Games People Play

•May 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Slide2Sermon for the sixth Sunday in Easter, Acts of the Apostles 17:22-31 ….

Some of you know that I was in Springfield on Friday. I offered the invocation for the day’s session of the Illinois House of Representatives. I was the guest of my state representative, the Honorable Katie S., who just happens to be the daughter-in-law of Bob and Sandy S.

Given our system of government, a representative of the Church offering a prayer in the context of a State assembly naturally prompts questions about proper content. So in the formal invitation letter, the clerk of the House provides some guidance.

 As you might expect, there is advice about prayers being respectful to other traditions, not demeaning another faith, not proselytizing. But there is also this sentence: “Further, prayers should not make reference to religious figures that are unique to any one religion, or make any other denominational appeal.”

Some of you saw my Facebook post about this letter. I’d rather hear a rabbi, imam, or other religious leader pray authentically than listen to a generic prayer that “should not make reference to religious figures that are unique to any one religion.” We would learn so much more about one another!

The letter reminded me of Yale law professor Steven Carter’s book  “The Culture of Disbelief,” in which he argues that contemporary law and politics tends to trivialize religious devotion. Often it is assumed that religious particularity, like praying to Jesus, is unimportant and easily discarded, a facet of human personality with which public-minded citizens would not bother.

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As I prepared for the prayer, I saw three choices. I could disregard the instructions (but I’d rather build good relationships). I could try humor (which probably doesn’t work well in this context). Or, I could try to be creative and faithfulat the same time. I ended up framing a prayer to the God of the universe, addressed by many names, but never limited by any one name, the “Great Resister Of All Labels.”

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The prayer went something like this:

God of the universe, addressed by many names, but never limited by any one name, you are the Great Resistor Of All Labels. The breadth and depth of your being are beyond the comprehension of any one individual. Limited is our understanding of your design and purposes.

Great Resistor Of All Labels, to call for your aid in a room like this always is a risky undertaking. A prayer for freedom and change may be heard as a call to anarchy; A prayer for order and stability may be heard a call to oppression. Demands for resources may seem unlimited, and the supply of resources scarce. But since the challenges we face seem overwhelming, and remembering that you have a reputation for solutions, we dare to ask for your help.  

May your Spirit inspire the members of this house so that in today’s work they may prove themselves faithful servants of Illinois and its people. During moments of discouragement, remind them of the power in simply showing up, and working with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. As Desmond Tutu once observed, the forces that want to frustrate the ends toward which you are drawing history already have lost. Therefore, in the roles we all play for the public good, may we accept daily your invitation to join the winning side. So let it be. Amen.

For better or worse, there was a kind of gamesmanship in this prayer. In this context, to pray in both a faithful and relevant way required some attention to the perspective of those who framed the instructions, and attention to what needed to be said in that context. Conversation about God in a seat of government can feel a little like a game of hide-and-seek.

In the 17th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we get of glimpse of the Apostle Paul in a public place every bit as impressive and diverse as the Illinois House of Representatives. When Paul arrives in the city of Athens, he encounters a great and complex culture in which it is possible for people to hide from spiritual truth behind the competing claims of hundreds of small gods and teachers of philosophy. Referring to a statue dedicated to an unknown deity, he finds a way of explaining the way in which God has been hidden from the eyes of the Athenians, but now can be found in Jesus Christ.

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In the context of this sermon, Paul is not reluctant to say that the God of the universe, the great Resistor Of All Labels, has been revealed in the particular person of Jesus. But many Athenians remain skeptical. Granted, they didn’t have much time to warm up to Paul’s preaching. But over time, many probably continued on in the belief that God has been hidden, and always will remain hidden. In some sense, they act like the people my college philosophy professor described, by saying, “Always interested in talking about the truth, but never interested in actually finding it.”

