Sunday, March 8, 2020

Traffic



(sermon starts at 25:30)


“Traffic” is one of those words that rarely, if ever, elicits a warm-fuzzy response. It typically follows words and phrases such as, “stuck in,” “I hate,” “I’m late because of,” and “why doesn’t somebody do something about this darn.”

James Taylor hated it so much he produced a little ditty about it called “Traffic Jam.” It ends with this stanza:

Now when I die I don't want no coffin, I thought about it all too often.
Just strap me in behind the wheel and bury me with my automobile.
Damn this traffic jam, how I hate to be late, it hurts my motor to go so slow.
Damn this traffic jam, time I get home my supper'll be cold, damn this traffic jam. Damn.

Yet, there are times that the word is used as a positive. For instance, shopkeepers – both online and brick and mortar --  love high levels of traffic through their stores and most web designers hope for lots of traffic to their sites.

I’ve had a lot of traffic through my little home this week – I put it up for sale on Tuesday morning and as I wrote this on Friday at noon, it’s had 14 showings. That means that I’ve basically been evicted from my own home to ensure that it stays in pristine viewing condition at all times!

We had a lot of traffic through the old place last Sunday. By Herc’s count, 147 folks were in the pews for the celebration – and what a grand celebration it was! Everything was just great – service, lunch, presentations and I especially loved seeing lots of friends – old and new!

So yes, sometimes traffic is a good thing!

A commentator on the story of Abram and Sarai in Genesis said that these verses carry “substantial theological traffic!” It’s a busy intersection, this little pericope. We’re at a crucial crossroads between the primal and the specific. Up until now, the Bible has concerned itself with the most cosmic of questions facing our ancestors. Questions like, “how did we get here?” “Who made all of this?” “How come we’re so different?” “Why don’t we treat each other better?” The epic tales of Creation, Fall, Flood, and Tower seek to answer those queries and more!

And then we’re introduced to Abraham who lives, and this probably not a coincidence, in a town called “Crossroads!” Abraham faces a crossroads in his life and God faces a crossroads in God’s relationship with humanity.

Things haven’t gone well thus far, and God could have easily scrapped the whole thing and called it a day.

But God didn’t.

If nothing else, this high-traffic crossroads proves yet again that God chooses to remain intimately connection with humanity. The one sentence story of the Bible is simply this: God’s relentless quest to be in community with humanity – and it begins with one human in particular.

Here’s what we know about Abram at this point: Other than “he went” – not much. He has a couple of brothers, one of whom died and left Lot in his care, plus, Abram has a spouse named Sarai and together they have fertility challenges.

But here’s what we know about anyone that God chases out a normal life:

We know that God doesn’t call based upon credentials or pedigree.

We see, again and again in the Bible and in our own lives, that a faithful response to God’s leading results in a blessing of gifts and talents, of learned and acquired skillsets sufficient for the tasks to which we are called.

In short – God doesn’t call the equipped – God equips the called! Those, my friends, are words to live by!

Remember that the town from which Abram is called, Haran, means “Crossroads?” You have to love that! God calls Abram from the crossroads! God apparently thrives when we are at a point of decision, of not knowing which way to turn, of what’s next – it’s in those moments that God loves to be active. It’s when we’re faced with choices and indecision that God is waiting and God calls. Most of us ignore it and figure it’s a wrong number, we don’t have the time, the gifts and talents, the skills – and even if we had all that – we’re clearly not good enough – but remember – God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called and the One who equips always leads the called to a more complete expression of the persons they were created to be.

All of the traffic in here last week directs us to a crossroads as well. We’ve set a spiritual “mile marker” at 100 years and the road ahead is less certain than the one behind. The sign ahead simply asks, “Now what?” It’s great, truly that this congregation has survived and even, at times, thrived – but now what?

