop Plymouth’s Manomet Bluffs overlooking the ocean, and baptized my youngest niece’s four month old son.  And two days after that I counseled with a couple over lunch while helping them plan their October wedding.  Wheels within wheels within wheels.  The wheel of life continues to turn, baptism, marriage, death and eternity, and still life goes on.

Titus was a relatively young pastor in the early church.  He traveled to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Paul, led the Christian community in Corinth for a number of years, and then settled at the church in Crete.  In a legend that may or may not be true, his body was moved many years after his death to a crypt in the majestic St Mark’s church in Venice.  He was a trusted associate of Paul, and Paul’s letter to Titus is filled with both encouragement and counsel, and Paul specifically laid out for him expectations and responsibilities of elders, bishops and deacons in the church.  The letter, along with I and II Timothy, is one of the three “pastoral epistles,” as they are written to local church pastors.  Although, unlike your own local church pastor, they were still relatively young, and so welcomed Paul’s counsel.  But the letter does show just how far Christianity had spread during Paul’s lifetime, from Jerusalem to Rome to Greece and on to Asia Minor, where Turkey sits today.  Those wheels sure were busy turning in the 50s and 60s of the church’s first century.  

Just as they are today.  The post-pandemic church is still taking shape, but we’re beginning to recognize some of its contours.  There are a number of folks who haven’t returned in person yet, although many of them are still worshiping with us from home.  And where many of our churches once looked a lot like one another, we’ve been seeing differences emerge.  Some are going all in, trying to look just like they did in 2019; others are still dipping their toes back in the water, wondering if it’s safe to swim.  Some are exploring creative partnerships with other congregations, others are partnering with the local community to reshape what mission and ministry mean.  Still others are foundering because they lost their sense of direction while we were all in isolation.  And, just like the rest of the world, more than a few are looking for new leadership as many of my colleagues either changed positions or left ministry altogether.

So Paul’s checking in with Titus in Crete, as he did with Timothy in Ephesus, is important.  At the end of the day, it really isn’t about keeping your deacons and elders in line, it is to remind both pastors and their congregations that we are in this together, that what happens on the isolated island of Crete in the middle of the Mediterranean has an impact on what happens in Ephesus, far to the north and across the Bosporus.  That what happens in Bridgewater, Connecticut and Plymouth, Massachusetts and this humble Chester pulpit is all wheels within wheels within wheels.  It’s good to know there are others who share, not just our burdens and challenges, but who share our joys and our successes as well.  It goes for ministers and it goes for congregations.  It is why I applaud Tim’s ministry in Deep River, why I check in to see how Marci is doing over on King’s Highway, why I’m glad you got to worship with a seminary student last week who cut his teeth in Essex and is bringing his gifts to Niantic, it is why some of you worshiped and studied with Zahir Mannan at the Muslim temple in South Meriden or have broken bread with him here in our Fellowship Hall, it is why we support a small but mighty college for women in Madurai, India.  God never fails to grace us with the gifts of neighbors and congregations as we look for ways to build the blessed community in the fellowship and mercy of God, to bring us not just leaders, but brothers and sisters of a wide variety of faiths.  It is why I celebrate our shared ministry at our United Church, and look forward to many more milestones along the way.  I may not yet have the answer to life, the universe and everything, but at 42, and at 5, I am blessed.

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