Micah 6:6-8, Matthew 5:14-16
October 22, 2017
PRELUDE TO THE NEXT TWENTY-FIVE YEARS
It was just a small tear, gathering unobtrusively and innocently at the corner of a tired eye watching the road. Turned out, however, to be a crack in the composure. The professor had been so cruel, belittling Nancy for her question, in front of the whole class. Her face went red all over again remembering the mean spirit; the solitary tear turned trickle. The day had gone bad enough already; the Bionni child being more than the usual nightmare in her fourth grade class. She should have referred him days ago. That principle had no right chewing her out in the faculty room, in front of six colleagues. Anger joining misery, both eyes started spilling out in streams. The Kleenex were gone. She would have liked to call her mom, but Mom was travelling. She would have liked to talked to her husband, but they had just had a disagreement, the thought of which broke the damn, and she burst out crying, so wretchedly that she couldn’t see through her tears, and she had to pull over. The only thing she could think to do was pray. Pray right there on the side of interstate 95. Pray, hoping that God would notice.
Finally, the involuntary sobbing and hiccupping subsided. Sleeves soaked, her heart was calmed, and her eyes cleared, the car radio clock said 7:28. She looked in her mirror, flipped down her signal, pulled into traffic and drove home to Seven Oaks. After walking the dog and checking the mail, she went to the telephone answering machine, which was indicating one message and pressed play. The following message was recorded at 7:28.
Hi, this is Tim Stern from the Presbyterian Church in Odenton, and we are starting a new church on Sunday, December 1 in Odenton Elementary School, before we do, we are calling some of our new neighbors to see if we can ask a couple of real quick questions. I left our number.
We were in the process of making over 7,000 calls, many people were having meaningful, joyful experiences on the phone. We were on break, in our rented office across from what is now the Pachanga Grill, when Nancy Stefan called back, asking to speak to me. I was dumbfounded, moved and encouraged to hear her story. Really praying on 95 at 7:28, just when we called, I started to get an inkling, a stirring in my heart that just maybe God was in this phone ministry. I had prayed for many months that I would be called to lead this congregation, and this just felt like a little bit of confirmation.
This is not a new story to all of you. I know it has been shared before. In reality, this is not a new story to any of you. We know that for most folk something like this happened in the weeks or months just before they decided to try Ark and Dove or their church. It could have been crisis in the family or at work. It could have been a birth, a promotion, a death in the family, a separation, an engagement, a move to a new community, an empty nest, but something happened and you found yourself drenched by a storm, at the mercy of a flood – we call it life. And you went searching for some consolation and joy. You went searching for an Ark so you could navigate the tempest. And somehow you ended up trying church, hoping that it would work, that it would help and heal, that it would aid you to rejoice again.
Things were tense in Philippi where two leaders in the church Syntyche and Euodia were quarrelling. This conflict disturbed the Apostle Paul, who had founded the church, and when he wrote this letter to his friends, his tone was a bit firm. “Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone, the Lord is near, do not worry.” Often when I read this passage I feel the encouragement, but some scholars say that we could interpret this charge almost as a command. Because God is always nearby, we should be rejoicing.
It is recorded in Matthew that Jesus said where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in your midst. It could also be stated that when two or three are gathered there is conflict in your midst. Families fuss, people squabble at school and work. Even church members wrangle. Nancy Stefan’s story is our story. Part of the reason we come to church is to savor joy, so our hearts are soothed and resilient in the face of storms.
After we established a Sunday School and choir, the congregation felt strongly that the rented space did not feel like home, and we started planning for a building. Moved in January 1996. That was our first long range goal. After that, the practice of the Session became to create a long range plan every three years. Congregational surveys and inventories; self-critiquing became our model in an attempt to stay fresh and innovative and faithful to God’s call. We try to be honest about our strengths and weaknesses.
