Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday - from Palms to Crosses to Ashes

This morning our children and youth waved palms in celebration of Palm Sunday. This afternoon, I used some of those palms to make palm crosses (an instructional video can be seen below), which I put in small glass containers with rocks. At our evening service, which starts with dinner gathered around fellowship tables, these will be our centerpieces. We will be doing stations of the cross via power-point using images from painter Jonathan Hutchins with selected readings from the gospels. At the end, participants will be invited to carry the palm crosses with them throughout Holy Week. The palms that are not used will be burned and used for ashes for our next Ash Wednesday service.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A New Thing

Today was my first meeting as moderator of the Presbytery of Transylvania. It is the practice here for the moderator to preach the sermon, as well. The text of my sermon is pasted below. Here is a link to the audio file.

Isaiah 43:16-21s
43:16 Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

“A New Thing” – Stephanie Sorge Wing, 3.12.13
         This summer, I attended General Assembly on behalf of the Special Committee to Study the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century. For two years our committee met regularly for study, prayer, and discernment. We struggled over two main questions: “Where is God at work in the world today? And, How are we, the Presbyterian Church (USA), being called to partner in that work?”
It was quite the task. We frequently got bogged down talking about what is NOT going well in the church, how we have NOT been responding to the changing contexts of ministry, how we are failing to reach out to entire generations of people, and how we are failing in our charge to go and spread the good news of Jesus Christ to all people, not just the ones who look like us and think like us already. We also began to grow in hope as we saw glimpses of the new thing that God is at work doing, in and through different communities of faith.
The very theme of the General Assembly was hope, taken from the prophet Isaiah: “But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31).
I can tell you that, especially as Assembly business stretched into the wee hours of Friday night and Saturday morning, weariness was all around. It wasn’t just because of the late hour. It was because of the intense debates, discussion, and frankly, the division, on a number of different issues. These travelers who began the week running, leaping, and soaring braced themselves for crash landing at the end of General Assembly. In the end, not much happened – at least, not much changed. But sometimes that’s the best you can hope for, right? Maintaining?
In a little while we will look at the proposed amendments to the Book of Confessions and Book of Order, but, truth be told, for many of us in Transylvania Presbytery, we don’t have much connection with what is happening in the greater church. Even so, many of us are feeling the same kind of weariness felt by those at General Assembly this year. It’s a weariness born of spinning wheels and dwindling resources.
Ever since I joined this Presbytery, I’ve heard the financial reports warning that we can’t continue to do business in the same way. We’re running out of money. We need more volunteers to serve on commissions and ministries – especially younger ruling elders. Where are they, anyway, and why can’t each of them serve on three or more presbytery groups? It’s tiring to come to Presbytery and hear the same pleas and prods, especially as we’re facing the same problems in our own congregations.
Most, if not all, of our congregations are facing budget shortfalls, increased expenses, and the same problems finding volunteer and lay leadership that we experience at the Presbytery level. What happened to the good old days? And whose fault is the decline?
It’s easy to point fingers. Blame Presbytery for lack of congregational support. Blame General Assembly for being too liberal or too conservative. Blame Pastors for failing to come in and provide vision and leadership to right the sinking ship. Blame Ruling Elders for failing to be the spiritual leaders that they are called to be. Blame the older members for refusing to change. Blame the younger members for not carrying their fair share of the financial or work loads.
The blame game is easy enough to play. But while we’re at it, why don’t we go ahead and blame God? After all, this is God’s church, right? So has God forgotten us or forsaken us? As Mainline Protestant Christians in the 21st Century, we are a people in exile. We are far from the golden days of Christendom, struggling to stay relevant – and even to stay open – in a world that seems indifferent, at best, to our presence.
It’s not quite the exile of the Israelites in Babylon, but it is exile nonetheless. Second Isaiah writes to the exiles who are being called back home. Words of comfort and assurance are abundant – God has not abandoned you, and God will restore you once again. But, this restoration won’t be to the former glory days of Jerusalem. God says, “Don’t recall those former things. Don’t look back. I am doing a new thing!”
Exile is painful. Difficult. Exhausting. And many of us wish for a return to the days when church budgets were flush, pews were full, and the big problem was a lack of space for the many children and youth. When Presbytery had plenty of money and resources to share. When we felt connected to each other, not just in name, but in spirit. But God says to us, don’t recall the former things. I am doing a new thing! Do you not perceive it?
Congregations and the denomination are in decline, but God says, “I am doing a new thing!” Budgets are dwindling, reserves are drying up, and yet God says, “I will make rivers in the desert.” We are facing challenges unlike any the church has known in our time. Has God forsaken us, or is God doing a new thing?
This summer the PC (USA) launched an initiative known as 1001 New Worshipping Communities. There are new worshipping communities that reach out to immigrant populations, others that meet in art galleries, bars, or coffee shops. One new worshipping community based in Louisville is building community among endurance athletes, many of whom are often competing or training on Sunday mornings.