From my perspective as a pastor, there are occasional conversational threads like that. People approach the church with requests for help of one kind or another – financial, emotional, relational, or spiritual. We listen to the need. We try to match the need to the best available resource. But sometimes a seeker of help is stuck in a very unhealthy cycle. He or she ignores or rejects advice. Some time passes by, and a request comes for additional advice. The advice is ignored or rejected a second time. Some time passes, and again the person phones or appears at the office.

After two or three cycles, I begin to feel like I’m a player in another person’s game of hide-and-seek. Sometimes, we are so confused that we think God never will be found. Or we’re so hurt, we can’t believe that we are worthy of being found. Sometimes, we’re more interested in talking about solutions than actually experiencing them, more interested in hiding than in actually being found.

In these moments, I sometimes remember another game, a game my children liked to play when they were very young. I remember a night long ago when I arrived home after a meeting. As I walked into the house, I found only a kitchen light on. Everything had an air of quietness that rarely existed in a house with preschoolers.

It suddenly dawned on me that no one seemed to be at home. I walked from room to room looking for a clue as to the whereabouts of my family. I wondered if an evening trip had been taken to visit the grocery store or to see the doctor at the urgent care clinic.

When I walked by one of the bedrooms, I saw a strange lump under the bedcovers. As I turned on the light, and reached for the covers, a huge laugh erupted. It took just a split second to move from surprise to a smile. Under the covers were my wife and kids, who had patiently outwaited me to unleash a joke.

 

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You might remember that there’s a game like this called “sardines.”[1] One person hides, and each time another person finds him or her, they all hide together.  Like me, sometimes we may not even know we are playing it. We may not even have considered the possibility  that when this life ends, we will find the hidden God, the One we thought would never be found, in a game of sardines. Along with Robert Fulghum, the author who gave me this idea, I like to think He will be waiting there with all those we love, welcoming us home with joy and laughter.

[1] Robert Fulghum uses the game of “sardines” as an analogy for heaven in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, New York: Villard Books, 1988, p. 58.

 

Groundbreaking Remarks

•May 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

GroundbreakingAt the groundbreaking, representatives of the larger Church and community: pictured with me are the Rev. Craig Howard, Presbytery Leader, Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy; and the Honorable Hal Patton, Mayor of Edwardsville …. Gospel of Mark 4:30-32; Hebrews 11:8-10, Joshua 1:2, 9 ….

During the past few months, FPCE made a special effort to remember our heritage and honor our spiritual ancestors. As we prepared to leave a campus after 133 years, we remembered the story that God has been telling through Presbyterian Christians up to the present day. It’s a story of courageous sacrifice and compassionate generosity demonstrated by our mothers and fathers, (many of whom we remember, not with us today physically, but with us in spirit) to preach the good news of Christ, to further freedom for peoples long oppressed, to seek God in worship, and proclaim God’s amazing grace, to educate children and youth, to create not one but four homes for the advancement of Christian mission and ministry, always building: programs, services, staff, and facilities through additional renovations and expansions, all the way to the edge of breaking ground for a new building in this year of 2017.

In the story God is telling through us, an important chapter begins today; It’s a chapter that circles back to pick up a thread of the church’s story from the year 1998, when a Facilities Task Force recommended the purchase of new land, and continued in 1999 when a Land Search Committee recommended purchase of 30 acres here at Ridgeview Rd. At that stage, the dream of a new home for mission and ministry was something like the mustard seed of which Jesus spoke, very small, but once sown, grew and grew. The thread continued through staff changes, a 2004 study of mission, program, staff, and facility, a 2005 Ministry Plan and Feasibility Study, years of patient perseverance for many members of the long-range planning task force, and construction readiness committee. For nearly 20 years, some of you have trudged on through the work with the faith of Abraham, convinced of God’s call, but not always knowing where you were going, or whether you would see the promise.

