First Notes – October 2016

Covenant.  It is a word that is defined as an agreement—between two or more parties—and it’s a fairly big word in our faith tradition.  God first established a covenant with Abraham and Sarah’s descendants:  I will be your God and you will be my people.  Jesus spoke of a new covenant of reconciliation with God that was sealed by his death and resurrection.  Not only has God made covenant with us, but as members of the household of faith at Salem, we also make covenant with one another.  Participation in a household of faith is a voluntary matter; no one can force us to belong to a certain community of faith or any community of faith.  What we are and what we can become as a congregation comes from what we agree to do together.  (This sort of thing, by the way, is what we expect of the young people of our Church School and Confirmation classes.  There are expectations of how to act in class and how we treat classmates and teachers with respect.)

And I think that it’s a good thing for people to remember and renew the important covenants in their lives.  On a few occasions in my ministry, I have presided over the renewal of marriage vows on significant milestone wedding anniversaries.  I believe that these renewal of vows serve as both a reminder and a recommitment to the promises that were made years ago.  Perhaps Christians should strongly consider doing that kind of thing with the vows that were made on our behalf at baptism and claimed as our own at confirmation.  It might not be the worst idea for Christians to frequently (on an annual basis) renew their promises made to God and made to fellow members of the church.  Will we profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?  Will we promise to be Christ’s disciples, to follow his way, to resist oppression and evil, and to witness to work and word of Christ as we are best able?  Will we promise to grow in the Christian faith and to be a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ?

Every renewal and recommitment to those promises is a re-strengthening of covenant.  It is a reminder of who we are (and perhaps most importantly) of whose we are.  Covenant reminds us that we are not alone in this spiritual journey.  We are dependent upon God and we are dependent upon one another.  It is a reminder that we are stronger as part of a community than we are by ourselves.

It is my hope that as we begin a process of congregational renewal that we will have the opportunity, as a faith community, to renew our covenants and our commitments to God and to one another.  More details will follow on that in the weeks ahead.

As speaking of things that we covenant to participant in, I want to make this brief signpost about the “Neighbors in Need” (NIN) all-church offering that we will be receiving on Sunday, October 2nd.  NIN is a special mission offering of the UCC that supports ministries of justice and compassion throughout the United States.  More details will follow within the body of this issue of Chapel Chimes.

Your servant in Christ,

Rev. James Hoppert

First Notes – September 2016

When it comes to the life and ministry of the church, the fall of the year is the time when the programming of the church comes back to life again. Church school, Confirmation, and choirs come back into session.  Sunday morning and Wednesday evenings are filled with a new energy.  Given what goes on in the church during the fall, it is a good and fitting thing to talk about growth and new life.

Not only is it a good thing to talk about growth, but it is a necessary thing. There has been a lot of talk over the past few years about the state of decline in numbers and in activity throughout the Christian Church in North America. It is a condition that has affected almost all of our churches.  We can respond to that situation by either denying that reality and by doubling down on the same old approaches to things, hoping that something will change (someone once said that this sort of thing is the definition of “insanity”) or we can open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, open ourselves to the future, and explore new possibilities. Within the churches of the United Church of Christ’s Wisconsin Conference we’ve wrestled with—and discussed at great length—the choice that is put before us concerning the future.  The “Shift: From Maintenance to Mission” initiative has been a part of that discussion and it is a discussion that Salem’s leadership has begun having.

During a recent meeting of the Consistory’s Church and Ministry Committee we spent a good portion of our time together discussing the direction of the future. If one could sum up the most important thing to come out of that discussion it is that individuals, as well as the church community, must make the choice to grow.  Growth is not something that can always be measured in raw numbers (like dollars or people in the pews), but can be seen in the quality and depth of our faith.  Is God more a part of the center of our lives, or does God occupy the fringes?

What I am encouraging every member of Salem to do is to consider making a commitment to grow in his or her faith. I am not saying that it has to be big huge changes in our faith; sometimes we begin with small steps.  That could be a commitment to pray more often, or study more scripture. It could be a decision to become more involved in one of the church’s ministries.  It could be the choice to be a positive, caring witness of love in action in our workplaces or among our circle of friends.  Whatever it may be, I am asking each of us to make the decision to grow and stretch ourselves a bit.

Now, I know that some of you will say, “Why should I have to grow?  I’m too old for that sort of thing” or “I’m really comfortable with where I am now.  Why should anything have to change?”   My response is this: there are two states in living organisms.  We are either growing and changing, or we are dying.  Even for those of us who have reached physical maturity, our cells in our bodies continue to grow and become replaced. Our bodies are constantly changing.  The moment that stops, we start dying.  It really is that simple.

Growth needs to happen in our lives. There is always a push forward to birth and life.

For example, children cannot continue to gestate in the womb indefinitely.  Eventually birth must occur, or else death ensues.  The same thing holds from a spiritual standpoint, as well.

