We thank you, God, for this time of change, challenge, struggle, learning, witness, and action for and with our children. Thou counseled us to “take care that we not despair” and that it is not the will of our Father in Heaven that even “one of these little ones be lost.”

Help us, God, to overcome our selfishness and greed, our political and personal jockeying, our individual and organizational agendas, our need to be first, right, and recognized, and to become humble like the child whom Christ said I the “greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Guide My Feet, Marian Wright Edelman (120)

A prayer for the Board of Education, Saginaw Schools, as they make decisions to save the school system over 6 million dollars.  On the table is a decision to consider closing Saginaw High School. 

Comparative Statistics

Comparative statistics were recently released for the Presbyterian Church (USA) for 2012.   One statistic that caught my attention is that “more than half of Presbyterian congrgations (54%) are considered small, having 100 or fewer members.  The median Presbyterian congregation has 93 members.”   The church I served, the Warren Avenue Presbyterian Church in Saginaw, had membership of 85, well within this median range.   This church, like many of our small churches, has a ‘huge heart’ in serving our Lord. 

Who Owns the Sermon?

Interesting article from Christian Century. I know the key issue is for those who publish sermons and wish to receive income/royalties.    

1. Do we not preach for congregants and the world beyond the walls of the sanctuary?

2. Do we not (in the Presbyterian Church USA) follow the Book of Order?   Freedom of Conscience?  The church calls me to preach.  Content is beyond what anyone can own?

3. Is not the sermon but an extension of Scripture – God’s Work product?

4.  Do not preachers share their sermons in different contexts:  churches, nursing homes, chapels?   

5.  Another  related question:  Who owns the prayers of a pastor?

6.  When I want to quote another sermon do I contact the person who wrote the sermon or the church where the sermon was proclaimed? 

I often think the church has become too litigious with these interpretations of law when it comes to copyright and ownership.  I suppose a pastor who contemplates publishing sermons (for prophet) should include some legal language in his or her “call” or “contract”.  Otherwise I think this is a non-issue for 99% of preachers. 

 

 

Welcoming the Stranger

Passing the Peace of Christ

 

Also in retirement, I have read with interest John Buchanan’s blog “Welcoming the Stranger”.

 

“A Christian ritual meant to affirm community, love and unity among believers, can also be exclusive, awkward and off-putting to people who are not part of the community….I have never been a fan of Passing the Peace for that reason.”

 

It has been my personal experience that the “Passing of the Peace of Christ” can also be a positive ritual enhancing community life in worship.  As with anything we do in public worship, regular and rigorous instruction as to why we do certain things is important.  Passing the Peace of Christ, among other aspects of worship, is helpful in assuring the full acceptance and inclusion of strangers.  I agree with John Buchanan on the point that some of the churches I visit do very little to make the “stranger feel welcome”.   I have also had the opposite experience.  What is required if a church has the “Passing of the Peace of Christ”:

 

Rigorous Instruction:

1.     As John Buchanan asserts, don’t forget we are talking about the peace of Christ.  Some churches simply say, “Peace be with you”.  Buchanan says,

       “…..why not “the Peace of Christ”? It is what we mean; not the generic “peace” the aging 60′s folksinger signs off with accompanied by the raised two-finger peace sign. Why not say it: “The Peace of Jesus Christ be with you”?”

2.     It is time to make sure we pass the peace in the name of Christ.  Instruction as to the importance of this is required. 

2.     This ritual in our worship is not a “time out” to socialize or catch up on the one’s most recent golf game or recipe! 

3.     This is a time to recognize and actually meet those around us sharing in the worship experience.  We do not worship in isolation but in the context of those sitting around us—including strangers/visitors. 

4.     Regular and rigorous instruction in invoking discussion about the presence of Christ in our midst is the task of all teaching and ruling elders as church leaders.

 

A couple of personal antidotes:   In the small inner-city church I most recently served, the “Passing of the Peace of Christ” was not a ritual when I first arrived as pastor in the mid 1980’s.  It took a long time for the Session to introduce this ritual in public worship.  When I departed this church as pastor in 2013, this ritual had become one of the most valuable of all the things we did as a community of faith in worship.  We did run into the trap of discovering this ritual had a social element.  It was often hard to get a group in the back of the church to sit back down! J  This also became a time for an usher to come check on my pulpit water L.   Some more instruction was required.  There was one young man I enjoyed watching.  He made it a point to greet EVERYONE present in worship.  I think he was going to become a politician.  On this point, I am glad we were a smaller congregation. 