Today, the pages of the story turn to a new prospect. Like the ancient Hebrews who were in the wilderness a long time, we have to be encouraged that what we see here isn’t an optical illusion. The Lord says that it’s time to cross over into the new land: “Be strong and courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

 

Faith and Doubt

•April 23, 2017 • Leave a Comment

St. Thomas Church, cradle of Christianity in India, embedded courtesy of Getty Images….

We gather today in a new temporary worship space, but I imagine many of us are still reliving memories from last Sunday. It was a unique day in my ministry, and probably a unique day for most of us. Never again will we leave a church home so well known and loved in quite so dramatic a way.

Many have commented on the way in which they were emotionally moved when the cross came down, and was lifted by crucifers, and carried out, followed by other symbols of faith and relics inherited from our spiritual ancestors. How do you top that? The answer is that you don’t. It’s an especially heightened experience of what usually happens after Easter.

Eleven years I served as an associate pastor, and many of those years I preached the sermon this day, the second Sunday of Easter. All the work neglected during Lent called for urgent attention. When Sunday came, the crowd was thinner, and the feeling of sure faith experienced one week earlier harder to feel. The Sunday after Easter doesn’t present the same sort of trials that Peter was writing about in his first letter that Janet read, but there is at little bit of that feeling that the genuineness of our faith will be tested with occasional doses of doubt.

In the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John, we find a post-resurrection narrative that directly addresses doubt. John tells us that the risen Christ comes into the locked upper room where Jesus’ inner circle has been hiding. It’s evening and dark outside. Inside, I imagine that a single lamp is burning. The disciples are gathered around the table, speaking in whispers, when one of them looks up and sees someone standing beside the door. Moving forward into the circle of light, he says, “Shalom,” holds up a wounded hand, and waits for the truth to sink in.

At the time of this incredible reunion, Thomas is out on an errand. He misses the whole thing. The others tell him that they have seen the Lord. But Thomas seems to suspect delusions born of grief and hysteria. He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will NOT believe.”

Most of us know how the story ends. We know that Jesus appears again, and that this time Thomas is there. We remember that Thomas sees and touches Jesus, then makes one of the most dramatic confessions of faith in the New Testament.

Yet, no matter how many times we hear the story, some of us empathize most with Thomas’ first reaction. He responds like those people (and I’m one of them!) who lead more with their heads than our hearts. We members of this group see nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism, if it keeps us honest, if it keeps us open to data that we can verify through our senses. Skepticism is reinforced by our college and university training, where we discover that critical analysis and thinking is what wins us good grades and well-paying jobs.

But those of us with overdeveloped heads and underdeveloped hearts must be especially careful about the limits of rational thought. As the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner once put it: “The claim of faith does not summon the rational man to suspend his intellectual habit of control and examination of facts; all that it claims is that he must not try to exercise it in a sphere where it has no function.”[1] Today’s intellectually brilliant atheists and agnostics tend not to see that extreme skepticism is a manifestation of our sinful nature, a form of blinding pride that supplants a humble openness to new data. Doubt that begins as intellectual honesty may end as ideological arrogance.

The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas perhaps had as much intellectual brilliance as any Christian who ever lived. Yet even he realized that reason could take an individual only so far on life’s spiritual journey. Reason is a starting point, but something else brings you to the finish.

Perhaps, the way that you get to the finish can be described in terms of a story told by my former preaching professor, Tom Long, who was in a very candid conversation with a man in his 70s. The man, let’s call him “Frank,” was telling Tom about a son, in his 30s, confined to a nursing home following a car accident, and in more-or-less permanent comatose state.