Can we make the commitment as individuals and as a congregation to grow, even in small steps?  That is the question that I want each of us to prayerfully consider in these weeks ahead.

Your servant in Christ,

Rev. Jim Hoppert

First Notes – July & August 2016

My reflections this month may not seem profoundly theological—unless you include gratitude as something profoundly theological (and I do).  And at this time I wish to express my gratitude to God for those folks who have given their time and talent during this season of activity around the church.

As is the case for many of our homes, summertime is also a time of increased maintenance for church’s buildings and grounds, as well.  Not only are there “inside” things that need to be done, but there are a whole host of “outside” things that need to be tended to.  I want to lift up our Consistory’s Property Committee—Kathy Zimmermann, Jeff Bender and Kymn Schicker—for their oversight on these matters.  And aiding them in those maintenance tasks is a faithful core of individuals who have lent their energies and skills to various tasks around the church.

I want to take a moment, to publicly acknowledge this group of folks.  Now, I did my homework and tried to include everyone to whom credit is due—but, unfortunately, I may inadvertently miss someone.  I apologize for that, ahead of time.  No omissions are intended.

So here’s a list of the folks who have helped out with various tasks.  Helping with grass cutting have been Gene Boll, Tom Melger, Ken Schaap, and Richard Groene.  Evan Sukowaty, Richard Groene, and Tom & Carol Fischer Melger have worked on spreading mulch.  Evie Ketsch and Janice Bunyea have tended the weeding.  The reconfiguration of the electrical service box at the far end of the Christian Education wing has been undertaken by Ed Ardell, with the help of Gene Boll and Darla Ardell.  Scott Bunyea has completed the wiring for the new WiFi stations around the church.

Again, I say, I may have inadvertently omitted a name or a set of tasks—and I apologize ahead of time if that was the case—but I wanted to acknowledge the jobs that were  done during this time of increased need and the people who helped do them.  Whether it’s these tasks, or other tasks that continue to happen all year round, we have a dedicated group of people at Salem who care about the church.  I give thanks to God for all that you do.

Your servant in Christ,

Rev. Jim Hoppert

First Notes – June 2016

As I write this month’s front page, I am looking at the first week of the spring season where long sleeves and sweaters will not be the outfit for the day.  It is a grand and glorious milestone!

For those of us who have an interest in cultivating green and growing stuff, this marks a time of planting, watering, tending and weeding.  This work of cultivating new life will be ongoing over the summer months—and into the fall—until that time comes when the killing frosts arrive and growth is stopped.  We are in a season where the world around us is full of activity.

And while nature is in a season full of life and growth, we, in the church are in that phase of the church year called “Ordinary Time.”  On the surface of it, that doesn’t sound like a good phase to be going through.  “Ordinary Time” sounds kind of dull and unexciting.  Who wants a steady diet of “ordinary” in their lives?

Perhaps “Ordinary Time” isn’t as bad as it sounds.  “Ordinary” does not describe the character and quality of time but instead describes the fact that the Sundays in this group are not a part of a special season (like Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter) and are numbered as they are.  The longest stretch of “Ordinary Time” happens between Trinity Sunday and the Reign of Christ Sunday and it accounts for a lot of Sundays in the church year.

Now, even though these Sundays aren’t a special season like Advent, Lent, or Easter, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have purpose behind them.  Often times we emphasize the growth of the church—as the Body of Christ—or the growth of the individual Christian.  Not surprisingly, the color of these Sundays is green, which symbolizes growth.

It seems that the church has just entered its own growing season, just like the natural world around us.  Are we ready for growth in the life of the church and in our own personal spiritual lives?  The things necessary for spiritual growth are not really a mystery:  it requires prayer, the study of scripture, the willingness to be a servant of Christ to others, and a desire to remain connected to the church, the Body of Christ.  Just as there are no shortcuts to cultivating plant life, there are no shortcuts to cultivating spiritual life, either.

The green time is upon us—in nature and in the church.  Are we ready to get our hands dirty?

Your servant in Christ,

Rev. Jim Hoppert

First Notes – May 2016

On May 15th the Church of Jesus Christ will celebrate its birthday on Pentecost Sunday.  Depending on how one reckons the starting point, we will either be celebrating our 1983rd or 1986th birthday.   That’s a lot of candles on the birthday cake!

The reason I mention this upcoming milestone is that the thought of it is something that makes me ponder the miraculous origin of the church.   If someone were to come up and ask me why it is that I believe the things that I believe about God, Jesus, and the church, I would have to pin a lot of that on what happened in that span of 50 days that developed the church as we know it.  Much of what I personally believe about God comes from what I have come to learn about God through Jesus.  And why is it that I place so much stock in Jesus and what we believe about him?   Those beliefs, it turns out, are based on the miracle of the church, itself.

