Blessing the Corners

Thank you to everyone who has offered prayers on behalf of Kalamazoo today. We are all exhausted.

As many of you know already, Jason Dalton went on a shooting spree last night, killing six and wounding two others in seemingly random acts of violence around our community.

I scrapped the sermon I had prepared for this morning and started over from the beginning. The text is Luke 13:31-35. Here is the sermon:

Jason (the suspected shooter) was arrested at the corner of Ransom and Porter, a scant three blocks from our church’s building at Ransom and Burdick. North Church is the closest Presbyterian congregation to the scene. After worship this morning, I took the water from our baptismal font and walked down to that intersection, sprinkling the four corners in an act of blessing. This ritual was done in your name and in the name of all who support Kalamazoo with their prayers today. Thank you. Your presence is felt.

Our closing hymn this morning was written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and set to music by the Iona Community:

Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours, victory is ours,
through God who loves us.

If you live locally, please come and join us at an interfaith community prayer vigil on Monday night (February 22), 6pm at First Congregational Church (345 W Michigan Ave).

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Water from the baptismal font.
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The corner of Ransom and Porter, where Jason was arrested.
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And the promise still holds true.

Heart to Heart

We modern folks, Protestants in particular, have a hard time conceiving of ministry that doesn’t somehow involve an exchange of information. We talk a lot. Many words.

We ask for prayer requests and affirmations of faith. We made the sermon the central feature of the worship event. We analyze hymns based on their lyrical content. Especially since God cannot be seen directly with the eyes, we are tempted to reduce Christian faith to exchanging the right kind of information in the right way.

Let me be as clear as possible: I have come to believe that we have made a vital error in this. Faith and ministry are adamantly not primarily about the exchange of information.

I experienced this firsthand in a new way last spring when I visited St. Gregory’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan. During my week there, I shared that space with the monks who live there year-round and with several other visitors: an Anglican priest, a Quaker pastor, a woman going through a difficult life transition, two young women in campus ministry, a group of men on retreat from a nearby Episcopal church, and a rabbi in the throes of a psychotic episode.

Each of us had our own reasons for being there, but what I experienced most deeply was the sense of togetherness and connection that emerged, not from our conversations, but primarily through the space shared in silence. We got to know each other while knowing very little about each other. This was intimacy minus the exchange of information. It runs completely counter to the style of relational building that our culture has trained us to pursue (which could be described as the exchange of information without intimacy).

There is a similar kind of ministry that grows among us at North Presbyterian Church, where I serve as pastor. Most of the people we do ministry with have some kind of serious, chronic mental illness. Some of our people are barely verbal in their cognitive expression. I stand up to preach every Sunday, but it’s not the main event of the service. My sermon could be good or bad, short or long, and the ideas would still go over the heads of several people in the congregation. They don’t come for the sermon.

Instead, they come to sing their hearts out (loudly and off-key), to share a hug and a smile (maybe the only one they’ll get all week), to voice their weekly joys and concerns in words that are sometimes unintelligible (but known to God in prayer), to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist (which we celebrate weekly, a rarity among Presbyterians).

Our liturgy is messy and rowdy: quite the opposite of Benedictine silence and Presbyterian “decency and order.”

Our worship and ministry at North is not about the exchange of information, but the intimate connection of heart to heart in the gospel. It happens in music and touch, in bread and wine.

The following video illustrates this beautifully. While none of our members are as impaired as Ms. Wilson, the principle of ministry is the same. St. Francis of Assisi is thought to have said, “Preach the gospel always; use words when necessary.” This video shows how it’s done:

Calling All Prophets

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Have you ever been a part of something that didn’t exactly go according to plan?

Unless you live under a rock, chances are you have. Sometimes it’s fun, like when you come home from work on your birthday and all your friends jump out and say, “Surprise!” Sometimes it’s scary, like when you get that phone call with someone saying, “There’s been an accident.” Sometimes it’s a mixture of both exciting and scary, like when your wife says, “Honey, I know we weren’t planning on this for another year, but I just took a test and it says I’m pregnant.”