Frank startled Tom by saying, “We had stopped loving our son. We visited very week, it was our duty as parents, but we had stopped loving him. Love is … giving and receiving. Our son could not receive, our son could not give. We went to see him, but we had stopped loving him. Until one day, we went to visit our son and were surprised by the visitor in his room, whom we didn’t know. It turned out he was a Lutheran minister who had a regular role at the home. We just waited at the door while this visitor engaged in a conversation toward our son, while I thought to myself, ‘As if my son could appreciate a conversation.’ Then he took a Bible out, and read my son a psalm. As if my son could appreciate a psalm. And then he prayed a prayer, as if my son could appreciate a prayer. Then it dawned on me. He does not see my son simply through clinical eyes, but through the eyes of faith” — through the eyes of love — “and he treats my son as a child of God.”[2] Frank’s story, and the witness of the Lutheran chaplain, remind us that there is a power stronger than intellect, and spiritual truth we will never understand until we feel it.

When I was a young Christian and new pastor, I spent a lot of energy in sermons summarizing great thinkers and arguments, trying to convince listeners to put aside their intellectual doubts, and believe. Somewhere along the way, I learned that was not a particularly efficient or effective use of my limited energy. Frederick Buechner says, “In my head there is almost nothing I can’t doubt when the fit is upon me – the divinity of Christ, the efficacy of the sacraments, the significance of the church, the existence of God ….(But) when our faith is strongest, we believe with our hearts as well as our heads.”[3]

In order to live abundantly in light of Christ’s resurrection, we must not merely learn to think profoundly; we must also learn to love deeply. In this season of Easter, may it be so among us.

NOTES

[1] Emil Brunner, Reason and Revelation, trans. Olive Wyon, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961, p. 208.

[2] Pulpit Resource Vol. 27, No. 2, 18 April 1999, p. 17.

[3] Frederick Buechner, “Doubt,” Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, HarperSanFrancisco, 2004, p.86.

The Roundabout Way

•April 16, 2017 • Leave a Comment

image by Walter Zerla, embedded courtesy of Getty Images ….

final sermon in a series of six entitled “The Story God is Telling Through Us”

I. Some may say today doesn’t feel like Easter, but I say otherwise. As I read the 16th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, I sense that they feel like we feel. Some disciples buy spices and go to prepare that which they love with the same care that our Presbyterian Women anointed kitchen appliances with cleansing agents, and carefully wrapped the dishes on which we have eaten thousands of family meals. Other disciples secluded themselves to deal privately with grief, like Presbyterians who could not be present to watch the team take apart the Steinway piano, wrap its lid in cloth, and carry it away to the dark interior of a moving van. To watch the piano being carried away, to worry that it might be dropped on the front steps, would have been more than fragile emotions could bear.

The fear felt at the first Easter is highlighted when we learn about the textual history of this gospel from the manuscript evidence that scholars can see and examine. One old copy brings Mark to a close with the so-called “shorter ending” between verses eight and nine. Many copies include verses 9-20, which constitute the “longer ending” of Mark. But the most ancient copies close the book at the end of verse eight, just as I have read it for you today.[1] Three disciples find the stone rolled away from the tomb, a young man in a white robe instructs them to go and tell, but the women flee in terror and amazement. Mark says the women who were told to go and tell the news did not because they were afraid. The final word, then, in the earliest version of this earliest gospel is a word of fear.

We can appreciate their fear, though it’s not a very satisfying ending to the story we call “good news.” Many emotionally powerful events have filled relatively few days. Their bodies are tired, their emotions are frayed. In the long history of this congregation, the feelings we are experiencing right now may be among the most Easter-like we ever will experience.

II. Today, we are gathered as members and friends of First Presbyterian Church Edwardsville for a unique occasion: to decommission this building from use after conducting mission in it for 93 years, and to say goodbye to this campus at the conclusion of almost 133 years of ministry at this location. We’ve been planning for this occasion a long time. During the past few months, we’ve made a special effort to remember our heritage and honor our spiritual ancestors. We’ve remembered the story that God has been telling through Presbyterian Christians, from the Colonial period, through the nineteenth century, through the early 20th century, to the late 20th century. Along the way, we have held commemorative events around the dedication stones of this congregation’s building projects of 1870, 1884, 1923, and 1960. Today’s worship concludes with a recessional of sacred symbols and relics, a gathering outside the building, final song and Lord’s Prayer.