Now, why on earth would we be starting new worshipping communities when we can barely keep open the ones we have? But congregations and presbyteries have actually found that supporting new worshipping communities not only reaches out to entire groups of people who are not being drawn into traditional church forms, but it also revitalizes the work and ministry of existing, more traditional congregations. Let me say that again. As new ministries and worshipping committees are birthed, existing congregations also find new life, new mission, and a renewed hope and strength, just as God promised through Isaiah.
Third Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA is a 1300 member church. A few years ago, they called an Associate Pastor who had a real vision for community-based ministry in a rough neighborhood of Richmond. He had his family followed Jeremiah’s lead – they bought land, and had sons and daughters, and sent those sons and daughters to the local public schools. They began developing relationships and partnerships in the community. Soon Third Pres recognized the gospel potential there. Now the church pays the Associate Pastor and another local pastor in that neighborhood entirely for their work with the new worshipping community. A new community is thriving, but so is the mission and vision of Third Presbyterian Church.
And it isn’t just the big churches than can support the new work that God is doing. Northminster Presbyterian is a 60 member congregation in Chattanooga that is providing support for a brand new church development to the artistic community in Chattanooga called Mercy Junction. First Presbyterian in Warner Robins, Georgia worships 70 on Sundays. They noticed that the rapidly growing younger population in their area wasn’t being drawn into their worship. They responded by starting something new, a coffee shop. Both ministries are thriving.
College Park Presbyterian Church was like many other Presbyterian Churches – aging, dying out, and in a neighborhood that was rapidly changing around them. They came to realize they could either continue to maintain and die down until the last of their resources were used, or they could try something radically different. That began a ministry and outreach to the growing Hispanic population in College Park, Georgia. They intentionally changed their worship and programming to meet the needs of the changing community. They hired a Hispanic Co-Pastor. Their ministry had a huge impact on the lives of those in the community, and the church grew and grew. In ministry, at least. Financially, many of the new members were living below the poverty line, and despite their generosity, the church finally had to confront budgetary realities and sell their aging building. They did so, and the ministry continues to thrive and grow.
I understand the realities that our congregations and this presbytery are facing. I am not a pie in the sky optimist saying, “Don’t worry – the money and the people will come!” I don’t know about that. But what I do know is this – God is doing a new thing! Do you not perceive it?
There are new things happening around the Presbytery. I don’t know all of the stories, but you know some. I can tell you about London, where I am currently serving. Each week there are half a dozen to a dozen teenagers that sit in the front two pews for the traditional service. They are faithfully there, and participate in the work and ministry of the church. The members of the congregation value them, and want to respond to their needs for spiritual development and growth. Back in January, we began a new evening service. It is based on the same texts and themes of the morning service, grounded in reformed theology and tradition, but uses a variety of creative and different elements in worship that engage all the senses.
We begin with a wonderful fellowship meal that is prepared by church members each week, and then extend our fellowship into worship. Members of all ages are involved in every aspect of the service, from planning to leading. We hope to invite more people to get to know God in a setting that might be less intimidating than a more traditional service. I can tell you that in London, God is doing a new thing!
There are other stories in this presbytery of the new thing that God is doing, such as the ministry of the Ashland Area Presbyterian Ministries that we will experience later today. I hope that as the day progresses, you will take time to talk with leaders from other congregations and share stories of the new thing that God is doing in your midst.
We also have a Strategic Planning Task Force at work in the Presbytery. They have already done great work, but have been hampered by lack of participation and response. They need our help and input! They need more eyes and ears to help discern the new thing that God is doing in our Presbytery! Our new Manual of Operations takes advantage of the newfound flexibility in the Book of Order. There are more opportunities for everyone to get involved in the various ministries of the Presbytery.
What else could God be doing in our midst? Across the denomination more congregations are having to move to various models of shared or bivocational ministry. That’s been the reality in this presbytery for a number of years. Why can’t we, Transylvania Presbytery, lead the way in exploring new and creative avenues for pastoral ministry? With our proximity to Louisville Presbyterian and Lexington Theological Seminaries, why can’t we partner more creatively with those schools? We could provide a rich and valuable training ground for seminary students as they seek to answer questions of how we can lead the church in changing times. Might God be doing a new thing?
As financial realities force us to face tough decisions at the congregational and presbytery levels, will we keep looking back and lament what has been lost, or will we come out of exile to proclaim, “See, God is doing a new thing!”?
Ways will be made in these mountains, and streams of abundance and new life will flow where the waters have seemingly run dry. Do you not perceive it? Let us joyfully come out of the exile of fear and decline, to proclaim the good news, that God is doing a new thing! Amen.