No matter what the circumstances are, whether it’s good or bad, no matter how well we’ve planned it out, it seems like life is always find a way to hit us with something unexpected. In fact, that’s the number one piece of advice I have for couples preparing for their wedding day: “The secret to the perfect wedding day is imperfection. Expect the unexpected. Something, somewhere will not go according to plan, so make up your mind now to just accept it when it happens.” As they said in Britain during World War II, “Keep calm and carry on.”

In theological circles, we like to quote an old Yiddish proverb: “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell him your plans.”

God seems to have a flair for the unexpected. Take, for example, our reading this morning from the Torah, the book of Numbers: It begins with Moses doing a very Presbyterian thing: electing and ordaining elders to help govern God’s people. And in good Presbyterian form, everything was being done “decently and in order.” The elders were called, chosen, and set apart for the work of ministry. These elders became mouthpieces of the Holy Spirit. Just like Moses, they proclaimed God’s word to the people. Just then, as this solemn ordination service was still going on, someone comes running up to the tent where they were meeting.

It was a teenager from the camp, a member of the next generation of Israelites. The biblical text doesn’t say much about who this teenager was, but I like to imagine him as a kind of punk: maybe the elders gave him the stink-eye because his robes were too short and his hair was too long. Maybe some of them had caught him smoking behind the camel-pen or writing graffiti that said “MOSES SUCKETH!” on the side of people’s tents. And all of a sudden, here he was: barging in to interrupt a solemn ordination service! My guess is that the elders were not amused…

But this wasn’t just any other punk kid, he was the voice of the next generation of Israelites. And he came with an announcement: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!”

According to the story, there were two guys who were supposed to be there at the ordination, but weren’t. Eldad and Medad had stayed behind in the camp. The Bible doesn’t say why (maybe, like so many of our elders, they had already been recruited to organize the post-ordination church supper). For whatever reason, Eldad and Medad weren’t at the ceremony with Moses and the others, but that didn’t stop God from making things happen in their lives.

I find that very interesting: God’s will for Eldad and Medad did not depend on them being in the right place at the right time. The Holy Spirit was able to work in them and through them, no matter where they were. God loves working outside the box.

And how did God let Moses and the elders know that this extraordinary activity was going on in the camp? By sending one of the youth: the voice of the next generation. This young person’s job was to point the finger back at what God was doing in unexpected ways and unexpected places. We know from the text that some of the elders were struggling with what they heard. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, had a particularly hard time with it. He said, “Moses, stop this! We’ve got to shut this new thing down before it undermines our God-given authority!” We can’t really blame Joshua for what he was trying to do. He was trying to protect what had been entrusted to him by God. He was being smart.

But Moses, on the other hand, was more wise than smart. He was listening with the ears of his heart and heard something that Joshua didn’t. He said to Joshua, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put the spirit on them!” He recognized the Holy Spirit at work in the camp, even though it didn’t conform to his own expectations. Moses realized that God’s ultimate goal was to empower all people to be mouthpieces for the Divine, not just one or a few special chosen heroes: “Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put the Spirit on them!”

Generations later, another prophet named Joel would echo this same hunch in his writing: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

The fulfillment of this prophecy, the coming-true of this dream, is what we celebrate today on the Feast of Pentecost: the day when God poured out the Holy Spirit on all flesh and all people became prophets – young and old, men and women, great and small. On this day, we are reminded that our God and the God of our ancestors has always been comfortable with thinking outside the box and coloring outside the lines.

On this day, we are also celebrating the anniversary of a time when another youth (four of them, actually) left the comfort of the camp and challenged the elders and leaders of the church with the news that God was at work in some unexpected ways.

In 1864, Eliza Valentine, with her friends Bertha Hilbert, Ada Haley, and Helen Reid (all of them 14 year-old girls) swiped some songbooks from the Sunday School room of First Presbyterian Church and, without telling their parents or their pastor, went and started a Sunday School class for kids living in what was then the woods north of downtown Kalamazoo.

This little adventure continued unnoticed for some time until the Superintendent of the Sunday School noticed that his songbooks kept going missing every Sunday afternoon and returning by evening. When he followed the girls to find out what was going on, he was shocked to discover an active Sunday School class of 30 kids being conducted outside in the woods, with planks placed over logs and stumps for seating. Now, the Superintendent could have done like Joshua and had the whole unauthorized project shut down on the spot, but he didn’t. Instead, he and the pastor, with the elders of the church, took the wiser path like Moses. They recognized the movement of the Holy Spirit and decided to support it.