When I proposed the idea behind Vision 2020 it was with this moment in mind. It’s hard to look forward when we’re also looking back. As of last week – the retrospective is complete and now our complete posture is to the future. You may recall that both during the service and in our time downstairs, we invited folks to offer their sense of where God is calling First & Central from this particular crossroad. Among other things, including bringing about world peace, I heard many comments about youth, children, Sunday School, youth group, etc. That list also permeates the Vision 2020 report. Following those strong recommendations puts us clearly at a crossroads and as I said a minute ago, God apparently thrives when we are at a point of decision, of not knowing which way to turn, of what’s next – it’s in those moments that God loves to be active.

Welcome to Haran! Our next months and years will be exciting, likely off-kilter, and ever expanding our vision of the gospel in 2020 and beyond!

Venturing beyond and through the crossroads led Abram and Sarai, and will in turn lead us, to a promised blessing by God.

Now if there’s an over-used word that’s meant to be so sincere and polite – it’s “blessing!” From every sneeze to the Southern Slam of “well bless your heart,” to the ubiquitous “have a blessed day,” to all manner of births and deaths labeled as “blessings” – some of which apparently come in disguise – blessing, today, in so many cases, has become meaningless and a namby-pamby form of a happy church-talk.

“Blessing” in antiquity meant simply a sense of well-being or the presence of peace in the life of the recipient. In Pagan cultures “blessing” was synonymous with fertility – and we still see the birth of children or abundance of a crop as a blessing. Lastly, blessing came to connote gifts, talents, or abilities that God bestows. God blesses people with the drive and vitality to co-create with God through discovery, invention, and productivity. Blessing of curiosity and creativity bestows on humanity the power to create and acquire.

If you take all of that, put it in a blender, hit “pulse” a few times, what you end up with? Blessing equals flourishing.

There’s a word we just don’t use enough!

When something is flourishing – from a career to a garden – it’s visceral. You can feel it, smell it, wander in it, and know that it’s vibrant and vital, at its peak, healthy and growing and strong! It’s life at its prime.

That’s blessing: Life at its prime. That’s what God is sending Abram out to experience and that’s what God wants for each and every one of us and this congregation collectively. Life at its prime – and as a caveat – that doesn’t mean life that’s giddy, happy, and without pain, failure, or disappointment – it means living all of that to its fullest – good and bad. That’s what God is sending us out to experience and God does that simply because God loves us and apparently can’t give up on us. It also says that God has declared that we are good enough exactly as we are.

Amen!

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Differentiation




What’s clear in America is that not everyone loves every president. More often than not we elect our top governing official by the narrowest of margins and given our somewhat obtuse system of the Electoral College it’s possible for an elected president to lose the popular vote but still hold office. That happened as recently as 2016. Even in the most lopsided of elections, a significant minority of citizens cast their vote for the person who did not win. Yet, in spite of strong opinions as to the politics and ideology of a particular president, and one’s support or opposition thereof, I believe it nearly impossible to find an American who does not hold the office of President of the United States in high regard. We may, at varying times, have strong disagreement, even disgust, for the policies, decisions, and direction of the person in the office; but few, if any, deride the office itself.

Presidential Libraries then provide a glimpse, albeit glossed over and somewhat sanitized, of both the person and the office. While they were created to be a repository of the papers and historically significant documents of a presidency, they are better known as part museum and part living monument. A “Bucket List” item of mine is to visit all 13 and I’ve been to FDR’s, LBJ’s, and JFK’s.

As a self-confessed political junkie, most things about politics interest me; but it’s the presidency that fascinates. I’m intrigued by a combination of the pomp and circumstance, the hints of royalty and secrecy, along with the complexity and depth of demand put on one individual and the overwhelming responsibility of the office. The most accessible way for a commoner to venture into those realms is in hindsight through the doors of a library.

All presidents have flaws and faults – that’s undisputed – even one martyred. JFK was president during an incredibly tumultuous time in our country’s history and as the youngest person elected to the office, he ushered in a new generation of leadership. Yet behind the glamour and days of “Camelot,” he faced challenges and obstacles which have become defining moments of our national trajectory. From Vietnam to Civil Rights, to the Cold War and the Space Race – in his short tenure as our Commander in Chief, the full gamut of challenges.