III. Some might believe that we are losing our heritage, but I believe that we are reclaiming our heritage. I see it in simple things, like conversations around the dedication stones and tower bell. Before this journey, many Presbyterians were only dimly aware that this congregation might have had former buildings. Younger generations had never rung the tower bell, perhaps didn’t even know there was a bell in the tower above a drop ceiling and through an access panel in the original ceiling. I believe we’re reclaiming our heritage by remembering the story God has been telling through our spiritual fathers and mothers, in their courageous sacrifice and compassionate generosity to preach the good news of Christ, to further freedom for peoples long oppressed, to seek God in worship, and proclaim God’s amazing grace, to educate children and youth, to create not one but four homes for the advancement of Christian mission and ministry, always building programs, services, staff, and facilities through additional renovations and expansions, all the way to the edge of breaking ground for a new building in this year of 2017.

IV. In the story God is telling through us, an important chapter concludes today; it’s important to acknowledge the discomfort we feel as it ends. We’re on the threshold between one status and another status, no longer fully at this location, not yet fully at another, no longer what we were, not yet what we will be. At this point in the story, it is completely natural to feel disoriented, anxious, even afraid. What do we do at a moment like this one?

Today’s first scripture reading from the 13th chapter of Exodus records an event that provides some guidance. Most of you recall the basic outline of the climactic events of the first Passover, and the subsequent exodus from Egypt. The Lord’s “Moses Committee” of one said “Eat the Passover meal with haste, with ‘loins girded’ (gather up your tunic and tighten your belt), sandals on your feet, staff in your hand, ready for departure.” Like my father’s family leaving Germany, like your ancestors, you can’t take everything in the barn, house, or church. If you do that, then you won’t move quickly enough to survive. It will weigh you down, and you will die. You have to trust that out there in that unknown wilderness, God will provide manna. It may be a roundabout journey with twists, turns, and delays, but God will give his children what they need to survive.

Most of us don’t recall a significant detail from this story. At the same time the Moses told the Hebrews to lighten their load and prepare for departure on a grueling journey, he also remembered to bring along a relic some might have thought better left behind. The text says, “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’”  At the same moment that Moses was envisioning the future, he was remembering the past, honoring and preserving the heritage and memory of his ancestors, as we are doing. The Hebrews couldn’t take everything, but they would take something, as we will do symbolically in our recessional today, and practically in the weeks and months to come.

V. More than once I have said to you that there is continuity in our history as Edwardsville Presbyterians. If we look closely, then we will see the repetition of themes and patterns. The “roundabout way” that God first led the Hebrews is part of it. Periods of disorientation, anxiety, and fear are part of journey. Yet, we must trust that God who calls us to this journey, travels with us, and leads us to a new home.

We have just entered a period of carefully choreographed moving and storage, organ dismantling and transport, asbestos remediation, window removal, building element salvage, and, finally, deconstruction. Tomorrow, this building will begin to resemble a construction zone. So I hope you’ll take the opportunity today, following the singing of “Blest Be the Ties that Bind” and the praying of the “Lord’s Prayer” to take a final walk through the corridors and rooms, and say “thank you” and “goodbye.”

When you walk away, may it be with more than simply a sense of loss or fear. Look forward with hope! The Lord is risen, and his Church is not just a building, but a body, built upon the foundations of prophets and apostles, reformers and our spiritual fathers and mothers, with Christ Jesus himself the chief cornerstone. At 2nd St., at Kansas St., at Goshen School, at Ridgeview Rd., may God’s children hear the Word proclaimed, be washed in the cleansing waters, and fed at the table of grace. Living Christ, be the chief cornerstone of our body, today and always, Amen.

NOTES

[1] Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 3rd Edition, New York: United Bible Societies, 1975, pp. 122-126.