 

Another point:  I was pleased (and proud) to see church members not only greet as pass the peace of Christ with visitors/strangers but who would also take the initiative to move and sit with the visitors to help them feel more a part of the community. 

 

In agreement with John Buchanan, I did have the feeling we were almost too friendly turning this sacred ritual into a social event.  It was impossible to visit this church and go unnoticed or welcomed.  To some this experience of ‘warmth’ could be overwhelming.

 

As for the discussion about the fellowship following worship, I had the same experienced as Dr. Buchanan.  I too would experience the same people sitting in the same place.  I do believed, however, that it was rare that a visitor would be left standing a lone looking at the ceiling tiles.  (I’m not sure but I believe the ceiling in our fellowship hall is plaster…I am really not sure J)

 

 

Sermon: O God, Our Help and Hope

“O God, our Help and Hope”

January 27, 2013

  

Psalm 90: 1-2

God’s Eternity and Human Frailty

A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.  1 Lord, you have been our dwelling-place*
in all generations.  
2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Titus 1: 1-3

THE LETTER OF PAUL TO

1Paul, a servant* of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that is in accordance with godliness, 2in the hope of eternal life that God, who never lies, promised before the ages began— 3in due time he revealed his word through the proclamation with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior,

Luke 4: 16-20a

The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth

16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.

 I.  Introduction:  Life and Work of Isaac Watts[1]

What a wonderful and timeless hymn, O God, our Help in Ages Past, our Hope for Years to Come!  To gain a full understanding of this hymn requires looking into the life of Isaac Watts—born in SouthamptonEngland in 1674.  Growing up in a deeply religious household, Watts was rebellious, like many young people, in refusing to accept the teachings and practice of the established church—the Church of England.  Watts was a smart young man proficient at a young age in Latin and Greek and Hebrew.  From an early age he showed great aptitude for poetry and musical verse—writing over 600 hymns during his life—many in our Presbyterian Hymnal.

Many family and friends assumed Isaac Watts would advance in his studies to be ordained in the Church of England.  Still rebellious and a  Nonconformist, Watts was seen in the church to be a great agent for change.  Instead of going to Oxford or Cambridge Watts went to a progressive university at Stoke Newington.  He was ordained in 1702—not a lot of history I could find about his ministry.  He had health issues living most of his life in Hertfordshire, England, where he died at the age of 74.

I found it interesting that Watts was been labeled both an evangelical and progressive.  He was a die-hard nonconformist who embraced the traditions of the past with his eyes focused on the future.  O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come – this is a  hymn based on the words of today’s Psalm 90 that helps connect the realities of past experiences with a sense of God’s majestic reign eternally. 

 

Watt’s message in this hymn is simple and clear:  God of the past is also the God of the future.  God is the God of hope.  God is the God of all eternity.

II.   Ages Past /  Looking Back

Taking a few moments to look at our current context grounded in our rich history as a church on the corner of Warren and Millard Streets:  As Luke says in our morning gospel the “Spirit of the Lord has truly been a blessing upon us anointing us in worship and fellowship to serve the poor and captives and blind and hungry and the oppressed — proclaiming this and every year of our Lord’s favor.”

We are truly blessed as a church.  As we declare in what has become my favorite Call to Worship:  “How Wonderful is Your creation, O God, how blessed the passing of years.”  We are eternally grateful to God who has breathed into us life and hope.

Think for a moment about those who have gone before us.  Teachers and preachers and parents and grandparents friends near and dear to us who have worshipped in this place – in these pews – along side us.  I wouldn’t be here without some great mentors over the years  – truly some of you I am proud and blessed to call both friend and mentor.   Today is a good day to take time to reflect on those who have influenced us, helping us to set goals, helping to guide and mold us into who we are today.

CLOSE YOUR EYES FOR JUST A MOMNENT — THINK OF SOMEONE NEAR ANDDEAR TO YOU WHO HASE HELPED YOU BECOME WHO YOU ARE TODAY!

We give thanks to God for these saints who from “ages past” have made it possible to be in this place at this time in worshipping God—our strength and our hope.   

 

Specifically, there are more ministries and programs and ways God has touched us that exceeds the time allotted for one sermon.  So I need to share with you just a couple of broad sweeping examples. 

We are a church with a strong missional compass promoting stability in our community.  We enjoy our fellowship.  We love being in this beautiful church doing Christ’s worship and work. We are a church always evolving as circumstances around us change.

