Posts

Keep Awake

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Julia Pearson

A sermon preached at Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, MD. Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37.

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and we’re preparing to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Throughout the season we’ll hear about a baby in a manger, Mary and Joseph and the Three Magi; so why do we begin the season with these dark, apocalyptic readings? It seems a bit morose, doesn’t it? I think it’s because Jesus’ birth was about a lot more than a baby in a manger, and these readings are calling our attention to that. We’re being reminded that all is not what we think it is, and we’d better start paying attention or we’ll miss the whole point of why we’re here.

One of my favorite writers on the subject of incarnation is Ilia Delio, a Franciscan nun who specializes in science and religion. She writes, “In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a new God-consciousness of love becomes radically expressed in a way that departs from other religions. This new religious consciousness evokes a new way of action. Jesus is a new Big Bang in evolution, an explosion of love that ignites a new way of thinking about God, creation and future.”

She continues, “Jesus’ God-centered life shows a way of relating to others that makes things whole where there are divisions. His love gathers and heals what is scattered and apart. He draws people into community and empowers them to live the law of love.”

Jesus is a new Big Bang in evolution? That’s a far cry from a sweet little baby in a manger, and that’s what today’s readings are trying to get us to see. It’s a wake up call to see reality from a different point of view – to, in fact, see it as it really is.

As of this morning, there have been 319 murders in Baltimore this year. That’s more than last year, and we still have a month to go. This past Thursday I walked in the Harlem Park West neighborhood with leaders from our outreach ministry BUILD, which stands for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. When I heard about the murder of Detective Suitor in that same neighborhood several weeks ago, my heart broke, and I know many people in the city felt the same way. It’s why we were there on Thursday.

I saw block after block full of vacant houses, with maybe two occupied houses on any given block. People hear gunshots every night. I talked with a woman named Talia who has a 15 year old son and she won’t let him go outside after dark. She has only lived in the neighborhood for five months, and in that time she knows of five people who have been killed, one right across the street from her. I listened to her story and I felt the despair of Isaiah’s lament, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” I pray that her son will make it out of that neighborhood alive.

And that’s just part of our current reality. We hear a new story almost every day of another man accused of sexual harassment or assault, as centuries of treating women as objects rises up to be healed and transformed. But that’s a subject for another sermon. What’s capturing my heart right now is what’s happening in our city, which we can’t afford to ignore any longer.

Recently at a BUILD Strategy Team meeting, we were looking at people’s responses to questions about what is causing the violence in Baltimore. Overwhelmingly, answers from throughout the city were lack of opportunities for youth. Many people also mentioned drugs, but when you added up lack of jobs, the closing of rec centers and lack of after-school programs, lack of youth opportunities was the top reason. As we dove deeper into the conversation, a youth member of the team spoke up. She said, “You know those guys who were picked up in Federal Hill recently? I know them. I grew up with one of them. He saw someone murdered right in front of him in his living room. We can’t begin to imagine what these kids have experienced in their lives.” And in that moment we all knew that we had to start telling a different story about the youth in Baltimore.

The disenfranchised neighborhoods of this city aren’t the Wild West, they are a war zone, and everyone living in them experiences the trauma of this on a regular basis. We need to address the trauma at least as much as the violence, because they go hand in hand. This isn’t to excuse the violence – violence should never be excused under any circumstance – but addressing trauma is the only hope we have of getting at the root cause of the violence.

Three years ago Dr. Nadine Burke Harris gave a TED talk about the adverse health affects of childhood trauma. She talked about how she used to look at childhood trauma either as a social problem to be referred to social services, or as a mental health problem to be referred to mental health services. This is how she was trained.

She started working with kids from a poor and underserved neighborhood in San Francisco, and a lot of kids came into her office who had been referred to her for ADHD – attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. But when she did a thorough history and physical exam on them, the diagnosis didn’t fit. Most of these kids had experienced severe trauma, and something wasn’t adding up.

One day a colleague handed her a study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, and it forever changed the way she practiced medicine. This study asked 17,500 adults about their exposure to what they called adverse childhood experiences, or ACES. These include physical, emotional or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness, substance dependence or incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence. For every yes, you get a point on your ACE score.

It turns out ACES are incredibly common. 67% of the population had at least one ACE, and 12.5%, one in eight people studied, had four or more. The researchers also found that there is a direct correlation between ACES and health: the higher your ACE score, the worse your health outcomes. Dr. Burke Harris explains why this is: “imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, ‘Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!’ And so your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging.
Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.”

Identifying a direct link – through scientific evidence – between childhood trauma and health was groundbreaking. Dr. Robert Block, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics said at one point, “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.” For Dr. Burke Harris, this was exciting news because it was easy to test for, which made it possible to address holistically. If we know someone has a high ACE score, we can provide wraparound services that help to mitigate the long-term affects. She expected it to become a routine test in every doctor’s office. But that hasn’t happened.

Here she is again: “You know, at first I thought that we marginalized the issue because it doesn’t apply to us. That’s an issue for those kids in those neighborhoods. Which is weird, because the data doesn’t bear that out. The original ACEs study was done in a population that was 70 percent Caucasian, 70 percent college-educated. But then, the more I talked to folks, I’m beginning to think that maybe I had it completely backwards.” She continues, “Even in this room, this is an issue that touches many of us, and I am beginning to believe that we marginalize the issue because it does apply to us. Maybe it’s easier to see in other zip codes because we don’t want to look at it. We’d rather be sick.”

This is where our Advent call to “keep awake” breaks in like a splash of cold water. How can we be present with all that we are, and all that we feel, without either disassociating from it or running away?

To sit with what makes us uncomfortable – to not look away, to not run away, to not numb ourselves with food, drugs, alcohol, or shopping. It’s practicing unconditional presence. This is what I hear Jesus saying when he implores us to “keep awake.” We have to be willing to feel our scariest, darkest places if they are to be transformed. Because in the staying, the abiding – the surrendering – God does break in, and transforms our suffering into something new. Our surrender is our participation in the divine workings of God. It’s letting ourselves be the clay in the potter’s hands, and it’s how we become active participants in creation. But we have to be willing to stay with it. This is where contemplative practices like meditation are so helpful, because they train us to stay present through consistent, steady practice. Because if we can’t be present to our own pain, how can we possibly be present to the pain of others?

When we try not to think about what’s going on in East and West Baltimore, isn’t it just a symptom of trying to avoid our own dark places? When we avoid eye contact with a homeless person, aren’t we really afraid of what we’ll see in ourselves? If we’re going to be Christ in the world today, we have to understand these connections, because that’s the example he lived. This is what it means to “keep awake.”

