Last week, Pepper and I made the 4 ½ hour should-have-been 2 ½ hour drive to Bethesda for Thanksgiving! AGH! The radio kept us company. One of the stories we listened to was about ploggers—have you heard of ploggers? According to NPR they are joggers who pick up plastic as they jog—plastic bottles, plastic bags. Plogging is the new thing. I want you to know that I myself , though, am a five-year veteran. That’s how long I have owned Pepper and that’s how long I have been taking her on morning and evening walks. I am not a plogger, but I AM a plog walker. Or maybe it’s a dog plalker? However, I also pick up beer cans, which makes me a beercog walker; and bottles, which makes me a dottle walker. I even pick up the occasional large-size pizza box—which makes me a pizzog walker. Or maybe it’s a pizza bog walker?
I think I do what I do, because I am future-oriented. Long time ago I read a study of pastors. The study indicates that pastors are future oriented. So, I pick up plastic, beer cans and all the rest, because I want to make my community less trashy. I think about how much tidier Jefferson Park Avenue will be when I do my part.
But I often see other walkers—remember I live in the city and near the University. These other walkers are students on their way to or from class. Others are working people on their way to or from the bus stop, They are NOT looking for trash. They are enjoying the fresh air, a sunny sky, maybe. In other words, they are you know, just enjoying their walks. That’s because they think in present terms. The article suggests that most people are present-focused.
Now, according to that same article, people who sit in church pews, that’s you, are not future or present oriented. Not to pigeon-hole any of you specifically, but most pew-sitters are big into traditions, That is to say, your thoughts are rooted in the past. You come to church on a temperate, sunny Sunday. Your garden is calling out to you, “Come weed me!” or, your car or truck is asking, “Don’t you think this is a fine day to give me a bath?” You come to church anyway. Why? You come because that is what you have always done. Your Sunday wouldn’t be complete without church. Traditions.
That doesn’t mean that traditionalists or present thinkers are wrong, and I am right. It just is. In a church, we depend on all three types. The people who live in the future, help us to set a course, the people who live in the present, help us get there, and the traditionalists? Well they tell us how the past might inform the present and the future.
So how does our scripture reading for today fit into all of this? Well, Jeremiah is a prophet after all, He is a seer, a person who has visions—that makes him future -oriented. But he’s living in a country that is present and past focused. When we pick up this story, Babylonia has attacked Judah. All who can, have fled their homes to seek refuge in Jerusalem, home to Judah’s King Zedekiah. Inside city walls, the King urges: “We can save ourselves against the enemy. God is with us! Always has been.”
Is he kidding? Little Judah is going to win against the Babylonian Empire? Far seeing Jeremiah says, “Yes, God IS with us, but it’s time to raise the white flag and beg for mercy!”
If that is where his prophesy ended, though, we’d say, “Well, that’s a short-sighted prophesy, at best. Really, I could have told them that!”
The prophet Jeremiah goes further, though. He continues, “Babylonia is going to destroy our city. We are going to be sent into exile. But one day we will return. And then a messiah will rise up from among us.”
Jeremiah looked 600 YEARS into the future. That’s why we call him a prophet.
And now I want to take our scripture and relate it to our discussion about future, present and past orientations, AND I want to relate it to what I know about churches.
Churches can be either present, past or future oriented—or what we might call prophetic. A present-oriented church has a budget that covers the bare necessities. Like the church I mentioned last week, Ebenezer Presbyterian in Kenbridge. Twelve Christ-centered active members. Their building is paid for. They have a small endowment. Few needs: a pastor to preach and serve communion; a pianist. When there’s a leaky roof, the church dips into its endowment.
Someone at the Presbytery office told me about a church in Kilmarnok, VA. It’s PAST oriented. Used to enjoy a large membership with lots of young families. Booming church school program. Now the church has a dwindling older population. Its pastor retired last year. The church wants its next pastor to be young with young children. The plan is: rebuild the church school! But, the church is located in an area that now attracts retirees. The Presbytery is suggesting that the church reconsider. Where does it think those young families will come from?