God and Presbyterians, post-WWII

•April 2, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Slide01Having moved past our Good Shepherd Sunday experience, we find ourselves late in the season of Lent, and the end is now in sight.

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Briefly and in limited ways, we have remembered the story that God has been telling through Presbyterian Christians, from the Colonial period, through the nineteenth century, to the early 1920s.

The time between the laying of the 1923 cornerstone and laying of the 1960 dedication stone was a tumultuous one in Presbyterian history.

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A few weeks ago, I described for you the split that occurred during the 1920s between the Fundamentalists and the Modernists. During the next few decades, a new theological movement emerged, one that expressed well concerns about the weaknesses of both Modernism and Fundamentalism. This movement was in some sense a reaction against the horrors of the First World War, then the Second World War. In a time of competing philosophies and ideologies, it was in some sense a restatement of Reformation theological themes about God’s sovereignty and human sinfulness.

This theological movement often goes by the name of “Neo-orthodoxy,” but there are other labels for it, too.

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Major theologians associated with neo-orthodoxy include these figures, two Swiss, two German, two Americans of German ancestry.

Slide6Part of the appeal of neo-orthodoxy was its well-reasoned and courageous criticism of other theological movements. On the one side, Neo-orthodox analysis of Fundamentalism revealed how such theology remained neutral toward, or even conveniently supported, racist and sexist attitudes and policies by more powerful groups against less powerful groups. On the other side, Neo-orthodox analysis of Modernism showed how ineffective this sort of theology was in prophetically challenging Fascism and Communism. In effect, Neo-orthodoxy affirmed the Modernist value of higher education and literary and source criticism to guide biblical interpretation, while also affirming the Fundamentalist value of a proper Reformed understanding of human sinfulness.

Today, Presbyterians notice the heroes of this movement were all male, and of European heritage. Despite those limitations, they were brilliant theologians, courageous in their Christian witness, and highly influential public figures from the World War II period through the 1960s. They formed a foundation upon which others were inspired and encouraged to open themselves to other chapters that God wanted to write in the Church’s story about proper relations among the nations, proper relationships with people of other religions, proper stewardship of the earth and its resources, the full inclusion in membership and leadership roles of women, racial-ethnic minorities, and sexual-orientation-based minorities.

As the Brief Statement of Faith, approved in 1990, puts it:

Slide7World War II, and America’s experience of the forces of Fascism and Communism seemed to vindicate the theological perspective of the Neo-orthodox Christian theologians. As attention turned from defeating enemy nations back to the homeland, American Christians turned their energy to organizing the Church’s ministries with similar discipline and energy. Post-WWII was a period of renewed cooperation between Church and state, and church attendance for many was not only a Christian duty, but also a patriotic duty.

During this period, First Presbyterian’s Christian education wing was conceived, the fourth major building project of this congregation.

Slide8The stone was laid on February 14, 1960, during the final year of the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the building dedicated on December 4, shortly after the election of John F. Kennedy.

Slide9The time capsule behind the 1960 stone was shaped like a rectangular safe deposit box, made of copper, and sealed on all sides. Among the items discovered inside was this worship bulletin from the occasion. Interestingly, the choreography of the ceremony was similar to our service a few weeks ago, gathering outside after worship, a service presided over by another pastor named “John,” who also used the text from Ephesians 2.

Slide10Our March 19 gathering around the 1960 stone was particularly meaningful, as members who were here then and now gathered for photos. We’re so glad they were here to be part of the celebration.

More than once I have said to you that there a certain continuity in our history as Edwardsville Presbyterians. If we look closely, then we will see the repetition of themes and patterns.  I’ve called our journey “The Story That God Is Telling Through Us,” but of course I’m not the only one to think of our journey as a “story.”

Slide11Just a few years after the completion of the Christian education wing, when you would think the saints of this church might have been resting content with their accomplishments, they were still discerning together the path forward “This is the Story of Our Church on the Move,” as shown in this special pictorial booklet.