What makes the existence of the church such a linchpin in my belief system?  Simply put, like N.T. Wright, I can’t explain the existence of the church without the resurrection of Jesus and I can’t explain the mission of the church without the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  Without a Risen Christ, there is no church. Under any other circumstance, the crucifixion of Jesus should have marked the failure of the Jesus movement: by rights, his followers should have either have scattered and gone off to other movements, or a successor would have tried to take over. None of that happened with the church. They didn’t scatter and there was no new “Jesus” type to take over the movement.  They held on to the belief, until their dying breaths, that Jesus had appeared to them, and they believed that he was still present to them through the power of God’s Spirit.

Yet, as important as the resurrection was, it was not enough to give us the church that we know: that would require the Holy Spirit to guide and move this largely illiterate group of fisher folk into a dynamic world movement.  Without the Spirit, the church may never have left the confines of Jerusalem.  I can’t explain the church, the rise of the Apostle Paul, or any of the other things without the Holy Spirit, either.

So, happy birthday, Church!  With all of the flaws and imperfections that we may have been party to over almost two millennia, we are still the Body of Christ to a broken world.  It’s very existence is a testimony to the transforming power of God.  What we shall become and form we shall take in the future remains a mystery, but there will always be the Church.  We have God’s promise on that.

Your servant in Christ,

Rev. Jim Hoppert

First Notes – April 2016

“But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”  Acts 2:24

As I think about these first weeks after Easter Sunday, I am struck by the image of a Jesus who is continuously on the move, and moving ahead.  When you get right down to it, Easter is all about the Jesus who cannot be stopped.

Death thought that it could stop Jesus, but it was powerless to do so.  The tomb could not hold him back.  Those who were responsible for Jesus’ death, were unable to stop him.  Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, and the full force of Roman might could not put an end to his work.  Locked doors and fearful hearts were not enough to prevent his entrance.

Jesus is on the move during the days of Easter.  He is moving past the limits of being held to just one time and place.  He is moving towards glorification.  He is moving towards the timeless and the eternal.

And as Jesus moves ahead, he invites us to come with him.  He invites us to put aside our paralyzing fear and anxiety and journey with him.  He invites us to become servants in the service of others.  He asks us to embrace the full cost and joy of discipleship.  He asks us to trust in the promises of life eternal resurrection and the hope of resurrection.

Jesus moves on ahead, but he invites us to follow in his footsteps.  Easter is not a stationary time in our lives of faith, but it is a time to move ahead, and Jesus is with us.

May these Great 50 Days of Easter be a time of spiritual growth for you and those you love.

Your servant in Christ,

Rev. Jim Hoppert

First Notes – March 2016

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face towards Jerusalem.” Luke 9:51

The gospel that we follow this year throughout most of the Lenten season is Luke’s. Luke reminds us that Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem and that nothing would stop him on destination. Jesus knew that preaching the good news of God’s coming Reign would put him on a collision course with the powers that be in Jerusalem. The values and priorities of God’s Reign stand in sharp contrast to the powers that be, and those in power will arrest him, subject him to trial, and put him to death.

Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday forces the people of Jerusalem—and us, by extension—to either recognize the moment of our redemption or not. Unfortunately, we see parts of ourselves in many of the main characters of Holy Week. We see in ourselves the failure of Jerusalem to appreciate the moment of salvation. We see in ourselves the fear and suspicion of the temple authorities, the cowardice of a Simon Peter, and the treachery of a Judas Iscariot. We confront all of this about ourselves before we can truly appreciate the renewal and redemption of Easter Sunday.

Holy Week is a time of high drama and we experience the impact of that drama best by participating in at least one other service between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. I strongly encourage you to be a part of those weekday services during Holy Week, so that your experience of Holy Week may be full and complete. (A full listing of Holy Week services and events is given in greater detail in the body of this newsletter.)

May these remaining weeks of Lent provide you and those you love with opportunities for spiritual growth.

Your servant in Christ,

Rev. Jim Hoppert

First Notes – February 2016

With an early date of Easter in 2016 (March 27th) comes an early start to Lent. Ash Wednesday is February 10th, and we will be observing that day with a 7:00 p.m. service of worship that will include Holy Communion and the Imposition of Ashes. For the remaining Wednesdays of Lent through Palm Sunday, we will be holding Lenten midweek services at 7:00 p.m. The theme of this year’s Lenten midweek services will be “Six Questions,” with each week focusing on one of those questions. The questions will be asked in the following order:

Week One—February 10th: Who is Jesus?

Matthew 16:13-16
Every person needs to grapple with Jesus’ question to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Christians believe he is “the Christ, the son of the Living God.”

Week Two—February 17th: What Matters Most?

Mark 12:28-34
Relationships—with God and others—matter most.

Week Three—February 24th: Am I Accepted?