So how do we apply this unconditional presence to others? We listen to people’s stories, and we share our own stories with them. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We let go of thinking we have all of the answers, making assumptions, and stereotyping people, and we just listen to them. We work to “gather and heal what has become scattered and apart” by embracing others as our own brothers and sisters because they are our brothers and sisters, and they are also our children.
There is a program in East Baltimore that has been doing this for the past sixteen years. It’s called The Club in Collington Square. It is an after school and summer program that currently serves 90 children with a waiting list of 40.

Its program director, Vanessa Williams, is an incredible woman. She is a specialist in urban education and knows how to develop children as both learners and leaders. The kids call her their grandmother. Most of her staff of teachers and assistants are from the neighborhood, and they are passionate about giving back to their community. The program includes academics, enrichment activities like dance and martial arts, play, and homework help. They also provide a snack and a hot dinner every day. It is a structured, loving haven in a very tough neighborhood, and it works. If we had programs like this all over the city, it would transform the fabric of our communities. But even this one is struggling to survive. I highly encourage you to take a look at their video – I’ll make sure there’s a link to it on our Facebook page.

Programs like The Club give us hope, and as people of faith we have a unique relationship to hope. We hold it deep within us, and right now we need to let it shine like a beacon for this city because we are in a state of emergency. Just this week school officials in Carroll County have halted all school related trips to Baltimore, because of the violence. So the Francis Scott Key High School Marching Band won’t be playing in the mayor’s Christmas parade this afternoon. It’s bad. This problem affects ALL of us, and it is in all of our self-interests to help heal this city. We can’t wait for the mayor, or the police, or elected officials to fix this. It’s going to take all of us.

To that end, your voice matters, so today during the offertory, members of the cathedral’s BUILD Core Team will be handing out a card containing two questions about the violence in the city. PLEASE take the time to fill it out – we’ll collect them as you leave today. The team will be bringing the cards to a BUILD meeting this Thursday, where we will begin addressing the violence in the city based on our citywide listening. If you are moved to get involved with this effort, talk to someone on the BUILD Core Team, and come to Thursday’s meeting if you can. Team members all have BUILD logos on their name tags today.

I’m going to close with a poem by Jan Richardson, who did the artwork on the cover of this week’s bulletin. It’s called Blessing for Waking.

This blessing could
pound on your door
in the middle of
the night.

This blessing could
bang on your window,
could tap dance
in your hall,
could set a dog loose
in your room.

It could hire a
brass band
to play outside
your house.

But what this blessing
really wants
is not merely
your waking
but your company.

This blessing
wants to sit
alongside you
and keep vigil
with you.

This blessing
wishes to wait
with you.

And so
though it is capable
of causing a cacophony
that could raise
the dead,

this blessing
will simply
lean toward you
and sing quietly
in your ear
a song to lull you
not into sleep
but into waking.

It will tell you stories
that hold you breathless
till the end.

It will ask you questions
you never considered
and have you tell it
what you saw
in your dreaming.

This blessing
will do all within
its power
to entice you
into awareness

because it wants
to be there,
to bear witness,
to see the look
in your eyes
on the day when
your vigil is complete
and all your waiting
has come to
its joyous end.
Amen.


Julia Pearson is Canon for Evangelism at Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, MD. She is currently a student at the Living School, studying with Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault and James Finley. The program emphasizes an embodied lifestyle made up of practices that deepen a more conscious union with God, and empowers students to express that union actively through works of engagement and compassion in the world.

Front Porch Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Mary Harris Todd

A sermon for Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, NC. Scripture: Mark 1:29-39.

Jesus really did not cover a lot of distance during his ministry. He spent most of his time in the region of Galilee, an area about the size of two or three North Carolina counties, maybe Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson.1

The region of Galilee was dotted with about two hundred villages, some larger, and some
smaller, and to get from one to another you walked. Think about the old days when people
around here used to walk up and down this road, visiting neighbors, and walking to school at Joyner’s Schoolhouse, which was across the road from where we are this morning — and it was the building in which Morton Church got its start. Picture what it would be like to walk from Easonburg to Langley’s Crossroads, and that’s a picture of the kind of traveling that Jesus did.

Capernaum, and specifically Peter’s house in Capernaum, was Jesus’ home base in Galilee. Located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum was more what we would call a small town, maybe 1500 residents. It was a center for the fishing industry. Jesus would go places, and then he would come home to Capernaum.

The story we read from Mark this morning took place very early in Jesus’ ministry. It didn’t take long for word to get around town that Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law from a dangerous fever. “Did you hear what happened at Peter’s house?” By evening excited kinfolk and friends crowded around and into Peter’s house, and Jesus healed many more who were sick or in the clutches of demons. No wonder Jesus went off alone for rest and prayer.

When they realized he was gone, Peter and his companions went looking for Jesus. “Everyone is searching for you!” they exclaimed when they found him. Jesus needed to come on back to the house and get back to work. There was so much more that needed doing right there at home at Peter’s house!

But Jesus said, “Let’s also go on to the neighboring villages so that I can proclaim the good news there, too. That’s why I came.” Yes, Jesus loved the members of Peter’s household, and his family and friends in Capernaum. But Jesus was also concerned about other neighbors and other neighborhoods. His concern reached to the ends of the earth. “Let’s go to the neighboring villages also,” he told his disciples. And before it was all over, Jesus was going to send them on to the ends of the earth.

Mark doesn’t tell us how Peter and the others reacted to Jesus’ plan to visit neighboring villages and interact with other people, but if they were anything like the members of Peter’s household now — the church — I think they might have been dismayed. How can Jesus suggest reaching out to others when there is still so much to do right here? Shouldn’t we take care of the needs at home in Capernaum first? Shouldn’t Jesus give them his attention first? Besides, surely people out there will hear about the wonderful things happening here and come join us!

But reaching the ends of the earth has always been God’s intention. Early in Genesis2 God called Abraham and Sarah to leave home, to move outward, and God plainly stated, “I am going to bless you. You are going to have a lot of descendants, and your family is going to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.” Abraham and Sarah got up and went. This is all the more remarkable because they were 75 and 65 years old respectively, and they had never been able to have any children.

Through the prophet Isaiah God reiterated that concern as we read in our call to worship today: “I want my salvation, my blessing to reach to the ends of the earth,” God said.3

When God’s people were in exile in the city of Babylon and filled with homesickness, God told them to be a blessing right where they were, to their Babylonian neighbors. Through the prophet Jeremiah God told them, “Seek the wellbeing of the city where I have sent you, for in its wellbeing you will find your own.”4

Or as Jesus put it, “You are going to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and to the ends of the earth.”5

And, as in today’s gospel lesson, the ends of the earth aren’t always far away. “We must go on to neighboring villages,” Jesus said. “Let’s take the message to the neighbors.”