Ok. How about us? When I first came here, you were focused on the present. You had to be. The exterior was unsightly. Peeling paint, broken window panes. Then we lost the building where my office was housed, and where we held church meetings. Our web page was so old it was about to be shut down. The voice mail machine didn’t work. We had no regular musician, and Steve and Jimmy said that they just had too many personal demands to keep cleaning the church. Then, our bathroom had a major leak. We had furnace issues. Our accountant died, and oh yes, we had near knock-down-drag outs over the thermostat!
Some evenings I’d drive home from Session meetings thinking, “What next? Will the James River turn to blood? Will we be overrun by frogs and locusts?”
But, look around! We now have a beautiful exterior. I have a new and better work space (Gregarious soul that I am, I LIKE meeting people at Baines); we study scripture at peoples’ homes, infinitely more comfortable than hunching over our Bibles around a dining room table. We have a fully functional and lovely web page, two dependable musicians; a high school student keeps our place clean, and we have a working voicemail machine. Tom has taken over as our accountant, and no one seems to worry about the thermostat anymore. The Icing on the cake? Our new pew cushions!
We survived. We conquered! Thank you, Session for seeing us through. And thank all of us, because we are the folks who put money in the offering plate, and YOU are the ones who elected our Session members and support them in their work.
We could keep thinking in present tenses, waiting for the next problem to arise. Nothing wrong with that. As I said, fine Christians at Ebenezer in Kenbridge.
We could, also focus on the past, like that church in Kilmarnock—We could try to revive that time, when we too, had a thriving church school--in the balcony. You have cherished memories, for sure. But, in this gal’s opinion, we can’t go back to that. Trying to recover the past is a fool’s errand.
So, if the furnace holds, and the James River doesn’t turn to blood, it may be time to think to the future—to become modern day prophets.. It’s not easy. Much easier to know what to do when the toilet is overflowing. Just fix it stupid. Difficult to think prophetically. It takes prayer, studying scripture, and a hard look around.
I have heard from you, “We need more members!” That was particularly evident to those of us who worked on the quilt show. We accomplished a lot, but SO much work and so few workers!!
I have heard from you that you want to go deeper in the faith. That’s a worthy cause.
And finally, I have heard from you that we need to do more in the greater community. We need to serve the poor and the hungry, as Jesus calls us to do. But of course, that takes money.
So, here’s what I know.
First membership. You don’t grow a church if your goal is to bring in new members who will work on projects, serve on the Session, and by the way, put lots of money in the offering plate. Can you imagine an SPC want ad: “Wanted, good Christian people who have energy to spend, free time, and lots of money to give away.” My goodness! They’d be beating down our doors! NOT! No. the reason we want to grow, is because we want to bring people closer to Christ, and we want them to be part of this dynamic community of faith. We know the benefits, and we want to share those.
Second. Going deeper in the faith. You won’t ever hear me say no to that. But, how do you do that? Well, you commit time to it. You pray, study scripture, and share faith stories with other Christians. You want to have a weekly prayer meeting? A healing service? See me. Again, though, the OPERATIVE word is TIME.
Third. Doing more in the community. Your SESSION is on it. With the frogs and locusts at bay, our session has begun to think prophetically, a la Jeremiah. It has established a “Help For Neighbors” program. Tom sent you a letter about the organizations that are going to benefit from our generosity this year. And with the money raised from the Quilt Show, we will be helping still MORE people. We would like to do the same next year, and maybe step out in faith and do even more. To do THAT, we will need to commit our financial resources. That may mean upping your pledge, but also working on fundraisers that serve worthy causes. So for sure that means a time commitment, too.
In the near future: We continue with our wonderful Help for Neighbors Program. Work is under way for an Unveiling Racism, Part II,a concert to raise money for some cause yet to be determined, and a fundraiser for Tri-county Little Learners. Of course, we will maintain our rewarding relationship with sister church, Chestnut Grove.. And we continue to support the Discovery School with our prayers, and our hospitality.
God was with those Jews so many years ago, even as they faced their enemy, the Babylonians. God was with us as we worked through the exterior painting, the bathroom leak, and all the rest. And God is with us now. We think prophetically, planning for the future, and with God’s help, God will see us through. Do you believe that? Of course you do. It’s true. Amen