Yet, I believe, that despite his youth, he displayed a depth of wisdom and insight beyond his years as is evidenced in his inaugural speech, for tucked behind the famous “ask not” homiletical pinnacle are these simple sentences:

All of this will not be finished in the first hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

But. That simple conjunction signaled a shift in direction, mood, and cadence. Kennedy recognized that much was expected of his young administration with its vitality and fresh faces. Home from a victorious war, ready to take the reins of leadership, much was expected and hoped for of what would become to some, “the greatest generation.” Yet like one betrothed, Kennedy knew it best to keep expectations low for fear that discontentment would set in before the honeymoon was over.

In a nod to moderation, but not retreat, he escalated momentum. His words built from a hundred days, to a thousand days, to over 1400 days, to even a lifetime – BUT, he intones, we’ll never get there if we don’t take the first step. The journey may be long, arduous, full of setbacks and disappointments, and we may not live to see our destination – but let us begin.

Regardless of political affiliation or party loyalty – it’s good rhetoric. Kennedy’s speech of 1280 words, less than most sermons preached from this pulpit, was the shortest in recent history – by design and intention. Kennedy was fearful of speaking too long, of being perceived as a “windbag” and as a theme, he wanted the country to know that the “spirit of the Revolution still is here, still is a part of this country.”

I wonder if that’s true today, 60 years later, that the spirit of the Revolution is a part of this county. It’s hard not to wonder what it was like then in that era of differentiation.

At what point did a critical mass of people decide that settlement in the New World was progressing just fine, BUT it was time to break away, to differentiate, and declare independence from British rule? At what moment did the colonists decide that leadership must not come from across the Atlantic, BUT from within the ranks of the settlers? At what juncture did the early Americans decide that there future might be secure and predictable with King George, BUT that they were willing to take the risk to venture on their own, to do what every teenager since the dawn of time must do: differentiate, to split off, determine their own identity while maintaining connection and relationship with their origins?  Simple concept and words that changed the course of American and world history.

Simple words came to Moses that changed the course of human history. Our text for today is basically the script for a speech God prepared for Moses.

In what is clearly among the most ignored books of the Bible in the Christian church, Leviticus is composed of almost exclusively those simple words of God, instructions for how the Hebrews were to differentiate themselves from the surrounding Canaanites. There is ongoing tension today about the need for persons new to this country to assimilate. Leviticus is the counter argument to that. The Hebrews then and today strove for difference and distinction. When you think of it, our Book of Order isn’t that much different than Leviticus: both provide instruction for differentiation.

The first 16 chapters of Leviticus and the last chapter of the book comprise the Priestly Code, with rules for ritual cleanliness and sin-offerings. Chapters 17–26 contain the Holiness Code. The book is largely concerned with "abominations", mostly dietary and sexual restrictions. The rules are generally addressed to the Israelites, except for several prohibitions applied equally to "the strangers that sojourn in Israel."

Speak to the congregation of Israel. Tell them, Be holy because I, God, your God, am holy.

"When you harvest your land, don't harvest right up to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings from the harvest. Don't strip your vineyard bare or go back and pick up the fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am God, your God.

"Don't steal.

"Don't lie.

"Don't deceive anyone.

"Don't swear falsely using my name, violating the name of your God. I am God.

"Don't exploit your friend or rob him.

"Don't hold back the wages of a hired hand overnight.

"Don't curse the deaf; don't put a stumbling block in front of the blind; fear your God. I am God.

"Don't pervert justice. Don't show favoritism to either the poor or the great. Judge on the basis of what is right.

"Don't spread gossip and rumors.

"Don't just stand by when your neighbor's life is in danger. I am God.

"Don't secretly hate your neighbor. If you have something against them, get it out into the open; otherwise you are an accomplice.

"Don't seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people.

BUT "Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God

Now, of course, we know where Jesus found the Greatest Commandment! Tucked away in the muck and mire of a book of injunctions are these 10 verses of social and moral ethic amidst a sea of dietary and cleanliness prohibitions. The greatest of which is set apart by a simple conjunction. But…love your neighbor as yourself.

