A Church that Didn’t Get the Memo
Psalm 100 & Ezra 5:6-17
Brothers and Sisters the Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray:
God of wisdom and life grant that we your children might know the vastness of your love, that your love has no end, that your grace can never be consumed, that you center is everywhere and your circumference is yet to be discovered so that we might live in this world as your children: loved, graced, forgiven, transformed, and healed. But Lord just as we seek not to take you for granted do not take us for granted either. We need thee, every hour we need thee. Do not hide your love, do not assume we will know about you and your love for us. In this moment come to us, speak to us through the scriptures and through life both now and forevermore. Amen.
If some authoritarian body were to write an official memo on church life today it would look something like this:
To Those Who Still Bother.
On average those in your situation close their doors at the rate of 75 a week or 4,000 per year. On average at the rate of 52,000/week of those who make up your houses of worship walk away from church altogether or 2.7 million per year. The median of those who still bother to worship is 75 a Sunday and their clergy are part-time. Of those who still bother to give 17% say they really tithe but only 3% actually tithe, the rest contribute 2.6% of their after tax income. Finally of those who still bother the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed atheists and agnostics know more than you about scripture and religious practices in America.
J. Walter Knowitall
I am sure a similar memo was delivered to the Israelites after the Babylonian Exile. Their city was destroyed, their temple lay in charred ruins, there was in fighting between those who returned from exile and those who remained, there were those who said forget it and there were those who wanted more than anything to enter his courts with thanksgiving and praise. Eventually the Temple was built and with it Jerusalem was re-established. In the midst of the rebuilding project some Persian emmisaries asked the Israelites what on earth they were doing. They simply responded, “We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago…”
Last year our theme for our stewardship campaign was survival, simply put this church made it! Despite the storm, despite the loss of members, despite the loss of income, despite all of it, despite the discussions whether close up shop and relocate or dissolve, despite the uncertainty of the future of the city this church made it…and had the fortitude, courage, and audacious hope to call a new pastor. Now what?
Now what? This year I offer the Israelites’s answer as our answer, “We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago…”
Brothers and Sisters I ask that we live our lives and dedicate our hearts as if we didn’t get the memo, that we didn’t get the word that churches like this are not supposed to grow, succeed, or thrive. Churches like this are not supposed to focus on evangelism, stewardship, youth groups, small groups, prayer circles, reaching out to young professionals, build with and for college students, hopes a certain quarterback yearns some morning for his Baptist roots, logging in hours feeding the hungry, speaking up for the voiceless, basic Christian education, & etc. But that is exactly what we are going to have to do to get this ship moving.
We can all assert and assess that our sights are above the horizon, all signs are pointing upward: new members, increase in giving, and general sense of gonna make it.
We can all assert and assess that the needs are vast and numerous as we move forward. My thought it is to use every creative angle I can to network and leverage help and aide for this church. That means foundation grants, underwriting of programs and positions, seminary and college interns. I am going to lean on you for connections and support. I am going to lean on you for odd jobs and requests. Every day the Queen of England receives hundreds of letters – obviously she cannot answer each and every one yet she thinks it is important that each receive an answer she asked for a group of retired women to answer her letters for her. This group of women is called the Queens Ladies in Waiting. I need a group of “ladies-in-waiting” to help organize our membership lists, file away papers, help write grants, send out correspondences, make phone calls to simply say hello, check up on folk, & etc.
Paul Powell has volunteered to come on board at the start of year as a coordinator of Christian Education to help in this venture. I believe I have a post-seminary graduate intern lined up for 2011 (we need to come up with health insurance only). I believe I have several seminary intern for the summer. In the Fall an architecture class from Tulane will be looking at how to redesign our building space as a class project. And I am hoping for a few college interns in the Fall to help with the business aspects of the congregation. We are also applying for a worship and the arts grant to initiate a jazz and gospel Sunday evening vespers service or camp or early morning alternative service. We have to act like we didn’t get the memo that this type of work can’t be done.
After Christmas we are going to delve into a congregation wide study on Christian practices. Over the course of Lent I am going to charge the congregation to break up into specific small groups to experiment with these Christian practices then convene after Easter and share about your experiences. The hope is to jump start the experience and practice of small groups.