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Slide16Slide17Slide18Slide19Slide20The final page appears to have a holder for a pledge card or donation envelope, perhaps for the annual pledge campaign, expressing a hope, an appeal, a prayer: “We Would Be Building … O’ Keep Us Building!!” Whether that prayer was meant literally or figuratively, the Lord  has kept Edwardsville Presbyterians always building its programs, its services, its staff, and its facilities through additional renovations and expansions, all the way to the edge of breaking ground for a new building in this year of 2017.

Slide01As we approach this milestone, may we always remember that the Church is not just a building, but a body, built upon the foundations of prophets and apostles, reformers and our spiritual fathers and mothers, with Christ Jesus himself the chief cornerstone. At 2nd, at Kansas St., at Ridgeview Rd.,  may God’s children hear the Word proclaimed,  be washed in the cleansing waters, and fed at the table of grace. Living Christ, be the chief cornerstone of our body, today and always, Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Good Shepherd Leads Us Still

•March 26, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Slide2We are in the fourth Sunday in our journey through this Lenten season, which ends on Easter Sunday.

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The past three Sundays, we concluded worship with special ceremonies surrounding the 1870, 1884, 1923, and 1960 dedication stones.

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Last week’s gathering around the 1960 stone was particularly meaningful, as we opened a time capsule and revealed the contents placed there on February 14, 1960, and as members who were here then and now gathered for photos.

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Some of these same folks may appear in photos from the February 14, 1960, laying of the stone.

Slide7In the worship bulletin we found (somewhat discolored from the thick paper wrapping which was placed in the sealed copper safe-deposit-box-like time capsule) I discovered that the choreography of the ceremony was similar, gathering outside after worship, a service presided over by another pastor named “John,” who also used the text from Ephesians 2.

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As our journey of faith continues, it’s probably good to acknowledge that there’s something extraordinary about today’s worship service. It’s not just the fact that we are worshiping in a new space. We’ve done that before. Edwardsville Presbyterians have worshiped together at Camp Carew, on youth mission trips, in experimental worship services at places like SIUE and the YMCA. What makes today unusual is the purposeful inclusion in worship of a physical journey from Kansas Street to Goshen School, and the uprooting from a familiar home this journey represents.

This choreography makes us think and feel things similar to what our nomadic spiritual ancestors thought and felt as they moved from place to place. At Kansas Street, it is relatively easy to appreciate biblical references to worship in the Jerusalem temple. “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.” At Goshen School we will be given a unique opportunity to appreciate what it was like to be God’s people during the time of the post-Exodus wilderness years, or post-Kingdom exile years, a time of moving forward to a new and more permanent home, the landscape constantly changing.

If you recall your personal experiences of travel to new places, then you remember that it can be disconcerting to wake up and find yourself in an unfamiliar building. As I speak today, I realize it’s perfectly normal and natural for your mind to be focused on other issues and questions: transportation, directions, parking, “Where is the coffee?” “How do I find the restrooms?” “Can the children eat crackers in the school library?” One of the first things to acknowledge about our journey to temporary worship at Goshen School is that we don’t feel settled, and it will take some time to get our bearings. And that’s ok.  I hope you’ll linger for a few minutes after worship, and get a sense of the building we occupy.

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The 23rd Psalm is featured prominently in today’s lectionary schedule of scripture readings. When I read it, I can’t help but think of the geography  that formed the context for its writing. On the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the elevation descends 4000 feet over about 15 miles. Deep canyons are found in the area.  One of the best known is called the Wadi Qelt.