We live in an age where you can get on a jet and fly to the ends of the earth, and yet not know your next door neighbor, even by sight. People often live in side-by-side isolation. It used to be that almost every house had a front porch, an in-between kind of space where people could sit and talk and watch the world go by. Porches helped neighbors see one another and talk more often. Now back decks and privacy fences outnumber porches. People stay inside in the air conditioning and watch TV or stay on the internet, and family members might all be doing this in different rooms.

What’s more, cars make it fast and easy to go somewhere else to work or shop, and not pay that much attention to the neighborhood. And that makes it easy for things to happen behind closed doors without anyone nearby knowing it. No, the ends of the earth aren’t far away at all.

I read a blog post entitled “7 Reasons Your Church Should Have a Front Porch.”6 Our church building does have a front porch, so when I saw the title, I immediately imagined rocking chairs on the church front porch, and us sitting out there visiting and having Bible study. A very pleasant scene.

But that’s not the author’s point. Front porch is a way of thinking. It’s an outlook. He says that front porch oriented churches have their eyes on the neighborhood. They spend time getting to know their neighbors, and letting the neighbors get to know them. Contrast this with backyard-oriented churches that are looking away from the neighborhood, or only looking inward.

Front porch churches listen to the neighbors. They want to be neighborly right there in the neighborhood where God has placed them. The post asks, “Does your church know its neighborhood well enough to know its urgent and persistent needs? Has the church developed trusting friendships that are there in times of need?”

Jesus said, “Let’s go also to the neighboring villages.” This is a call to listen to people, to listen for what is going on around here. And as we listen to our neighbors’ concerns, we will hear what God is concerned about. We will discover what God is up to. Eventually we will discover ways to get in there to work with God, and work with our neighbors.

What it’s not about is blanketing the area with flyers inviting people to come here and join us in what we are doing. It’s not about going around announcing our point of view or presenting a set of arguments we want to convince people of. I can hardly think of anything less appealing, and if that were our agenda, I wouldn’t blame people for hiding in their houses when they saw us coming.

What’s more, it’s also not about recruiting new blood for the church, and it doesn’t make people into mission projects. It’s not about dreaming up some program we think people need or developing a hook to get people to come through the doors. It values people around here just because they are here. It’s about seeing people through God’s eyes and listening to them through God’s ears.

The community organizing training that I started in Baltimore last fall is continuing, and we constantly talk about building relationships. There is power in making connections with people, building relationships, and then taking action together. A critical part of it is to spend time talking one on one with people, listening, sharing stories, finding out what’s important to them, what makes them tick.

In community organizing work they call these visits relational meetings. But to me, they sound a lot like good old front porch visiting, good conversation in that in-between front porch space where connections can happen, and sometimes grow deep.

God has richly blessed the family of faith that gathers in this house. And like all sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah, God calls this family to be a blessing. We could stay home in Capernaum, spend most of our time hanging out with each other here in Peter’s house, or we can visit neighboring villages with Jesus. We can stay inside, or we can find a way to get out on the front porch and spend time talking with neighbors. We can sit around and worry about our own wellbeing, or we can connect with neighbors and in their wellbeing find our own.

We can literally visit people with Jesus. Think about where our neighborhoods are. Think about where our homes are. There’s this little section of West Mount Drive right out in front of the church house. There’s Leaston Road down at the corner, and the trailer park there. There’s the Vick path. There’s the village on Great Branch Drive. And there are more. These are some of our neighboring villages. God has placed us here geographically. And God has placed us in workplaces and in different kinds of groups. These are neighborhoods, too. We can find out what brought these people to these neighborhoods, and what they’re concerned about, and what they need and hope for.

This is the place, and these are the places where God has planted us. These are the people we are called to listen to. These are the people we are called to love. Front porch churches are concerned about our neighbors because Jesus is concerned about them. “Let’s go to the neighboring villages also,” Jesus said. “I want to proclaim the kingdom there, too.”

Or as he puts it in another place, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Which also means, you shall love your neighborhood.

Amen.

1 Nash is our congregation’s home county. Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson are the tri-county area that the congregation knows well.
2 Genesis 12:1-5a.
3 Isaiah 49:6.
4 Jeremiah 29:7.
5 Acts 1:8.
6 http://after.church/7-reasons-your-church-should-have-a-front-porch/.


Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another, Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Visit with Mary and her flock online at The Mustard Seed Journal, where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

Getting Out of the Boat

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Denise Anderson

A sermon preached at Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, MD. Scripture: Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20.

Unity Presbyterian Church, you may remember that recently we committed ourselves to being part of a number of new things. First, we are looking at dissolution of our charter and the possible repurposing of our facility for a new ministry that will meet the specific needs of our surrounding county. But there is also something afoot here in our county that has the potential to facilitate significant change in our community. For the past year and a half, a number of local clergy and lay leaders from a variety of traditions have been meeting, organizing, and working together to develop the Prince George’s Leadership Action Network, or PLAN. PLAN is on track to become an Industrial Areas Foundation-affiliated organization. Now, perhaps we need to examine what that means.

The Industrial Areas Foundation, according to its website, “is the nation’s largest and longest-standing network of local faith and community-based organizations.

“The IAF partners with religious congregations and civic organizations at the local level to build broad-based organizing projects, which create new capacity in a community for leadership development, citizen-led action and relationships across the lines that often divide our communities.

“The IAF created the modern model of faith- and broad-based organizing and is widely recognized as having the strongest track record in the nation for citizen leadership development and for helping congregations and other civic organizations act on their missions to achieve lasting change in the world.”

Our neighbors in the DC metro area and to the north in Baltimore all have IAF-affiliated organizations serving them. They have been effective at a number of efforts to benefit their communities, including ensuring jobs for local resident and fighting for access to healthy foods. Now we want to bring that sort of cooperative leadership and organizing to Prince George’s County. Unity is part of that.

As we do the work of building an organization here, it occurs to me that the Bible is replete with stories of organizers! Let’s frame what it means to organize. Organizing is the building of power across constituencies. Power is simply two things: organized people and organized money. Furthermore, people are organized not around particular issues, but around self-interests. There is a need in the community that, if not addressed, will have reverberating effects. For instance, I need to be able to pay my rent, so it is in my self-interest that a new company setting up shop in town would be intentional about hiring locally.

Today’s texts tell us about two organizers: Jonah and Jesus. One more reluctant that the other. Both effective at tapping into their eventual followers’ interests and abilities.