There’s no room for psycho-babble here, no wiggle-room for us to lament our own self-loathing and therefore how can we love anyone else – hence – we’re exempt!

No…we’re not because every human bears the likeness of God, failure to love others is equal to saying that neither they nor we have value in God’s eyes. It is not our prerogative to negate God’s handiwork. That cannot be ignored! What we might easily miss, however, in those last verses leading up to the crescendo of ethical love is that the boundaries expand. The NRSV uses this language:

You shall not hate any of your kin;
You shall reprove your neighbor.
You shall not bear a grudge against your people.

From kin to neighbor to people. Concentric circles of relationship ever expanding our horizon of social responsibility – beyond family, beyond friends, beyond acquaintances, and beyond fellow citizens. It begs the question: where does our responsibility end?

For a church this has practical implications. Should we focus our energy and resources in downtown Wilmington? Great Wilmington? New Castle County? Above the canal? Delaware? Delmarva Peninsula? East Coast? East of the Mississippi? The United States? North America?

Leviticus seems to be saying, yes, all of the above, and don’t stop there, BUT, love your neighbor as yourself. Be holy, for I God, am holy!

Those two admonitions linked, merged even, to one compound injunction: love neighbor—be holy. Be holy. Two simple words we don’t hear much in a Presbyterian church.

We get lots and lots of speeches and rhetoric about caring for the least of our sisters and brothers, or advocating for the ignored and overlooked, or Good Samaritan type stories – but “be holy?”

It could be that “love neighbor” and “be holy” are two sides of the same coin. It could be that our lives with God and others is a practical expression of our holiness. How humans relate to one another is a measure of their fidelity to God.

So the work of being holy is just that: work. It’s swimming against the tide of prevailing human ways. It’s differentiating ourselves from our more base instincts of self-preservation and insulation. It’s all of those “don’t” in the speech from Leviticus, it’s the part after the conjunction, and it’s all means of living a life closer to God.

Differentiation, living a life closer to God and one another is a long and lengthy process. It’s work without immediate results or satisfaction. It’s arduous, has setbacks and disappointments, and is full of pitfalls. It takes time to chart a course that brings sustained change.

All of it will not be finished in one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in one thousand days, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.

But – let us begin.

Amen.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Factions and Infighting







A commercial produced by a Danish TV station has now been seen on YouTube over 7.6 million times. It’s entitled “All That We Share” and it goes like this:

Picture a room about this size, Memorial Hall, and draw 10 large boxes on the floor. In each box, stand eight people who fit the following categories:

People who are…

  1. High earners
  2. Just getting by
  3. Those we trust
  4. Those we avoid
  5. New to this country
  6. Always been here
  7. Live in the countryside
  8. Never have seen a cow
  9. Religious
  10. Self-confident
The people standing in each box are very much alike, almost interchangeable, and are distinctly different from any of the other boxes. There is no overlap.

Then the convener asks the following questions and people self-select and move to the center of the room and then return to their respective squares.

  • Who was the class clown?
  • Who is a stepparent?
  • Who believes in life after death?
  • Who has seen a UFO?
  • Who loves to dance?
  • Who has been bullied?
  • Who has bullied others?
  • Who had sex this week?
  • Who has been broken-hearted?
  • Who is madly in love?
  • Who is lonely?
  • Who is bisexual?
  • Who has found the meaning of life?
  • Who has saved lives?
  • Who loves their country?
With that last question, everyone moved into the center and the voiceover simply commented: “Maybe more brings us together than we think?”

An appropriate sentiment for us today and for our scripture reading. The members of the church in Corinth had put themselves into boxes, maybe only two, and no one was moving toward the center.

One box was labeled “Paul” and the other “Apollos”. The congregation had split into factions, infighting had broken out. It happens. It happens in the best of congregations. One group thinks sopranos carry the choir while another is convinced the tenors bring it home. Or one group insists on the KJV of the 23rd Psalm and another refuses to speak anything not in the NRSV. Or one group rallies around an associate pastor and another around the senior pastor. Can you imagine such a thing in this day and age?
For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
It’s almost easier to understand factions today, given the thousands of years we’ve had to gin up all kinds of alliances and divisions; but Paul is writing just a handful of years after the whole thing got started! They barely had time to debate the color of the hymnal and already people are going to that mat over which of their founders had superior wisdom or knowledge of God!