Funds came in from the grown-ups of the church to support the newly dubbed ‘Mission Woods Sunday School’. They were soon able to procure a building and move their work indoors when the weather got cold. In time, the adults of the church started helping out and the parents of the neighborhood kids started coming as well. Pretty soon, a full-fledged congregation was in the works and by 1878 they were ready to call their first pastor. North Presbyterian Church was born! These girls, like that youth in the book of Numbers, pointed their elders to the truth that God was at work in some very unusual-but-exciting ways. The elders and pastor, like Moses, recognized it as the work of the Holy Spirit, blessed it, and supported it. Once again, the prophecy came true that God likes to color outside the lines, that the Holy Spirit speaks through all God’s people, and that even our young sons and daughters can be prophets.

This is no less true in our day than it was in 1864 or in the time of Moses. The same Holy Spirit that lived and moved in them is now living and moving in us. We are the prophets. Many of you here today have spent much of your lives in institutions like hospitals or group homes. Due to a diagnosis of mental illness, you’ve had to sacrifice your autonomy and sometimes even your dignity. You’ve probably been told, and maybe even started to believe, that you’re a charity case and therefore your voice doesn’t count. It might even feel easier sometimes to quiet down and just go along with whatever program your doctor or caseworker is prescribing, even if you have questions about it or different ideas about what might be right for you. You might even forget that God gave you a voice, but the Good News for you today is that you do have one. God has put the Holy Spirit on you and called you to be a prophet.

In the same way, it would also be easy for us to fall into that same trap as a parish. We’re small in number, many of our members are on a fixed income, therefore we don’t have a lot of money. Our operating budget depends on financial support from other churches in our presbytery. It would be easy for us to see ourselves as a charity case, but we’re not. We are prophets. And I believe that God has called us to prophesy to the other churches in the Body of Christ.

And here’s how:

It’s no secret that mainline Protestant churches in America have been declining in number, money, and influence for the past 50 years. Gone are the days of packed parking lots and overflowing Sunday School rooms. We no longer live in a society where we can assume that our neighbors go to church. This reality makes a lot of people nervous. They say that the church is dying, that God has abandoned our church, or that our church has abandoned God. Some say that Christianity’s day has come and gone, and that our religion will now fade into the shadows of history and mythology. But I don’t think any of those things are true.

Yes, it’s true that the church is shrinking, but I don’t think we’re dying at all. Jesus himself said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

I believe God is pruning us, as the Church, so that we might be more spiritually fruitful in generations to come. The Church of the next generation will not be an institution will massive buildings and budgets. The Christianity of the future will no longer be the civil religion of the American empire. We will no longer be beholden to the golden calves of money and power. We will be a community of prophets: committed believers who stand in solidarity with the “least of these” – the poor and oppressed peoples of the earth, the marginalized, the outcast, the scapegoats, the persecuted, and the forgotten. The Church of the future will once again follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our Lord and Savior, who walks the streets of this world, where hurting hearts cry out for healing and hungry souls cry out for bread. Christ is present there, and it is there that the Church will find him again.

Just like he said to us in his first sermon at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” If that’s what the Holy Spirit did when she came upon Jesus, then we can expect the same thing to happen when she lands on his Church today. I look forward to that.

Here at North Church, I believe that we have a head start in that process. Ever since the days of Eliza Valentine, we have known what it means to have faith in the power of Almighty God over the power of the almighty dollar. We are already a community of people out on the edge, where those who have no place else to go can find a welcome, a home, and a sanctuary.

The rest of the church supports our ministry, not because we’re a bunch of charity cases, but because they recognize the work of the Spirit among us in this way. They realize that this ministry is too important to let die. They know that they will soon need in their churches what we have already discovered here. They need us, just as much as we need them. As it says in our New Testament reading, there are many gifts, but only one Spirit. I believe our gift, as North Church, is the gift of prophecy. We are speaking forth the Word of God and showing the rest of the Church what the future will be. Let us speak gently, boldly, and with all the faith, hope, and love that the Spirit of Christ inspires in our hearts.

Let us prophesy and tell the world the truth that has brought us together again and again, Sunday after Sunday for the last 150 years, and brings us together again this morning:

That I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Be blessed and be a blessing!