We may not think of Jonah as an organizer, but in a sense he was. In essence, what Jonah did is what good organizers do: agitate people around a particular need within their community. Jonah’s method of proclamation was necessarily disruptive. Friends, while I don’t advocate walking through Prince George’s County proclaiming its destruction, I think we who are residents would agree that there is deep complacency here. People are prone to cut themselves off from the needs that exist, and there needs to be a widespread calling of attention to those needs. God is not destroying us; we are doing a good enough job of that on our own! For every day we allow our schools to underperform, we bring about destruction. For every foreclosure that is handed down, we bring about destruction. For every bit of commerce that is wooed into our county without subsequent guarantees that residents will benefit, we bring about destruction. We need to be the Jonahs who will agitate the city (or county) and confront the people with a simple question: “What are you prepared to do about this?”

Organizing teaches us to identify leaders within a community. Leaders are simply those who have a following. Jesus after his baptism set out to build his following, and he did so in such an effective way. He honed their leadership using what they were already doing. Like any good leader, Jesus recognizes a need: the Kingdom of God is at hand. So he sets out to gather/organize those who would exist within that kingdom or reign. He sees the fishermen brothers Simon and Andrew, and astutely connects this important work with the work they’re already doing: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people!” He does the same with the sons of Zebedee.

Organizing is not gathering people to do things they have no interests in or training for. That would be a recipe for disaster. Organizing identifies those who already have the capacity for the work and building on that capacity. We know there are people with gifts and expertise to meet the very needs within our communities. Organizing connects those people to work they’re already equipped to do.

And in both Jonah and Jesus’ cases, the work could not start unless someone “got out of the boat.” Jonah initially ran from his calling and took a boat out of town, only to be met with a fierce storm and a fish’s belly. When he surrendered to the call and work, then he was washed safely to shore. Jesus called some of his first followers from their places of comfort and familiarity. These were men who were used to fishing for, well, fish! Jesus invited them to do something somewhat familiar, but markedly different.

Getting out of the boat means acknowledging our fears, but ultimately surrendering to our call. It means letting go of what we had hoped would mean comfort and security for us. It means taking on a vulnerability that defers to the needs of the many. But it’s not entirely selfless. It is also understanding that the liberation of those people for whom we fish is tied into our own. Getting out of the boat is an act of saving our own lives, for to not act is to act. To not make a choice is to choose something (and that something is rarely life-giving). Unity, as I have shared repeatedly since I first arrived three years ago, change will happen either with us or to us. The good news is we have the power to choose which that will be!

The Great Organizer, who hung from a tree on Friday but got up with all power on Sunday, continues to organize. He continues to agitate and push us beyond what we think are our limits. He continues to call us to greater work and faithfulness. And the best news of all, perhaps, is that we are not left without help to do what we’re called to do. In hope, in trust, and in the assurance of God’s love, grace, and empowerment, let us leave our places of comfort and complacency. Let us get out of our boat and into our calling. Amen.


Denise Anderson is pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, MD, and co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly.

Always Being Reformed

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Shannon Kershner

A sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago on Reformation Sunday. Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:14-20.

Today is the Sunday on which we focus on a major emphasis of our Reformed tradition – the promise that God is not done with us yet. The promise that we are always being called to ask the question – what is God doing here and now, with us, through us, in this world, in which we are called to be the church? Remember our Presbyterian motto – we are the church Reformed (big R, indicating the branch of our Protestant Reformation theological tree) always being reformed (little r, verb) by the Spirit of God. We are a part of the body of Christ who trusts that our work as God’s people in the world is ongoing and dynamic; a part of the body of Christ who trusts that we will never “arrive” at perfection; a part of the body of Christ challenged to constantly be about the work of disorganizing old ways of being that are no longer effective, in order to reorganize for faithfulness and witness.

So together, then, we are to continually be in prayer, in study, and in conversation with Scripture, the newspaper, and each other about “what’s next” for us. As we continue in this fourth programmatic year of our ministry together, who does God hope we will be here and now, for each other, for ourselves, for our neighborhood, for our city and world? And while it is undoubtedly a challenging way to live – always on the lookout for where God is calling us next – I cannot imagine any other more beautiful way to move through this gift of life with which God has graced us. Thus, on this 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, I ask you: where have you seen new creation lately? Where – in your life, in your family, amongst your friends, in the world – where have you seen new creation lately? Will you show me?

I began writing this sermon on the plane Friday afternoon while feeling quite bleary-eyed and mentally full. I spent last week in Baltimore where I joined 60 other folks for one week of clergy-focused community organizing training. The leadership training was put on by a consortium of leaders from the NEXT Church movement (in which I continue to serve in leadership), Johnson C Smith Seminary – one of our Presbyterian seminaries – and the Baltimore affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation called BUILD – Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

The group being trained was comprised primarily of Presbyterian clergy (with a smattering of Presbyterian lay persons, Methodists and Episcopalians), but we were quite diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation, church size, area of the country, etc. The week was jam packed, each day beginning with our first class at 8:30am and ending most days at 9pm, hence the bleary eyes. The week-long seminar was also, undoubtedly, the most powerful and challenging leadership development work I have ever done. I cannot recommend the training enough. We spoke a great deal about learning how to lead the church in the world as it is, while, at the same time, being fueled and inspired by what Scripture promises about the world as it should be and will be one day by God’s power.

I came away from the week deeply convinced that while what we think, what we believe, what we say is important, our more privatized faith expressions will probably not be what changes our world into being more just, compassionate, and merciful. Rather, the ways we actually treat each other and those we call stranger, the ways we act on and engage with our world, the concrete ways we demonstrate our love for each other – our relationships – will be the most powerful testimonies to the Reign of Jesus Christ, to the way the world should be, to the way of new creation. So though words are necessary; words are important; words carry power and shape our imaginations, it will be the relationships we develop with each other and with our neighbors, relationships fueled and sustained by God’s Spirit, that God will use to transform our church and our city.

We see this emphasis in today’s Scripture from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Though Paul does use personal language, “if anyone is in Christ,” he does not simply concentrate on the individual. Rather, he immediately takes it to its communal end – in Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s self and entrusting us, as community, with that message, that purpose, of reconciliation. Preachers Boring and Craddock put it well, I think, when they say that in both Jewish and Christian apocalyptic hope God doesn’t just save souls; God renews the world. In Jewish theology it is tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. Therefore, “the meaning [of Paul’s words] is not that the individual becomes a person while the world remains unchanged. Nor is the meaning psychological, as though the world remains the same but for those who have come to faith, ‘everything looks different.’ No, Paul means the statement “If anyone is in Christ” objectively. In the Christ event something happened to the world (to everything), not just to individual souls.”1

Building on that foundation, New Testament scholar Tom Wright claims that if God was doing all this [death, resurrection, forgiveness, reconciliation] in the Messiah, that work now needs to be put into effect, to be implemented [by us]. The great symphony of reconciliation [being made new] composed on Calvary needed to be copied out into orchestral parts for all the world to play.2 So while God initiates the work of reconciliation, [that work does] require a response on the part of those whom God reconciles to Godself.3 Or, more simply put, “When a new world is born, a new way of living goes with it.”4 Remember our two words from the last two weeks – grace and responsibility.