Imagine such a thing in this day and age?

Well, sure – look at us!

For Presbyterians, we know that John Calvin had superior wisdom. Anglicans look to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Methodists to the Wesley brothers, Lutherans to Luther, Quakers to George Fox, Mormons to Joseph Smith – and so on! It’s not so far-fetched! We’ve been sticking to our own boxes for years and years and rarely walking to the center seeking common ground.

Paul says that we are all wrong – each and every one of us! Human wisdom is unable to provide reliable knowledge of God. Full stop. The only reliable knowledge of God comes from the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s argument counters the Corinthians’ impulse to split the church around claims of rival teachers. Yet, if you take his argument just a step or two further, you get into some very murky water because one can conclude that Christian faith is a simple matter of personal inspiration from the Spirit without any need of teachers or instruction.

Sadly, we know that path can end up in places like Jonestown and Waco and Topeka. The church has had some disasters from “spirit-led” people with destructive, self-serving purposes.

The lesson, therefore, is not an “either-or” but a “both-and” spirit and instruction.

Genuine insight into the plans and purposes of God are given only through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, a person who is truly in touch with divine wisdom is recognized not by philosophical sophistication or impressive speeches but by signs of the Spirit’s presence within them.

That’s a lovely thought…but not very helpful, you might say – after all – what are these “signs of the Spirit’s presence”?

For Paul, the answer is fairly obvious: the “spirit” is always the spirit of Christ, in other words, a person having the “mind of Christ” – meaning – acting, thinking, loving like Jesus.

When one adopts such behaviors and attitudes, one is able to fully comprehend the Gospel and God’s intention for creation.

Conversely, factions and infighting are markers of unspiritual people who are not yet equipped to understand authentic divine wisdom.

Paul would suggest that an “unspiritual person” is one who holds a grudge, who gossips, who refuses to forgive.

Forgiveness is hard. That’s probably why Jesus’ admonition to “love our enemies” may be his most radical teaching. It is a bit of a litmus test for Christians and one many of us struggle with.

So much easier to stay in our boxes and not venture to center wherein we might mingle with people we’re not comfortable with!

Paul asserts that no amount of reading, studying, or hearing sage advice is going to get us out the boxes by themselves – we will remain planted in our little self-defined and egocentric worlds unless we open ourselves to God’s spirit and allow transformation to begin.

As he wrote:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Holy smokes – I love that writing and imagery. Just let that soak in…

All of the planters huddled together in one box. All of the waterers clumped in another. Finding commonality, discovering that which we share – that is God giving the growth. Standing together – in all of our differences and oddities – working together – we are God’s field, God’s building.

What would it look like if we tried the Danish commercial here? How would we define our boxes?

  1. One might be for folks who value the church’s mission and outreach above everything else.
  2. Certainly one for fans of music – just the way it is.
  3. We could have a box for people who are concerned about church finances.
  4. Maybe a box for folks who are convinced we’re too gay.
  5. A box for people who love and cherish and honor our rich history.
  6. A box for folks who want more focus and evangelism to young people and families.
  7. Perhaps space for those of you who just want to come on Sunday mornings, hopefully find something meaningful in the service and then head to brunch!
  8. Of course, a box for legacy – members who have been here for eons.
  9. Then we’d need a box for the brand-new folks who are trying to find their way into the fabric.
  10. Lastly, a box for those of you who feel strongly that we must engage our “neighborhood”.
Then after we staked out our territory and box – we’d be invited to the center with prompts such as…

  • You have felt God’s love in these pews.
  • Something was said from the pulpit that provoked your thinking even into the next week.
  • You were cared for by the people of this church.
  • You laughed today.
  • You cried today.
  • You are worried about a family member or close friend.
  • You’ve been laid off or fired.
  • You have to end a relationship.
  • You love your kids or your parents.
  • You are caring for an aging parent or relative or spouse.
  • You are lonely.
  • You have an addiction.
  • You love this church.
  • You can’t wait for this sermon to end!
Think of all we share – and never forget that …
we are God’s servants, working together; [we] are God’s field, God’s building.
Amen!