In every Long Range Plan, you as a congregation have affirmed how central spirited quality worship is to your life, and this is very good because regular worship attendance is one of the six marks of discipleship, to which we all agree when we join Ark and Dove. We have two awesome Music Directors and paid instrumentalists because you take Paul’s charge to rejoice in the Lord always, to heart. We rejoice in this place, and hopefully we take that with us when we exit because our mission statement reads that we are a community of disciples that embodies the life and spirit of Jesus Christ, so that lives are transformed and God's dream is carried into the world.
Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, in the Gospel of Matthew, calls his followers the light of the world. Paul exhorts us to rejoice, and Jesus names us light of the world. Jesus doesn’t say we have to jump through hoops to become the light, but that we are already the light. What’s ridiculous, he says, is when we hide our light under a basket. We are not made to be hidden. We are not made to be spectators. Jesus insists we are made for shining. Part of our DNA here is the way we live out the sixth mark of discipleship, we agree to engage in acts of mission, mercy and justice. We do this together as a congregation, and we do this as individual disciples, as we head out to school, work and the community.
Over the last several years, as I have engaged in deeper conversations with people who are visitors, I have had the complete confidence to say to them that this is a really neat congregation. Now granted, I am hoping they come back; but I can say that you shine, because you are genuinely welcoming, you are open-hearted and open-minded and you care about each other and the world and not just the people in the world, but the whole of God’s creation. I am not schmoosing them, I truly love the way you are congregation. I truly appreciate the gifts that each one of you brings to this church, and often I wonder what has become of the 250 people who have moved away over the last 25 years. Are we perfect? No way. That’s why we do an every three year evaluation and plan, but we are engaged and earnestly trying.
And we know how we keep the light shining – daily prayer, regular Bible reading, and a commitment to continuing Christian Education through programs like Sunday School, Logos and Youth Group. Now let me let you in on a course correction we made as a congregation beginning with the 1999 and 2002 Long Range Plans. We came to the realization that a lion’s portion of our efforts as a church had been going toward getting into a building, mission projects and creating children’s and youth ministries. This is a church that was and is committed to children and youth. Every member of our staff works directly with children and youth, and when we meet as a staff we talk about your kids, because we like kids, and we know who your kids are or we will in three months. It’s a passion we share and it’s not going away, BUT. But what we noticed was that we also needed to feed our adults, and so we began to focus on Adult Education and Adult Small groups for personal, spiritual, theological and biblical growth. One of the reasons we have called Associate Pastors to this congregation is to help shepherd Adult Spiritual growth as well as opportunities for the young. I’d have to say that I wish more adults would take advantage of the opportunities we have for spiritual growth in our church.
As you have heard, our Stewardship effort this year is entitled Prelude to the Next Twenty-five Years. I need to tell you that I nearly fell out of my seat when Steve Debus, our Discipleship Elder announced that Prelude would be our theme. You see about two months ago I had a conversation with my long time Spiritual Director Bill Hug about our 25th anniversary celebration. Conversation included, “Are you inviting Presbytery?” I said, “No, I think we will just make it family.” “Well are you trying to reach out to old members, who have moved away?” And I said, “We figure they have moved on with their lives. We are going to have fun and keep it low-key.” And he was quiet, and I knew that meant something important was coming. “You know why that is, don’t you?” “Why, what?” I asked. “Why your people are keeping it low key?” I looked at him, and he said, “Because your church looks to the future not the past. Your past is your prelude to future faithful ministry.” Hence my sermon title, hence my spiritual gasp and goosebumps when Steve announced the Prelude name.
So Steve you told us at Session this last week that you would like to put some concrete opportunities on this year’s pledge cards, in addition to the opportunity to raise pledging by 1% of household income. Generous stewardship is the fifth mark of discipleship. Steve, I think we need every adult in this congregation to pledge to at least one Adult Education event or small group opportunity for personal growth in 2018. John Calvin taught us that we could love God with both our hearts and our minds, and we don’t check our minds at the door when we come to rejoice.
