The Message by: Larry J. Beasley

Utica Presbytery Leader and Stated Clerk

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Fifth Sunday of Easter

“What Are We Going To Do?”


When I was a boy growing up in East Nashville, I had a friend named Marty. Marty and his family lived four or five doors down from our house. Marty’s Dad was an attorney, so they were rather prosperous. They had a ball diamond with a backstop fence built in their backyard; they also had a trampoline built into the ground. I don’t know what made that a good idea; there was no drainage under the trampoline, and whenever it rained, the hole in the ground filled with water. The soil in that area was red clay, so it made an awful stinking pond . . . and, living as we did in close proximity to the Cumberland River, all manner of snakes and frogs would make it their home. Even so, with a ball diamond and a trampoline, all the neighborhood kids spent a good deal of time at Marty’s house.

Marty himself was of a somewhat excitable temperament. More than once I saw him get flustered about something. When he got flustered, he’d start fanning his hands as he asked “WHAT AM I GONNA DO?”

What am I gonna do? A good question for us, I suppose, in our flusteredness. What are WE gonna do?

We’ve just completed annual statistical reporting season for the Presbyterian Church USA. The report for Utica indicates that active members in our congregations fell from 2,489 in 2018 to 2,400 in 2019, about a 4% decline. Looking back at the data since 2004, our membership declines 4% on average year over year. The linear regression trend line looking forward say that in the next ten years there will only be about a thousand of us.

Now would be a good time to start fanning your hands. What are we gonna do?

I once was an executive at a technology company in Rome. There was a fellow on our board of directors that had held positions of leadership with companies like IBM and ADP. We’d talk business strategy for hours on end . . . but he’d always end our conversations by saying “All of this is great . . . but what are we gonna do?”

Sometimes I think that when I read scripture. From the 1 Peter text:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

That’s great . . . but what are we gonna do?

And then there’s the lesson from the Gospel of John:

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

I know an awful lot of people who have literally broken themselves over that scripture.

It’s wonderful, but . . . what are we gonna do?

I know this is a question that you’re asking yourselves. I know this, having sat with you in a number of your board meetings. I know this from having sat in any one of a number of congregational meetings with any one of a number of congregations.

And as I drove home recently from one of them, three notions, three specific things that we can do, that you as a community can do, presented themselves in my thoughts. They don’t require any expense; they don’t require the formation of a committee; they don’t require approval by vote at a stated meeting of the Presbytery of Utica or of the Upstate Synod of the ELCA. They are things that you can do, that all of us can do, starting in this very hour.

Here is the first: remember and renew a sense of awe and wonder.

One of the most wonderful things about being a Presbyterian is our emphasis on social justice. In the Book of Order, under the section Foundations of our Polity, “the promotion of social righteousness” is listed as one of the Great Ends of the Church. The Presbyterian Church USA is greatly concerned with the disenfranchised, with the marginalized, with the welfare of those who have no voice.

But I submit to you that to primarily emphasize social justice issues and pay little or no attention to wonder and awe and mystery is to rob us of the energy we need to effectively address issues of social justice. Also, we are fed daily on a diet of anger and outrage, served up willingly and efficiently by a complicit media. Without a sense of wonder and awe, we lose the capacity to process that anger and outrage.

Albert Einstein wrote:

“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches out to us only indirectly: this is religiousness.”

We as the church are the keepers of the sacred stories. Those stories remind us that we are participants in the great drama of redemptive history. Our rituals in our liturgy are intended to remind us of that drama, and to refresh and renew within us the wonder and awe we desperately need. Here is an example.

Amy-Jill Levine is a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She spoke last year at Colgate University. In the course of her remarks she said that argument and disputation is built into Jewish culture. Jews are expected to disagree with one another. There are real benefits when two individuals engage one another on a subject where they disagree: they both get better at articulating their own position, and they benefit by hearing someone else on the other side of the issue explain themselves. But, she said, if when they part, they still disagree, they’re both still Jewish. “You Christians can’t do that,” she said. “If you disagree with one another, you go start another church.”

I thought this was brilliant, and I emailed her to tell her so. She responded, and I found her response equally brilliant. She said “Christians would do well to remember their baptism.” Wow.