Sunday, February 9, 2020

Street Restoration






What feeds your soul?
  • Losing yourself in reading
  • Being out in nature
  • Journaling
  • Immersing yourself in music you love
  • Indulging in artwork
  • Pondering a poem – or writing one
  • Cleaning/de-cluttering
  • Being in the water or surf
  • Inhaling a delicious aroma
  • Fishing
  • Cooking
  • Practicing gratitude
  • Strengthening body and soul through yoga or exercise or a walk or meditation
  • A massage
  • Live theater
  • Gazing at the stars or moon
  • Dreaming
  • Serving others

Feeding one’s soul is a feeling of joy, it’s the feeling one has when fully steeped in pursuing one’s passion.

I witnessed two very different events this week which were displays of people pursuing their passion.

First was Tuesday evening at Wilmington Friends. It was a music recital and six young people performed – singers, piano, cello, saxophone, clarinet, drums, and xylophone. (I realize that’s more than six – a couple were multi-talented!) There are few things more inspiring than young people exploring, developing, and being mentored in their pursuit of talent and passion. To a performer, they exuded a palpable sense of joy. Yes, they were nervous and they were being evaluated – but after a few measures they relaxed and fell into the music and allowed it to carry them. They were the vehicle for a sound only they produced.

You know from the weekly email that I went to Friends to support Henry Wieman and Jimmy Butterfield – but the serendipitous moment for me was watching their teacher, Margaret Anne Butterfield, as she sat at the edge of the theater watching her students with no small amount of pride, joy, and pure satisfaction. I dare say that teaching feeds her soul.

The second experience was Thursday evening at a Friendship House fundraiser at the Hagley Soda House. The Friendship House organization, as you well know, is closely aligned with First & Central and has been the cornerstone of our mission and outreach. In my time here we’ve always had at least one church member on the board, currently that’s Brenda Dean, and the Saturday morning Winter Sanctuary, Clothing Bank, Epiphany House, and Sunday morning breakfast programs are vital components to caring for displaced and recovering members of our community. (show of hands…)

The founder, Bill Perkins, has retired and Kim Eppehimer has taken over as Executive Director. Kim, her staff, the board, and the legion volunteers have passion. Their involvement and work with Friendship House feeds their souls as they literally feed their clients. It was clear that this isn’t a job for any of them – it’s a calling and they all appear to know that they are doing work that transcends the basic tasks at hand. Despite significant transitions in leadership and structure, they have remained focused and committed to the persons they serve. I believe that to be the crucial ingredient to their success.

Many years ago, I said of our denomination, “we fail as the church whenever we turn inward and worry only about ourselves or we allow our work and energy to be co-opted by internal issues. I think we’ve lost our soul a bit. I think we need to recapture some of the zeal we had for loving the people of God, all of God’s people, with great abandon. I think we need to get about the business of service and mission and worship with great intention and greater passion.”

The author of this third section of Isaiah says the same thing. If we strive to free the bonds of injustice, if we share our bread with the hungry, bring the homeless into our house, cover the naked, and not avoid tough topics and conversations – then our community will be restored, we will be the solid foundation for many generations and we shall be called repairers of the breach, the restorers of the streets.

Living out the mission of a church of the city is no picnic. It takes a lot of folks, a lot of money, a lot of stamina, and a lot of visionary leadership shared by a lot of tireless people. It’s a fulltime job and there is not a minute to waste. A church of the city has within it an agitated sense of urgency, a restlessness that stirs with relentless cadence whenever a sibling is shunned, deprived, displaced, or marginalized.

The city needs the church to be responsive, and attentive, and full of courage. The city needs the church to care, and love, and weep. The city needs the church to argue, and fight, and cajole. The city needs the church to call to accountability, to advocate with abandon, and to be willing to go to the mat for folks who are otherwise overlooked.