So again I ask, on this day when we celebrate God’s constant work of reforming the church in and for the world, where have you seen God’s gift of new creation lately? While you are thinking about that, I want to do what one of my preaching professors once suggested strongly – in a sermon you have got to show people, don’t just tell people. So let me show you where I saw new creation during my time in Baltimore, just to start stimulating your own imagination and memory.

We took two field trips as a part of our training, so that we could see with our own eyes what a priority on building a relational culture and the power created by those relationships in the church and in the neighborhood looks like in real time. The first place we visited was a Baptist church in West Baltimore. As we drove through the neighborhood, I saw scenes that reminded me of neighborhoods in Chicago, several of which are not too far from here. Many homes had windows boarded up with no trespassing signs posted. Liquor stores dotted most of the corners while empty lots stood neglected, overgrown with weeds. But then, we walked into the church. And there in the fellowship hall were 70 folks from that neighborhood, many of them returning citizens (people who had recently been released from incarceration).

They were there because they desired to find meaningful employment, a new start. They were there to learn how to live as part of God’s new creation. Every Tuesday, those residents gather with clergy and other leaders from that neighborhood to be a part of the Turnaround Tuesday movement – a movement of/by/for those who need jobs.

Each week, for four hours, they meet for a time described as “one part AA meeting, one part religious service, one part boot camp, one part job-preparedness training, and all parts remarkable.”5 The movement has been gaining steam for the past two years and because of the leadership and commitment of those participating in the movement, as well as the deep commitment of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, over 300 residents returning from prison or jail have found full-time, living wage work, with many more in the pipeline.

We had a chance to hear the stories of the participants and to experience their hard-won hopefulness. Frankly, even though we were at a leadership development experience, that afternoon, we had church. For at root of all of it, the very foundation, was a profound sense that God had made all of them and all of us new creation. The participants talked about this transformation openly and they challenged each other to see it both in themselves and in each other. For while the road ahead is undoubtedly going to be full of steps forward and steps backwards, as long as they stay in honest and accountable relationships with each other and with the Turnaround Tuesday movement, new creation will continue to be discovered. It is who they are. It is who God has created them to be, both as people and as important leaders in their neighborhood.

The participants are committed to figuring out their own orchestral parts to play in God’s transformation symphony. For not only does Turnaround Tuesday train people for work, but it also then stands alongside them so those newly trained leaders can help create more jobs for those following them. All of the people in the movement are helping each other discern the new way of life that goes along with the new world being created in their midst. They are being reformed, their neighborhood is being reformed, and the church is too.

On Thursday afternoon, we went on another field trip, this time to East Baltimore, where we gathered in another Baptist church sanctuary and listened as the pastor of that church, someone who had grown up there, told us about the work that congregation had been doing alongside other congregations and residents of that neighborhood, empowered by BUILD. In the 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhood had fallen into a state of disrepair and depression, a common story in many urban areas, including here in Chicago. When jobs and possibility moved out, the drug economy moved in and settled. People who dared to speak out against it were threatened. Some were killed. You could not safely leave your home no matter the time of day, not even to walk the block to church. No one, the pastor said, deserved to live like that.

66% of the homes of that neighborhood were vacant. The whole place felt forgotten by the rest of the city and its leaders. But then, encouraged by others, that pastor and other neighborhood leaders decided that God was calling them to both proclaim and embody new creation right there, in the community of that church. So after years of organizing work, last Thursday the pastor was thrilled to walk us around the neighborhood and show us the massive rebuilding that has been taking place for the past 7 years. Using a fund called The Reinvestment Fund, currently at $10 million, that neighborhood has redeveloped over 250 homes for residents currently living in the neighborhood, and built new ones. But it is not gentrification in the way we experience it here in our city, because people are not being priced out. And now, the home vacancy rate is 6% and more and more residents of the neighborhood are purchasing their own homes and learning how to be responsible homeowners and members of the neighborhood together. New creation. Right there, all around that church. And those are just two of the stories I heard. I have many more.

But I feel it is important to show you those two experiences because I know that we, too, are committed to being a church that tries to not settle for the way the world is, but who actively works with God for the way the world should be. That call to be a Light in the City has been a part of our DNA for decades. I also know, however, that we are still not sure exactly what that looks like for us in our immediate and long term future just yet, beyond doing what we are currently doing which continues to be vitally important. But do know I am committed to working alongside other leaders in this congregation and staff as we actively discern over the next year and following years our next steps into God’s transformative work for this church and for our city. That commitment was why I went to Baltimore.

And here is what else we do know together, today, what we base our life on together – God is not through with us yet. God is not done with us as people or as a people called Fourth Church. For God does not desire for us to simply maintain the way things are, no matter how good or how healthy they are. God does not call us to get all settled in and comfortable. Remember, we worship a God who is, according to the biblical story, always on the move. We worship a God who, through Christ, has made and is constantly making us new creation. We are always being invited to dis-organize and re-organize so that we can be wide-awake and ready to play our orchestral parts in God’s symphony of transformation and reconciliation.

For we are a church Reformed, for sure. But we are also a church, a people, trying our best to be open to God’s reforming power – a power we will not just speak of, but a power we will learn how to build and embody in relationships with each other, in relationships with our neighbors, in relationships with others in our city who also long to be a part of God’s making this world new. Thanks be to God for the gift of being a church Reformed who is always willing to be reformed by the wild, creative, powerful, free, active, on the move Spirit of God. Amen.

1 Boring and Craddock, p. 559. Quoted from a paper Jessica Tate presented at The Well, Montreat, 2012.
2 Wright, N.T. (2011-05-31). Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. p. 65.
3 Matera, p. 142.
4 Wright, p. 63.
5 http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-turnaround-tuesday-20170313-story.html. Article written by Mike Gecan.


