Ash Wednesday Message: We Belong to God

 

Ash Wednesday Message:  We Belong to God

 

“We belong to God” – my Ash Wednesday message in preparing for a journey through Lent.  Reflecting on first words of the Brief Statement of Faith: 

We Belong to God

 

 And the first question in the Heidelberg Catechism:

 

“I belong—body and soul, in life and death—not to myself

but to my faithful savior Jesus Christ”

 

Trusting through the grace of Jesus Christ that “I belong to God”, I risk sharing some of my personal story and the story of the church I served[1]  – seeking not the “sound of the trumpet of praise” and the “sober testament of God’s involvement in our lives”, but rather God’s voice in helping me prepare for One who lived and died for me[2].

 

A glimpse into my personal story: 

 

I.  THE PHOENIX

 

I have been going to the same doctor for over 28 years. Dr. Caroline Scott is an active Episcopalian worshipping in a church just a few blocks from Warren Avenue Presbyterian.  When I go in for an office visit, we always spend some time talking about our common interest in doing Christ’s work in downtown Saginaw.    

I am fortunate to have found a doctor who is as passionate about God’s work in the city as in taking care of her patients.  As a volunteer she provides free health screenings/advice to members of her inner-city congregation the first Sunday of each month.  Truly a servant-physician at her best!  

 

I mention my own physician  because her medical practice is appropriately named PHOENIX FAMILY PHYSICIANS.

 

The Phoenix is a majestic mythical bird, a fire spirit that can live for 500 to a 1000 years.  Near the end of life the Phoenix builds a nest of twigs that then ignites;  both nest and bird burn and are reduced to ashes, from which a new young Phoenix emerges, reborn, to live again.

 

My family and friends and church have helped me rise like a Phoenix from the flames of a heart attack over 25 years ago.  Take note, my young colleagues, you can have a heart attack at the age of 35.  At the age of 50 I had double knee replacement that ended with a septic infection that almost took my life.  My family and friends gathered thinking this might be the end.  It took me more weeks to recover than I can remember.  THANKS BE TO GOD!

 

The Phoenix rose again just a few years later when another infection shut down my kidneys…..I escaped meeting St. Peter one more time!  My wife was out of town.  The Lake Huron Presbytery Executive, Rev. Louise Brokaw, was the one who got me to the Emergency Room.  The church and presbytery have always had my back!  

 

Like the Phoenix, I have been given several opportunities to emerge from the ashes.   Good things have come from these experiences. 

 

For me, I couldn’t avoid sharing my personal story with the congregation I served.   We lived through these experiences together.  Just as I walked with members of the congregation through tragic times, this congregation walked with me.  New doors opened in relating with congregants with compassion and a deep sense of empathy for what they were going through.  These experiences made me a better pastor.   

 

I was reminded, each week as I enter worship with two canes or a walker, that together as pastor and congregation we enter the flames of illness and mental anguish and spiritual despair.  Together we struggle to emerge from the ashes to discover again, as Joel says, that the “Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 

 

For you, my friends and colleagues, may this season of Lent be a time of personal reflection on what it means rise out of the ashes of whatever you may be going through in your lives—surrounded with God’s “abounding and steadfast love.   

 

II. A LOCAL CHURCH STORY

 

Working hard not to boast, the church I served has an amazing story to share  — an amazing story of rising from the ashes of significant challenges that have befallen downtown Saginaw throughout the years.

 

Literally, the church burned on January 2, 1898.  Ten months later the church emerged from the ashes rebuilt and rededicated under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Joseph Tewell.  This pastor then died a few years later from a heart-attack at a relatively young.

 

Throughout the years the church has had to adapt and change and re-tool how it does ministry as the community around the church has changed – growing to 1400 members in the 1950’s, currently just over 80 active members looking for new pastoral leadership.   As pastor and congregation, we spent many years re-inventing  ourselves in how we did things—as a spiritual island in a city that has been devastated with crime and blight and poverty—always focused on ways we could share God’s “abounding and steadfast love” with others. 

 

Some our re-tooling through the years of my pastorate involved discovering we can’t do ministry as an 80 member church alone.  In recent years we partnered with the East Side Soup Kitchen that used the church to serve the homeless and hungry poor.  The Soup Kitchen eventually moved into a new building called the HungerSolutionCenter….and we enjoyed partnering with them through the years.   

 

After several years of intense planning in partnership with Healthy Community Partners, St. Mary’s Hospital, Neighborhood Renewal Services and the FirstWardCommunity Center….the church opened its doors rent free to the Mark Neumeyer Cathdral District Youth Center. The late Mark Neumeyer was the man who called up one day and said:  Let’s talk about ways we can partner together in serving  children in the community.  40-50 children now come to this after-school program every day…..and the church doesn’t run the center, The First Ward Community Center that actually runs the program.

 

Several more examples one being the Women of Colors Inc. who also use the church building rent-free. 

III.  GROUNDING

 

There is one short sentence in the Book of Order, G.3.0400 has been central for me in helping the church define her mission:

 

The church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life….

 

A similar affirmation is found in the NFOG F-1.0301:

 

Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body……..a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.

 

 IV.  CONCLUSION

 

When I have been ill, there is no denying my fear in not knowing about the future.  The same is true in the church.  In various different contexts, we fear what is going to happen to us if we continue to do things the ways we have always done them.  In what new ways is God leading?  What is going to emerge from the flames of all the “unknowns” before the church in discerning God’s calling?    

 

We must carry with us this affirmation:  Whatever happens in our respective contexts, personally or as a church, there must always be knowledge that we are not alone.  God is always going to be with us.  God has our back. 

 

Let us again, as we enter into Lent, rise from the ashes of change to experience, again:   WE BELONG TO GOD.   IN LIFE AND IN DEATH….I BELONG TO GOD….WE BELONG TO GOD!

 

Amen

March 5, 2014

 

        Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17

 

2Blow the trumpet in Zion;
   sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
   for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
2
a day of darkness and gloom,
   a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
   a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
   nor will be again after them
   in ages to come.

 

12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13
   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing.
14
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
   and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain-offering and a drink-offering
   for the Lord, your God?

 

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
   sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16
   gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
   assemble the aged;
gather the children,
   even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
   and the bride her canopy.

 

17 Between the vestibule and the altar
   let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord,
   and do not make your heritage a mockery,
   a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
   “Where is their God?” ’

 

Matthew 6:  1-4  NRVS

CONCERNING ALMSGIVING

 

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

 

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.         


 

[1]   The church I served for over a quarter century:  The Warren Avenue Presbyterian Church, Saginaw, Michigan

 

[2] I first shared this message with the Presbytery of Lake Huron in March of 2011

 

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