The slide gives you just enough information to imagine what it would be like to travel that valley, at points noticing the space around you darker, only a portion of the sky is visible above the canyon walls. The Wadi Qelt invites you to imagine what it must have been like for the ancient traveler, on foot or with a pack animal. He or she must have wondered regularly about the possibility of a thief hidden among the rocks, waiting to make his move, or a wild animal lurking the shadows looking for a meal, or a torrential distant rain that might bring a drowning flood. Wadi Qelt is the valley of the shadow of death. In the presence of such threat,  the psalmist encourages us not to be controlled by our fear, because God walks with us through dangerous places. [1]

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When the 23rd Psalm makes its appearance in the middle of Lent, I think a wise choice it was for the framers of the lectionary  to remind us of God’s presence and provision just when we’re in the deepest and darkest part of Lent’s valley.  It is our scriptural reminder that in the “dark valley” of Lent, in the midst of our most fearful challenges, the Good Shepherd travels with us. The promise of the Good Shepherd’s presence  is encouragement for us today.  We don’t face the same physical threats our ancestors did. It’s easier to find evidence that God is providing for our congregation’s future.  Still, the temptations and distractions of our age are dangerous in their own way, and fear of the future is still a real and significant threat.

Maybe you’re one of those for whom this journey is particularly frightening, and anxiety-producing.  Maybe you’re a volunteer who has devoted many hours and much energy, and this journey is simply tiring you out. Our congregation’s journey from building to building requires the sort of courage and strength we find only through trust in Him.

In the midst of whatever particular valley you may feel yourself today, the words of the old Tommy Dorsey hymn seem particularly meaningful:

 Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me stand

I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m worn

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.

From Kansas Street, to Goshen School, to Ridgeview Road, (and beyond!) precious Lord, lead us home.

NOTE

[1] This is the way Wadi Qelt is described by my colleague and traveling partner Lew Hopfe in his sermon “My Twin Demons,” delivered to Plymouth Congregational Church, Wichita, KS, 17 May 1992.

The Cornerstone to Come

•March 21, 2017 • Leave a Comment

1960 laying 1from the FPCE archives, “The Laying of the Cornerstone,” February 14, 1960 ….

Some of you have been asking questions about the schedule for construction of the new building. This is natural because we’ve been conducting ceremonies related to the dedication stones of past buildings and are looking forward to a similar ceremony at the future building. So what happens between session approval of construction drawings and dedication of a new cornerstone?

I am learning that there is a series of steps that our design-build team takes to get us from here to there. I’m not an expert in architecture or engineering, so some of these things are beyond my ability to understand in depth.  Still, for the sake of all who are wondering, I’ll attempt to describe some steps from my amateur perspective.

One step is a review process with our design-build team and the city planning and zoning department, during which time the new church design is measured against building codes and a development code known as the “I-55 Corridor Plan.” There is room for different interpretations of the same code language, and dialogue eventually leads parties to agreement. Changes are evaluated in terms of design aesthetics and engineering functionality.

A second step is development and circulation of “requests for proposals” from our design-build team to potential sub-contractors for project components, and evaluation of each proposal for soundness and value. This process leads to revision of previous pricing estimates, and to further discussion with our Construction Readiness Committee about potential additions and subtractions. Eventually, the church and the design-build team arrive at agreement about any change to the GMP (guaranteed maximum price).

Yet a third step involves refining the financial plan so that when construction begins, we are reasonably confident that we can pay all invoices that will arrive during the following months. As you recall, our plan calls for a construction loan to “bridge” the time between when payment is due, and when funds are received from the sale of our current campus.  As soon as the amount of the GMP is known, we will quickly complete our request paperwork to potential lenders.

When these pieces are in place to the satisfaction of the Construction Readiness Committee and the Session, the path forward is relatively straightforward. Our design-build team procures sub-contractors, materials are ordered and delivered, and site preparation begins in earnest. The land is properly graded, a building pad created, and utility connections ordered.  A corner layout is plotted, and preparations made for footings and foundations. Near this time, a cornerstone is prepared and a dedication ceremony takes place.

While I am not yet able to specify a date for the cornerstone ceremony, we know it will happen, when the time is ripe. Please pray for your church’s leaders and all who are working to prepare a new home for mission and ministry.