Shannon Johnson Kershner is the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.A.). She grew up in Waco, Texas as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and an elementary school teacher. Shannon stayed in Texas for college and graduated in 1994 from Trinity University in San Antonio. In 1996, she began her theological training at Columbia Theological Seminary and received her Masters of Divinity degree in 1999. Her sermons and articles have been published in a number of journals, including The Journal for Preachers and Lectionary Homiletics. She is involved in leadership for NEXT Church and serving on its strategy team. Shannon is married to Greg, whom she met in high school at a Presbyterian summer conference at Mo-Ranch. They have been married for 21 years and are the parents of 15-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Ryan.  

2018 National Gathering Tuesday Evening Worship

Jennifer Barchi, pastor of Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, preaches at the 2018 National Gathering in Baltimore. The theme for this service: rising.

Jennifer Barchi serves as the solo pastor of Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church on the west side of Baltimore City, MD, where she focuses on redevelopment and reconciliation, and is the author of The Joy Thieves. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and Stanford University, she has served congregations in Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Groomsport, Northern Ireland. She loves writing, hiking, hanging from the ceiling on aerial silks, and just about anything that involves creativity. Jennifer currently lives in west Baltimore with her wife, Lauren, and their dog, Cinnamon.

The liturgy for the service follows.

Call to Worship

Voice One:Sometimes dying remains. It overwhelms us and then persists with stubbornness. This death is a wound that never fully closes, a wound that stays raw even as it grows old. This is the death we must learn to be with, beside, among, that we must learn how to witness as it seeps out from the safety of its boundaries and bandages. This is the dying that didn’t kill us but came so close that we can still taste it on the back of our tongues, hear it echo in memories behind our thoughts, feel it creak in our bones. Sometimes dying remains.

Voice Two: And sometimes dying is rising. Sometimes dying sparks a new thing, becomes possibility, potential, the fallow ground where new life slowly takes root, unfurls, grows wild. This is the death that we encounter in the parched, desert landscape that erupts with blossoms of magenta and yellow and crimson. This is the death that resides in the musty tomb where the Holy Spirit begins to breathe in the darkness. This is the death that razed our internal landscapes, bringing down our carefully constructed walls and disrupting our well-laid plans, but which offered us the opportunity to build something new, something we wouldn’t have otherwise imagined. Sometimes dying is rising.

All: Sometimes dying remains, and we carry it with us. Sometimes dying is rising, and we rejoice in the abundance of new life. We bring all of our experiences of dying into this community, and we watch for and bear witness to the God of resurrection.

Hymn: In the Bulb There Is A Flower

Call to Confession

Confession is the holy practice of telling the truth. In confession, we tell God the truth about our lives, the truth about our world, the truth about our churches. This evening we focus on what is true for us about death and resurrection. Our prayer tonight will be spoken and shared. For each question we invite you to share your answer with someone(s) sitting near you. At the end we’ll sing the Kyrie together.

The Act of Confession
What feels dead in the Church, in the denomination, or in your life?
What is killing the Church, the denomination, or you? Do you want to let go of it?
What in the Church, in the denomination, or in our world is killing you?
Where do you long for resurrection? Where do you resist it?

Music: Lord Have Mercy

Assurance of God’s Presence

One: In life and in death and in resurrection, we belong to God. This is true:
All: We are claimed by God’s love long before we even have language to claim God ourselves.
One: This is true:
All: Christ walks with us, even in death.
One: This is true:
All: The Spirit dwells within us, offering the light of peace in the fog of fear and hatred and violence.
One: This is true:
All: We are part of a community that mourns together in death, rejoices in new life, and hopes in the promise that God is making all things new. Amen!

Scripture

Isaiah 34:9-17

Silence

Scripture

Isaiah 35:1-10

Sermon

Hymn: Now The Green Blade Rises

Baptismal Liturgy

Voice 1: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Heeding the word of Jesus, and confident in his promise of new life, we baptize those whom God has called. In baptism God claims us, and seals us to show that we belong to God.

God frees us from the fear of death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his dying and rising. By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of a community, the body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of disruption, reconciliation, and transformation. In baptism, we proclaim that “to be a Christian is to be continuously undone and remade by a Savior who encounters us in ways we might not expect, through a collection of people we might otherwise reject, screen, or censor.” As we remember our own baptism, let us turn from the fear of dying, and embrace the Spirit of possibility with joy.

Voice 2: Together as one body let us reaffirm the promises made in our baptism.
One: Trusting in the God of new life, do you turn from fear and its tyranny in our communities?
All: We do.
One: Do you turn to Jesus Christ, the wounded and resurrected one, trusting in his presence and power in a world haunted by death?
All: We do.
One: Will you witness to the wild movement of the Spirit as she breathes the hope of rising into landscapes that appear to be dying?
All: We will, with God’s help.
One: Let us each remember our baptism and be glad.

You are invited to move to the nearest altar/memorial, remember your baptism, and bear witness to the promise of the resurrection.

Visual Prayer

Sometimes our prayers fall beyond the reach of language. This evening, our prayer will be made up of images that stirred a sense of resurrection, of dying and rising, for those who submitted them. As you watch the pictures on the screen, we invite you to pray for those who are experiencing dying and rising in our communities, in our churches, in our nation, and in our world.

The Lord’s Prayer
Our God who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Deeply Moved by Grief

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Jarrett McLaughlin

It was a rare moment of thinking ahead when I submitted my bulletin information for Sunday, February 18th, a full NINE days ahead. True confession though – it wasn’t actually me thinking ahead but rather the fact that our administrator was out of the office at the beginning of the next week and so the deadline had shifted.

At the time, all I knew was that I was preaching on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus in John 11 and that in my initial reading of the text, I was particularly struck by the emotional journey Jesus takes. As I would later observe in the sermon to come, John’s portrait of Jesus shows us a son of God who is so confident, so unflappable, so maddeningly divine. He never seems to get angry or sad but rather floats above those human emotions. At the beginning of the chapter he even speaks so mechanically about the death of his friend. But then he comes to Bethany and Mary is weeping and everyone is weeping and he’s face to face with real death and real grief and something inside of him breaks. John then gives us the shortest verse in all of the New Testament: “Jesus wept.” Christ’s tears are so important that they receive an entire verse just to highlight this moment of extreme pathos. It’s almost as if John shows us a Jesus who is learning what it means to be human and this scene is pivotal.

I hadn’t articulated all of that when I submitted that bulletin information, but even a cursory reading of the story shows Jesus in the midst of a profoundly emotional encounter. And yet he is not simply one who grieves and wallows in that grief. Instead he is moved by that grief – John specifically tells us that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” He was moved to act – and this is when he performs his seventh and final sign – the raising of Lazarus and his haunting command to his disciples and to the Church in every time and place: “unbind him and let him go.”