In 2011 I also hope to re-connect with our sister churches in Cuba, organize a mission trip to Haiti through International Ministries, and ask every person for every hour in worship you spend an hour in mission work somewhere in the church or in the city.
All of this will take money. We are a generous giving congregation. We are on target to give approximately $270,000 from members and supporters. For a church of 125-150 active members that is a phenomenal number. We are, I am, asking for everyone of us to continue to increase our giving as much as we can for the next coming year. If you have never filled out a pledge card I challenge you to do so this year. We need as accurate financial number more than ever to form our budget this year. Historically this church, like all churches has had a hard time fulfilling its budget. My research over the past few weeks revealed countless examples of pleas by the pastor to fulfill pledges in December. My personal goal is that we begin to change the church culture of giving. That at the end of the year when we have a surplus we do not reallocate it to savings but we have a grand/excitement filled meeting where we decide how we are going to give our extra money away to missions or fund new ministry initiatives. We have to change and act like we didn’t get the memo about how to live out our calling as Christians – I think it is our only way to grow.
In closing, let me share a story. The Sunday before I started Lou Irwin preached a sermon titled A Ministry of Reconciliation. It was a fine and proper sermon. But there was something about it that I didn’t like. I suppose it was the fact that it did not fit with my own hopes and dreams of helping to reawaken a Baptist cathedral. I mean you cant grow a church with a ministry of reconciliation. It is not like I didn’t feel an affinity, even a co-dream of a ministry of reconciliation but it just didn’t seem possible. Apparently no one from the search committee gave Lou the memo about how we were going to flourish.
A few weeks ago I began preparing for this sermon and this day by looking over historical documents of this congregation. I kept coming back to the mentioning of the dedication and naming of the baptistery, this is the formal Purser Memorial Baptistery. I googled, tore up the history and safe room, and asked everyone I could if they knew anything about the men for whom the baptistery was named. All anyone could tell me is that they were Baptist ministers. Finally I unearthed some stories, finally my birddogging produced a useful find.
David Ingram Purser and John Frederick Purser were brothers, both Baptist preachers and both served, primarily, congregations in Alabama. David Ingram was a Confederate solider of the Seven Stars Artillery company and was participated in 16 hard-fought engagements. After the war he started a business and became quite wealthy. In 1870 he was ordained and because of his previous success in business never accepted a dollar for his work as a pastor.
John Frederick Purser was a minister from the start. He always lived in the shadow of his older brother but all admit that David would never have been the success he was if it weren’t for John.
In 1906 Morehouse College, in Atlanta, GA, elected its first African-American president, Dr. John Hope. Sitting on the board who elected Dr. Hope was John Frederick Purser.
Neither in 1906 or 1925 when the baptistery was memorialized in the Purser name could anyone have imagined the ministry of reconciliation that emerged from Morehouse College. In 1923 Howard Thurman graduated from Morehose, went to Rochester Theological Seminary in Rochester, NY then onto Boston University to serve as Dean of Marsh Chapel. While serving as Dean of the Chapel another Morehouse graduate and Crozer Theological Seminary graduate (both schools merged to form CRCDS, my alma mater) was pursuing academic study, his name was Martin Luther King, Jr. These two men offered America the greatest ministry of reconciliation our nation has ever known. King was obviously the public figure but Thurman was the chaplain of the civil rights movement. King carried a copy of Thurman’s most popular book Jesus and the Disinherited with him wherever he went, it was in his briefcase when he was assassinated in Memphis, TN 1968.
In this simple and ornate baptistery, named for two Baptist preachers is a legacy of a ministry of reconciliation, it is our tradition and it is our challenge and charge as a community today. In this city, in our lives, in our world.
Stewardship is not about giving money to keep the lights on, to pay the pastor, to mow the grass although your giving does ensure all of that. Stewardship is about giving so that we can be the people God has called us to be, is desiring us to be, is challenging us to be. This congregation has a ministry of reconciliation. The memo says you cant grow a church with that tradition, challenge, and ministry. But we are going forward as if we didn’t get that memo. We are going to grow with integrity, with grace, with love, with an intentional ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation is where God is at work in this world, may we be a part of God’s work too. Amen & Amen.