More than anything else, we are always ready to gather on Sunday mornings, 10:00 a.m., for sacred worship.  Grounded in scripture and centered in Christ. we are always ready to give glory to God who speaks to and through us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

III.  June 3, 2012

One of the most important meetings we have held as a congregation was back on June 3rd, following worship down in the Memorial Lounge.   This was a well-attended meeting that was one of the most productive conversations about the future of the church we have had in my ministry with you.  As in numerous occasions in the past, we have affirmed our desire to remain in this location in this neighborhood by choice.  There is simply nowhere else we want to be!

We talked this past June about the hard realities we face financially and with declining membership.   You will see these numbers again when we meet during our Annual Meeting. 

 

 

What I heard you say loud and clear is that you, the most active of our 86 members, have a passion for the close and  personal relationships we nurture together as friends in Christ doing the work Christ calls us to be doing that transcends everything else.  

On paper, we can see numbers and a budget that can sustain ministries in this church and this beautiful building for a few more years…..on paper.   I also would remind you that we are more than what we see on balance sheets.  In the past, if we paid attention to all the mathematical projections, we would have shut this church down years ago.  I also have to state this fact:  The numbers weren’t bad numbers.  We have simply made internal changes that have allowed us to keep our doors open for a few more years. 

In fact, had we decided to maintain staffing with a full time Associate Pastor[2] and Administrator and Financial secretary and Christian Education Director and Choir Director and Custodian along with Security – we would have run out of money years ago.  (Do you realize it’s now been twenty years since Tony Patrick was our Associate pastor?)   

With your commitment to pick up a host of responsibilities as leaders and volunteers, we have been able to continue to doing ministry and in caring for this building.  I would also note, from my perspective, there is very little we are doing now that we weren’t doing when this church had two pastors and 150 to 200 more members!  THIS IS AN EXTREMELY ACTIVE CHURCH FOR OUR SIZE!

One of our greatest successes in the past ten years has been collaborating with others — the East Side Soup Kitchen that first opened its doors here in 1997 and more recently to the Women of Colors Inc. and the MarkNeumeyerYouthCenter.  Thesecollaborations have been a remarkable  win/win experience for the church, the children served, and these organizations that have the resources we simply don’t have as a congregation at this time in our history.  Simply, does anyone here want the job of running a youth center?

This meeting back in June 3rd affirmed and I quote:   we will remain diligent in honestly assessing where we are financially in sustaining the basic ministries and relationships we have come to enjoy through the years.”   We must continue to be serious and sober in honestly assessing what we can do with resources God has entrusted our care.    

IV.  Our Eternal Home

There are always going to be some solemn and painful moments in our life as a church.  This past year three saints made the journey to their eternal home.   Joan Hepinstall, Barbara McDonald and Rudy Jarvi

I believe every single active member of this church was involved in helping with the funerals and memorial meals and in caring for hugging and crying with these families in their grief. 

I am profoundly moved when it comes to the heart-felt ways you give of yourselves to those who are ill or struggling or facing challenging times.  I truly see God in your sharing with others in times of need—which for me gives us HOPE FOR YEARS TO COME.   How long?  God only knows!

This is what Isaac Watts proclaimed in song:  As long as we don’t give up on God, God will always be with us to help us reshape and redefine and reframe and retool what we need to be doing as Christ’s church. 

 

What do I know for  a fact:

(1)             As long as we don’t give up on Jesus, Jesus won’t give up on us.

(2)            As long as we don’t give up on each other, God, as in ages past, will be our hope for years to come.    

(3)            As long as we are honest in bringing God into our decision / discernment processes, God will not give up on us.  Honestly, we may not always be the Warren Avenue Presbyterian Church, but God also promises…..never to give up on us as his faithful disciples!

With God by our side, we must embrace HOPE that transcends budgets and numbers.  What God has planned for you and me in our lives and this church is beyond what we can possibly know for sure!  But assuredly God will be with us every step of the way.   

 

So let’s do what we do best.  Let’s continue to give our children and youth the truly valuable resources and spiritual treasures we have all cherished in our lives:  the care and compassion, peace in Christ, the faith and hope that God has always and will always give us forever.  Let’s smile and do Christ’s work and move forward in the name of our glorious God.    

1 O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

AMEN

 

 



[1]   Some of the thoughts in this sermon come from the work of Ian Poulton in a sermon he preached July 29, 2007 at St. Matthais’ Church. 

  

[2]   Tony Patrick was our last full-time Associate Pastor who left in November of 1992, 20 years ago.