What I didn’t know when I sent the bulletin in was that the next Wednesday, seventeen students and educators would be shot and killed at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School. What I didn’t know is how profoundly I would be affected by that shooting, especially as I sat with this text where Jesus is deeply moved by real death, moved to act. What I didn’t know is how I would be haunted by this Jesus who – when his disciples are standing speechless before Lazarus who is literally tangled up in the trappings of death – says to them “unbind him and let him go.”

What I didn’t know was how poignant the words of the Sarasota Statement would be – chosen nine whole days before they were spoken aloud, five days after another deadly mass shooting.

We are people of hope who confess Jesus is Lord over a kingdom in which no one is hungry, violence is no more, and all suffering is gone.
So strong is this hope that we lament any and all instances of its absence. When we witness hunger, injustice, discrimination, violence, or suffering, we grieve deeply and repent of our sins that have enabled such brokenness to persist.
Furthermore, we are incited to act and to be vehicles of change through which God’s kingdom breaks into the world and our earthly lives. Our commitment is to acts that feed, clothe, instruct, reconcile, admonish, heal and comfort – reflecting the power of God’s hope and an eagerness to see the Kingdom made manifest.

There are days when I am so tired of that kingdom’s absence. I’m tired of the flags flown at half-staff and the endless debates about guns and mental illness that never go anywhere. I’m tired of looking at pictures of tear-streaked mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends discovering their loved one is no more. I’m tired of flowers and ribbons and candlelight vigils. I’m tired of this kingdom’s palpable absence and I do feel moved. A statement of faith is just that – a statement. But at least it tells me and this community I love that when we are greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved – maybe we’re not so far off from the Christ whose love is stronger that death, whose passion is as fierce as the grave.


Jarrett McLaughlin serves with his wife Meg Peery McLaughlin at Burke Presbyterian Church in the suburbs of Washington DC.  This is a blog post about the Sarasota Statement, but it’s also a blog about a mass shooting in an American school, so perhaps this background is worth sharing: “During my first year of high school in suburban Raleigh, NC, a fellow student was shot and killed in the park next to my school – a student not even involved in the altercation but who came over to ‘watch a fight.’  That story and the trauma to the student body that followed forever shaped my views on guns and their place in society. As you read this post, you should understand this about me, because all of our stories shape who we are and how we react to any given situation. This is my story and these are my reactions – nothing more, nothing less.”

When Advent is a Plea

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Dave is leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “From Text to Sermon: Staying Faithful in a Changed Landscape.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Dave Davis

Advent and Christmas come around every year for the preacher whether you want them to or not! I can’t be the only preacher who finds planning for Advent preaching paralyzing some years. When lectionary preachers get bored with the lectionary, I bet it happens mostly in Advent. When topical preachers struggle to come up with the next series or month of texts for preaching, I bet it happens mostly in Advent. The liturgical themes of the four Sundays of Advent unfold with the familiarity of family tradition. The expected rhythm may tamp down the preacher’s imagination rather than inspire. So the temptation rises to opt for a cantata, a pageant, and lessons and carols, leaving one Sunday in Advent to preach!

candleBut it feels like there is nothing routine about Advent this year. The list of events that contribute to a growing darkness in the soul is all too real. The chaos of the world and the nation stokes a growing sense of wandering in the wilderness. Trying to preserve the peace and unity of the church these days can be like trying to keep a flickering candle lit through a stormy night. For those of us who rise to preach there has to be an urgency to our gospel proclamation of the very promise of God.

Bearing witness to the promise of God as the landscape shifts all around you. That sounds a bit like Advent. For still, a voice cries in the wilderness. And still, a people who walked in darkness have seen great light. And still. A star rises in the east. And still, you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And still, the true light which enlightens everyone, came into the world. And still, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall never overcome it. This year Advent is less of a season and more of a plea.

It is getting harder and harder to preach the gospel, especially in Advent. And it many of our lifetimes, it has never been more important to preach the gospel, especially in Advent. It is the paradox of the preaching office these days; the joy and the challenge, the privilege and the heartache. Maybe the first task for the preacher in an Advent season unlike any other is to experience God’s promise afresh and to pray for the light of life to come smack into all this darkness. Pray that God’s promise of that peaceable kingdom will ever more quickly come. Pray that Isaiah’s promise of a child leading them, and of a shoot that comes forth from the stump of Jesse, and of every valley being lifted up and every mountain made low, and of not hurting or destroying on all of God’s holy mountain, and of God about to do a new thing….that Isaiah’s promise would be fulfilled now. Pray for the Advent light to come.

Advent as a prayer. Advent as a plea. And the preacher crying out, praying for, clinging to the very light of God. Falling, just about helpless, certainly speechless into the promise of God. And then, and only then, daring once again to rise to speak.

Because God has spoken.

Come Lord, Jesus, quickly come.


David A. Davis has served as senior pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, since 2000. David earned his Ph.D. in homiletics from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he continues to teach as a visiting lecturer. Before arriving in Princeton, he served for fourteen years as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Blackwood, New Jersey. He is the author of two sermon collections, A Kingdom You Can Taste and Lord, Teach Us to Pray, and his recent sermons are published on the Nassau Church Sermon Journal. He tweets occasionally at @revdavedavis.

A Time and Place Set Apart

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Tanner Pickett and Elizabeth Link are curating a series that will reflect experiences of those in the beginnings of their ministry, particularly through the lens of Trent@Montreat. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear reflections from past and future participants, track leaders, and members of the leadership team of Trent@Montreat. We hope these stories will encourage you along your journey – and maybe encourage you to join us next April! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter!

by Brandi Casto-Waters

Outside the Sally Jones Pottery Studio in Montreat, NC, there is a sign that says, “Encountering God through relationships, renewal, recreation, and rest.” As a PC(USA) Pastor, I have had that experience in Montreat more times than I can count. During times of grief, conflict, peace, and great joy, Montreat has been for me, as I pray for you, “a place set apart.”

Several years ago at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Chicago I was flipping through the conference program and the page for Trent@Montreat caught my attention. Not only did it include the word Montreat in the title, but it promised to be a “different kind of conference” with tracks related to worship and music, Christian education, pastoral care, preaching, youth, mission, and more. So often as church leaders, we go off to different conferences or continuing education events related to our specific interests or areas of service. I love the Festival of Homiletics. Our church educator is a faithful participant in APCE. The director of music looks forward to Worship and Music at Montreat all year long. The list goes on. Trent@Montreat seemed to offer something for everyone.

