Delivered at Ames UCC on August 9, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Last week I went to a training hosted by AMOS with Linda Hanson and Michael Johnson. AMOS, which stands for A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy, is an alliance of churches and social service agencies that work together to create social change. For example, AMOS was instrumental in helping to make more affordable housing available in Ames through our city’s recent negotiations with the Breckenridge developers.
I have a lot to share from the training, but today I want to focus on one comment made by one of the organizers, Bishop Douglas Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church in Baltimore, MD. Bishop Miles has been in ministry for over 40 years. He’s been active with BUILD, AMOS’ sister alliance in Baltimore, for almost as long.
In that work, he has been instrumental in building affordable housing, fighting redlining (a practice of denying loans based on race), establishing a foundation for college tuition, and establishing a living wage for low wage workers, the fruits of which we see today in fast food restaurants’ recent increases in wages. BUILD created an after school program that serves 1,400 youth.
Bishop Miles has also built and grown three churches.
In other words, he has a lot of credibility in terms of both public and pastoral leadership.
During one of his plenary sessions, Bishop Miles asked us to describe the business of most churches. What would you say?
- Getting into relationship with the pastor;
Bishop Miles then pushed us to look at any discrepancy between our professed missions and where we actually put our time and money. For example, do we say we are a church that values social justice only to have our dollars say that we actually value our social hour?
The Bishop went on to critique the effort churches put into building denominational identities and media campaigns, actions that have no real effect when it comes to church growth.
And then the Bishop said this, “Unless you’re willing to change, you’re not willing to grow.”
I know that growth is on the mind of this congregation. Just like most of our sister churches in the UCC, we have seen a decline in attendance and participation by people under 40, let alone under 30. This is anxious-making. To put it bluntly, without regularly bringing in new members who give regularly to the cost of our ministries, churches like ours will cease to exist in a couple of decades.
Bishop Miles shared his own experience of this crisis. When he first planted the Koinonia church, they were in a neighborhood that needed a food pantry and homeless shelter. As a result of doing both, the church boomed. But when the church moved to a new location, those ministries withered and the church stagnated. Why? Because in their new community the greater need was afterschool care for kids, not food.
Had Koinonia Baptist dug in and insisted on doing meal programs only, doing a ministry that was familiar and had been successful in the past but was no longer relevant, the withering would have gone into a full-blown death rattle.
Because they were willing to change, they were able to grow.
But it is not just church that can cease to exist if stasis becomes the highest value.
Our reading today was the first four verses of the letter to the Hebrews, part of the Christian Testament to God’s work in the world. We will stay with this complex, sometimes off-putting, and beautiful sermon for several weeks.
As we heard, it begins with a description of how God has engaged humanity. For the unknown author, God began speaking to humanity through the Hebrew prophets and other signs, but most recently acted through Jesus.
We know this story very well, now, 2,000 years later. Which may be to our detriment. I don’t think that in this case familiarity breeds contempt, but I may mute the radical nature of our faith claims. Hear again the first part of this first sentence:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.
At first God functioned in one way: God spoke with and through Noah, Moses, Sarah, and Isaiah. But then God began to speak in a different way: through Jesus. Jesus, who was not just another prophet. Jesus, who became or revealed himself as Christ through that movement from Bethlehem to Golgotha and beyond. We now hear God calling us into beloved community not through prophets but through a newness that cannot be killed and awaits us when we are brave enough to dusty our feet and risk the world’s crosses.
Christ is defined by change. When we hold still, when we do not open ourselves to transformation in our personal and corporate practices, we bear false witness to the God of Christ. It’s not just our building that is on the line with our willingness to change, but the integrity of our testimony to holiness, as well.
WE HAVE DONE IT
The good news is that Ames UCC is up for the task. Today we have artifacts from our 1865 founding on display: our original chalice and paten and a buffalo skin. Our opening call to worship was also from that era. We no longer use them. The Communion set is kept protected in a display in the back and the buffalo skin resides at the Ames Historical Society. We don’t say “ye” in daily life or refer to God in exclusively male terms, either.
What are some of the other ways Ames UCC has changed over the years?
And were all of these changes just practicalities?
No. Ames UCC has changed a lot since 1865 and not just because rural electricity came along or a new trend in Communion cup fashions. This congregation has also made substantial decisions in response to rigorous and ongoing dialogue with the divine. This church has willingly followed Jesus into that Easter space, either dying to practices and professions of faith that no longer give new life or adopting new ones that do not shy from the cross.
For 150 years Ames UCC has sustained itself as an institution and as an honest witness to the holiness that transforms and asks us for transformation.
There is a great deal in these four verses that I didn’t get to today, like all the angels and Jesus as purification for sins. We will in the weeks ahead as they recur throughout the letter.
It is such a gift to go back to these sources of our tradition, to learn how our forebears walked with God and each other, to ask again how we now feel called to walk with God and each other. It’s what churches have been doing since churches began: seeking God, hearing the needs of the world around, and reinventing themselves to meet those needs just as God did in the prophets and then in Jesus and now through the ever rising Christ.
It was in inspiring for those of us at the AMOS training to hear how the Bishop’s Koinonia Church transformed through faith. But that was Baltimore. What does God want us to grow toward in Ames?
I won’t make any proposals today.
But I will share this: If I learned anything in this first month as your pastor, it is that we have a 150–year-deep reservoir of witness to the still-speaking God to draw on for inspiration, and a lively, hopeful commitment to be the inspiration for the next 150 years to come.