In our third biblical text for the morning, humanity finds itself in a court room and God is distributing some survey results and evaluations. God is not happy with false worship. God is basically saying don’t you come into this church singing happy songs, if you are not going to go out there and treat people kindly and fairly and not only that, I want to you be humble, with integrity, and to work for justice in the land. “He has told you, oh mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Mission has always been central to our congregation. Yes worship is mission and Sunday School is mission and adult ed. is mission. But when we say mission around here we usually mean reaching out to the least of these in the world with the justice and compassion of Christ, like you so excellently did with your hosting of Winter Relief. For years now, we have talked about going beyond the essential help up, band aid on approach to mission and enlarging our focus to addressing the root cause of injustices in our world and in 2016 this showed up in our new Long Range Plan.
A couple of weeks back about 22 of us from Ark and Dove attended a very moving gathering of about 20 religious communities in Annapolis; 419 people. We are working to create a nonpartisan Community Organizing group as an affiliate of the industrial Areas Foundation. The goal of this Unnamed Anne Arundel Chapter of IAF is to hold local community leaders and politicians accountable for creating and sustaining a just community. Two central components of IAF community organizing are: 1. To recognize that Churches, Mosques and Temples have power, that power is God given and good and when we don’t use our power to improve our community, we are accepting the status quo. And 2. To realize that power is multiplied and leveraged by creating genuine relationships with other religious people and religious leaders in our community so that we can trust each other to work together on making our community a better and more just place. The key to creating these relationships is engaging in one on discussions with people we don’t know, heart-to-heart, to learn their passions and to join them in discipleship.
Jon and I have been conducting one on meetings with people at Ark and Dove and in the community and I am calling on you all to join us in that enterprise. Steve I think the Prelude pledge cards need to have a place where people in Ark and Dove can commit to having one on one meetings with people they don’t know. We will provide training because we need to build connections and relationships with people in our church and in our community. I would think that a one on one meeting per quarter should be attainable for any adult member of our church and I invite you all to strive for that or even more.
Three phrases are central in the inspiring text from Micah: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly. We are living a political climate, a season in our nation’s life where discourse has ceased to be civil and people are being manipulated by hate and lies. President Bush summed it up eloquently and prophetically when he said this week, “Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.” “We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism.” “We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. . . . Argument turns too easily into animosity.” “….. bigotry and white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.” We are called to love kindness,
Three phrases: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly. I learned from Mission Elder Christine Caufield Noll last year the term “micro-aggressions” as part of our Anti-Racism/social equity ministry. Many people of color experience micro aggressions from the white majority in our nation in delicate negative facial expressions, minor slights of tongue, and subtle angry or fearful body language. These micro aggressions add up to big hurt and tear people down. It was a moment of revelation for me. I have witnessed micro aggressions. I saw them in the corner of my eye. I did not have a word for them.
I have learned from my spouse, Kelly, from her work as manager and customer service in an organic and natural market, that we, as Christians, are called to engage in micro kindnesses; random and planned tiny acts of goodness, warmth and hospitality that help to build up all our neighbors, because many may not be bawling so hard they can’t drive, but still might be under unseen pressures, weights and worries. We have been married 21 years now, and I thank her for all her micro and macro acts of kindness and support for my ministry. She builds me up.
Three phrases: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly. The Prelude is now complete, After this day is over, we as a church begin our journey into the next twenty five years of ministry. If at any time in the future, we start to think like we have arrived. If at any time, we start to think that man this church is sitting pretty. If at any time we begin to think that we can put this Ark on cruise control. If at any time we have more money than budget, more disciples than jobs, more resting than ministering, more compliments than ideas and complaints, if we ever start to feel cushy, hide our lamps, or rejoice halfheartedly, then we know we are doing something wrong. Then we know that we are more cocky than humble. Being a disciple means stretching, continually, humbly stretching so that God’s dream is carried into the world.
There are tear-filled people out there pulling over to the side of the road weeping hoping they can find what you have created in this place. Keep welcoming them so that they become a part of us and we become a part of them. Stay the Ark of safety, it’s in your name. With the symbol of our dove hovering over you. Keep trying to shine, keep rejoicing in God, walk humbly, live with kindness, create justice in the land, for we are called to carry God’s dream into the world.
~ Pastor Tim Stern