John 8:1-11
Even with our flaws, Jesus loves and accepts us as beloved children of God.

Week Four—March 2nd: Where is God?

 John 1:1-5, 14
Although God is not limited to working through people, God primarily works through human instruments.

Week Five—March 9th: What Brings Fulfillment?

John 13:1-5, 13-17
True fulfillment comes from serving others.

Week Six—March 16th: What About Suffering?

Matthew 27:27-31
(Palm/Passion Sunday) Although God does not prevent suffering, the crucified God fully enters human suffering and works to redeem that suffering.

We hope that you will not only participate in attending the worship services on Wednesday evenings, but will consider attending the Soup and Sandwich meals (5:30 p.m.) and the study that follows the meals, prior to the time of worship. Folks sometimes look at Lent as a time to “give up” certain things, but Lent can also be a time to “take on” certain things, like additional prayer and study. May this Lenten season help you draw closer to the Jesus that we acknowledge as Lord. May this Lenten season be a time of blessing.

Your servant in Christ,

Rev. Jim Hoppert

First Notes – January 2016

Year in and year out, we start out the month of January with the last five days of the Christmas season and the celebration of Epiphany. Normally, I’d begin the January issue of the Chapel Chimes with some reflections on the start of a new year, but this year I thought that I’d take a different approach and share some thoughts that came to me during the performance of “The Living Nativity” back in the middle of December.

It’s funny how certain thoughts come to mind at certain times. This year marked the seventh production of “The Living Nativity.” I’ve been fortunate to have portrayed one of the Magi during that seven year stretch, and the nature of the story or the staging doesn’t change much—except that this year we actually had a King Herod physically present in the drama. There is that scene where, after the Magi have offered their gifts to the Christ Child, they return home—not through Bethlehem and a meeting with Herod—but by a different way.

I’ve been familiar with the telling of that story in Matthew’s gospel since I was a small child and it’s been part of those seven years of staging “The Living Nativity.” Yet, for whatever reason, when we had a King Herod on stage, the words struck me in a slightly different way. Yes, we would not physically return over the same path by which we had arrived, but there seemed to be more to it than that. Perhaps the Wise Men returned back a different way emotionally and spiritually, as well, after having made that pilgrimage to see the child. It would be hard to imagine that the journey hadn’t changed them in some way, and that they would never look at things in quite the same way as before.

In that moment during the production, the thought came to me: Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if you and I returned on our way back from our celebrations of Christmas in a different way, too? Wouldn’t it be great if our celebrations of Christmas opened up our lives to greater understanding, greater kindness, and greater love? Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t just go through the motions this year?

It is my hope that this year’s celebration of the twelve days of the Christmas season may transform your hearts and minds through the light of Christ. It is my hope that you will find greater joy, gratitude, and love in this season. It is my hope that you, too, will go home a different way.

May you find blessings in these last days of Christmas, Epiphany and the start of 2016.

Your servant in Christ,

Rev. Jim Hoppert

First Notes – December 2015

As I sit down to write this pastoral note on the Thursday before Thanksgiving, I will admit to you that I’m sure still carrying a heavy heart over the Paris attacks of November 13th. Like many of you, I could only take so much before I had to turn off the TV and browse other stories online. For the life of me, I can’t understand how ideology or theology can drive people to commit such heinous acts. I am heartsick over this series of events.

Yet, while the world continues to ponder and grieve over this tragedy, the church moves on towards the liturgical season of Advent ready or not. In its own way, that development can be both a source of sadness and a source of hope. The approach of Advent can bring us to sadness when we realize just how far short of God’s justice, mercy, and righteousness this world of ours is. We live in a world punctuated by episodes of violence, terror, and great cruelty. We live in a world of displaced people. We live in a world where human life and human dignity is treated so callously. It is easy to despair when we see the gap between where this world is and where God calls us to be.

However, the approach of Advent is also a source of hope, even in difficult times. Advent is a reminder that God is not finished with this world or finished with any of us, despite our nasty tendencies to botch things up. The world was no less a place of cruelty and violence when Jesus came to proclaim the good news of God’s reign. In spite of the odds against success, the seeds of God’s Reign were sown in the soil of human hearts. Some failed to hear the message, while others heard it gladly. And where it was heard gladly it bore fruit.

As the church, we are the resistance movement against the forces of darkness. We carry light when the world is surrounded by shadows. We are called to bear witness to the transforming love of God. We may not prevail in every struggle, but we remain part of the fight. Making the rounds in the social media these days is a creative interpretation of commentary that the ancient rabbi, Tarfon (yes, that’s two rabbinic quotes in back-to-back months, I realize) made about the passage of Micah 6:8. The interpretation runs something like this: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Advent reminds us that we’re still in the game and that God is with us.

Your servant in Christ,

Rev. Jim Hoppert