What the city doesn’t need, according to Isaiah,  is a church that is complacent or overly cautious or hung up on money or obsessed with how many people are in the pews or striving for perfection in performance.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice?
Our trajectory must remain clear: We must continue to move toward the needs of God’s people – God’s people within these walls, in the streets of this city, and God’s people in distant places. Isaiah would caution us in the strongest of terms: the moment we make a decision with the aim of increasing membership or shoring up the budget or perfecting the performance of worship or preserving the property or memorializing our legacy – we have gone astray.

I would submit, therefore, that to remain faithful to that trajectory, we need four things:

1.         Wisdom – not just book smart, IQ – although that helps – but minds open to the possibility that we might be wrong. Surely an indicator of wisdom is an awareness and admission of all that isn’t known. Humility, an acceptance of the unknown, a willingness to live in gray areas, and an embrace of mystery – are all required components of wisdom.

2.         Sense of humor – good golly, when we stop laughing at ourselves we are clearly taking ourselves way too seriously. That’s just painful!

3.         Compassion – not just feeling sorry for someone, but a willingness to walk with another person in their own struggles and difficulties – even beyond that – to allow our own lives to be changed by sharing the pain of another. To be so fully engaged with another person’s life situation that it changes our own.

4.         Passion – there must be something that gets us excited, that runs through our veins, that we always have time and energy for. That’s the kind of passion displayed by staff and volunteers of Friendship House and that’s the kind of passion I saw embodied by teenagers on Tuesday at Friends.

One of the strong themes running through Vision 2020 is attracting more young people to First & Central. Let me share with you a few lines from an email I received after the Wilmington Children’s Chorus sang here:
Dude. Your sermon kicked ass. I hope it’s OK that I say it that way, but it was awesome. About 10 of the kids chatted with me about it afterwards (many of whom come from more conservative traditions) and they were ELATED to hear you talking truth to power like that. Honest and challenging but compassionate enough to not seem judgmental. Good stuff.
Ten teenagers talking about a sermon? From an old Presbyterian preacher? What are the odds?

It’s no secret that the Presbyterian Church USA is shrinking. From over 12,000 congregations when I was ordained to now just over 9,300. A portion of that drop is most likely due to congregations leaving to align with far-right splinter groups, in my mind not so much shrinkage, but a much needed flushing out. In addition, congregations, including this one, have been aggressively culling their rolls coupled with a disproportionately high number of deaths as the generation that gave the church its boom in the 1950s and early 1960s dies off. Since my arrival, this congregation has been very careful about maintaining tight and accurate rolls. When we talk about our roster it’s a real number and it represents folks who are active, engaged, and seeking to be spiritually nurtured, faithfully challenged, and physically spent.

While we’re good at tidying up, at getting organized, pastors and lay leaders have learned to be brutally honest about who we are. First & Central Presbyterian Church already knows quite a bit about doing more with less. We have become a leaner and more efficient church and thanks be to God!

The church continues its movement into becoming the community that God has called us to be in this time and place. Through the Vision 2020 process, we renewed our commitment to one another, to God, and to this city and we do that by being repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to live in.
  • We continue to repair the breach by joyfully serving people who need the gifts that this church brings to the city.
  • We repair the breach by loving people who need care, who seek a companion on their spiritual journey, who want to study, learn, question and explore together.
  • We repair the breach by welcoming folks whose children need a church where they feel loved, and safe, and challenged.
  • We repair the breach by seeking allegiance with those people whom the church has traditionally shunned and marginalized.
  • We repair the breach by aligning ourselves with people who want to let go of the past, who want to practice forgiveness, and who want to laugh and have fun.
  • We repair the breach by doing justice, seeking kindness, and by recognizing humility in the all-encompassing presence of God.

If you aren’t here this morning to fully, completely, and passionately give yourselves to God, to repair the breaches of our community, to restore the streets so that everyone walks freely, openly, and safely – then I suppose staying home might have been the better choice.

For me – I’m glad you’re here!

Let’s go kick some … !

Amen!