Think about that. How do we view baptism? It is not just a cute little thing we do for babies; it is a holy act that joins us to the family of Christ, the act that grafts us into the tree. In the Book of Order, again in the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity we read “In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction.” In the section on our Form of Government, we read “In Jesus Christ, God calls people to faith and to membership in the Church, the body of Christ. Baptism is the visible sign of that call and claim on a human life and of entrance into the membership of the church.” Our Directory for Worship says “The mission of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church flows from Baptism, is nourished at Lord’s Supper, and serves to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all.” It goes on to say that “Baptism is the bond of unity in Jesus Christ. When we are baptized, we are made one with Christ, with one another, and with the Church of every time and place.” Baptism is a holy covenant, and when we witness a baptism, we are joined in covenant with the one being baptised to care for their spiritual nurture, and we are joined in covenant with believers of every time and place.

We may disagree on one subject or another, but when we disagree, we are never not baptised together. As Amy-Jill Levine says, we would do well to remember that.

A second thing that we can do is love people.

There are innumerable people sitting in the homes that surround this church today, and I assure you they are not sitting there wondering how to become a Presbyterian. But I am confident there are innumerable people sitting in those same homes this morning whose hearts are aching for need of love and understanding. And we can love them.

When I was fresh out of college, I went to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire to serve for a summer as a missionary for the Tennessee Baptist Convention. A group of twenty or so of us ran a coffee house on the beach there. We had a little burger and snack stand adjoined to the house where we lived, and we’d perform live music every night. Hampton is a big tourist area, and people needed somewhere to go, so our coffee house provided it. People would come in for a snack and to hear the music, and we’d engage them there.

But in some ways, our mission was to clobber them with the Gospel. We’d talk with them, but in reality we were looking for a way to introduce belief in Christ as the way of salvation into the conversation and then ask them to make a decision.

Looking back on that experience, I am almost ashamed at our arrogance. We never stopped to hear that person’s story; we felt we knew they needed to be “saved” and we felt it was our job to get it done. Even when someone professed to be a believer, we’d press on.

That was so arrogant and unkind.

That wasn’t our job; it wasn’t our job at all. Our job was simply to love those people wherever they might be in whatever situation they were, and let the Holy Spirit do or not do whatever the Holy Spirit was going to do or not do in their lives.

Our job was simply to love people. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus says in the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, “if you have love for one another.” Loving is something we can all do. It is something we must do.

And here is the third thing, though it probably should have been the first thing I think it’s certainly the most important thing.

I often hear this concern voiced: “What are we going to do to grow our church?” Or: “What are we going to do to get more young people to come to our church?”

Most everyone remembers the day when the sanctuary was filled and the Sunday schools were robust, and longs for the return of those days. The reality is that much has changed, and those days are very unlikely to return. Craig Barnes is the president of Princeton Seminary, and I heard him say in a speech that there are scholars who have devoted much of their career trying to understand and explain the bubble that occurred to church membership in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, only to find that it happened as a strange confluence of events that will never happen again. But we go on telling ourselves that it will.

So what are we gonna do?

Well, I’ve already outlined two things we can and should do . . . and here is a third thing, though it probably is the most important thing.

I was driving last week and I found myself musing on the passage in 1 Corinthians 3 where Paul said “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

Hear that again: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

Who gave the growth in that text? It was God.

In some ways it doesn’t matter what we do with our worship or our music or our programs . . . those at least to some degree are things we might do in response to people coming to our church, not to get them to come to our church.

But what I think this text is telling us is that if we want to have any chance at experiencing again anything close to the robustness we once knew, we must understand that it is God that gives it. So what we should do is ask God for it.

In our prayer lives, we must recognize the truth of the text we just heard and petition God for the growth that God promises . . . and only God can deliver.

I think that is what we can do . . . what we must do. Psalm 127 says “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” I think many of us are weary of our building, and ready to lay down our hammers. The ninth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says “. . . therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

We must cultivate a renewed sense of awe and wonder.

And out of that wonder, we must love people.

And then we must ask. We must petition the Lord of the Harvest to bring the growth that is promised.

And then step back and let the Holy Spirit do whatever the Holy Spirit is prepared to do in our communities.

And we must always be prepared to say “Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.”