At our next staff meeting, we talked about it, registered, and for the first time in the history of First Presbyterian Church, Greer, the church staff went to a continuing education event together. Rather than planning and carrying out all the details related to worship, we worshipped together. Rather than managing the volunteers and ordering the food for the meal, we ate together. Rather than remembering all the materials and arranging the classrooms, we were students together.

It is a little crazy to consider that although we had worked together in the church for ten years, we had not once all sat in the same pew to sing, pray, and hear the word of the Lord proclaimed together.

During the day we all went to our individual tracks. I went to the preaching workshop entitled, “The Relentless Return of Sunday.” The director of music went to the music and worship workshop led by Eric Wall and Theresa Cho. The church administrator and associate pastor spent their time with Pete and Margaret Peery discussing the joys and challenges of pastoral care. The list goes on.

I realize the thought of the entire church staff leaving town at once might make some people nervous but it was good for us and it was good for the church. Elders were happy to offer congregational care and volunteers were glad to tend to building while we were away.

Each member of our staff learned something different through our experience. We all agreed that the workshops were meaningful, the worship was creative, and the leadership was top-notch. Most importantly, we were all grateful to be together in a time and place set apart for encountering God through relationships, renewal, recreation, and rest. Your context may different than ours. You may be a solo pastor, or chaplain, or church professional serving in a non-profit, but the thing about Trent@Montreat is that it is a different kind of conference, so it could be exactly right for you too.


Brandi Casto-Waters has served First Presbyterian Church, Greer, since December of 2006. She received a Bachelor of Science in Religion and Sociology from Presbyterian College, a Master of Divinity from Columbia Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Columbia Seminary. She is married to Rev. Andy Casto-Waters. They have two children, Ella and Lucy.

Nurturing Diversity in Preaching

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Patrick Johnson

About the time I was first discerning a call to ordained ministry, I had the privilege of spending some time with a nearby pastor whom everyone knew as “Pastor Dave.” The church he had served for decades was not the biggest, not the most innovative, and not the most active by a long shot. But it was widely regarded – especially by other pastors – as one of the healthiest churches around. Amid the continual swirl of tips, tricks, and programs for doing church better, Pastor Dave had patiently cultivated a diverse and strong congregation. I asked Pastor Dave one day, “What’s your secret?” He replied quietly, “There’s one question that often keeps me awake, especially on Saturday night. It’s probably the driving question of my ministry: God, what kind of people am I forming?”

Week in and week out, more than anything else, preaching forms a congregation. In small bites of 15, 20, or 30 minutes, added up over the course of seasons and years, preaching cultivates a church by shaping its questions, fostering its conversations, kindling its faith, weaving its guiding metaphors, naming its values and beliefs, setting its tone, and ultimately nurturing its diversity. How can we nurture diversity and make room for difference from the pulpit?

One place to start is simply to recognize the rich diversity that already exists in our congregations, even in congregations that look the same on the surface. You can sense this standing at the door after worship, hearing fifty or a hundred different versions of the same sermon. It’s not that the sermon was muddled, but that it was speaking into a thick context of engaged and multi-layered meaning-making. Each of us listens with a set of beliefs, values, experiences, questions, challenges, hopes, and fears that is our own personal hermeneutic. Sometimes in a sermon, this hermeneutic reminds me to stop at the grocery store on the way home, but more often it’s where the Holy Spirit does her connect-the-dots work in my soul.

In my experience, finding ways to explore my congregation’s rich diversity has made me much more sensitive to how I nurture diversity and create room for others in preaching. Feed-forward and feedback discussions – discussing the text and sermon before and after preaching – have been invaluable. They have helped me understand how a text and sermon actually intersects with the lived experience of the congregation. I have learned where the affirmations are, and where the pushbacks are, where nuances are needed, and most especially where others’ views and experiences are different from mine.

It’s also been very important to me to find ways to celebrate and affirm diversity actually in the pulpit. As a friend says to her congregation often, “God created a riot of diversity. Get used to it!” Imagine if we intentionally and regularly preached on the diversity of creation and the kingdom of God the same way we intentionally focus on stewardship, or mission, or even Advent and Lent? And surely that would include making room for a diverse group of voices in the pulpit. Any congregation, no matter how small or homogenous, needs to hear a variety of preachers. Different races, genders, life experiences, and diverse ways of speaking the gospel breaks open new meaning and makes space for others.

Of course, even as we cultivate the voices of others in the pulpit, we can’t neglect the really important work of finding and claiming our voice. Preaching that tries to be all things to all people or treats the pulpit as a “neutral space” does not, in the end, create a diverse or strong congregation. Ironically, it creates a fragile congregation, where people are afraid to be different from one another and there is little room for the stranger. On the other hand, preachers who can bear witness to God’s word to them, who can confess their core convictions and name their deep questions, and especially who can be honest about their blind-spots – in the long run, those preachers shape congregations of people who can do likewise. To put it simply, by being ourselves we make room for others. Perhaps it’s paradoxical, but well-differentiated people – and preachers — are essential to diverse community.

We’re living in such a sharply polarized time that maybe one of the few things we share in common is a deep concern about our ability to hold together as communities and plural societies. Yeats’ grim diagnosis in “The Second Coming” – “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” – has become a daily worry for nearly all of us. One of the great promises of the gospel is that in Christ all things do and will hold together – even the most diverse congregations of our wildest imagination! The work of preaching, over seasons and years, is to invite us to live with and into that promise. When we trust that the center will hold, riotous diversity is not a threat – it is the joyful feast of the people of God!


Patrick Johnson is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina and an active member of the Academy of Homiletics. He is also the author of The Mission of Preaching: Equipping God’s People for Faithful Witness.

Resources for Postliberal Preaching

These resources were provided by Dan Lewis and Pen Peery at the conclusion of their August 2017 online roundtable: “Toward the Purple Church.”

Books

Campbell, Charles L. Preaching Jesus: The New Directions for Homiletics in Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology

Pape, Lance B. The Scandal of Having Something to Say: Ricoeur and the Possibility of Postliberal Preaching

Eslinger, Richard L. Narrative and Imagination: Preaching the Worlds that Shape Us

 

Quick Thought Pieces

I’m a White Man. Hear Me Out.” – Frank Bruni in The New York Times (8/12/17)

The End of Identity Liberalism” – Mark Lilla in The New York Times (11/18/16)

The Tribal Truths that Set the Stage for Trump’s Lies” – Michael Gerson in the Washington Post (3/23/17)

Who Are We?” – Ross Douthat in The New York Times (2/4/17)

What ‘Hamilton’ forgets about Hamilton” – Jason Frank and Isaac Kramnick in The New York Times (6/10/16)

Save the Mainline” – Ross Douthat in The New York Times (4/15/17)