Sep 11th, Mission Possible… Community and Care, with Rev. Kally Elliott
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Rev. Kally Elliott
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Sep 11th: Mission Possible… Community and Care, with Rev. Kally Elliott.
Our mission at First Presbyterian has been to ground ourselves in the love of Christ so that we might be the presence of Christ’s love in central organ and throughout the world. However, the pandemic and racial unrest, political divisions, mental health crisis and so much more over the last two years has dramatically changed the landscape around us. It has also dramatically impacted the church life and community. So to respond to all these changes in our world, the staff and leadership team, the session has worked hard over the last two years taking a fresh look at our church’s mission, our vision, our core values and strategic priorities, given the dramatic changes we have been witnessing and experiencing. This has involved congregational surveys, conversations and many, many planning sessions.
And so we are excited to share this work with the congregation this fall. The heart of what makes First Presbyterian so special remains the same. We will continue to ground ourselves in the love of Christ so that we might be a presence of Christ’s love and central organ and throughout the world, just like our mission statement has proclaimed for many years. But with the work we’ve done over the past two years, we’ve come to realize a fresh presentation of our mission and our core values and strategic priorities might renew our faith and unite us in mission and strengthen our sense of community. So our adapted mission as a congregation for 2022 and beyond is to live the spacious and radical love of Jesus so that all may flourish.
But even though we did spend the better part of two years coming up with and editing this mission statement, I’ll admit it’s not original. To us, it comes with a footnote. Jesus said it first. He just said it a little more concisely. He said it this way.
Follow me. Follow me. It’s a deeply personal invitation to walk with and learn from and live like Jesus. Last week, Steven asked us, what is the work of love that is uniquely yours to do? This week I want to talk to you about the work of love that is ours to do as a community of faith, as a church.
Because to live the spacious and radical love of Jesus is not something that I can do on my own. Years ago, my husband and I entered into marriage counseling after we’d gone through a very rough patch in our marriage and we needed help working through some of our problems. After working with our counselor almost every single week for two years, we found ourselves sitting in her office one day, just shooting the breeze, hanging out. And at some point in that appointment time, we all realized our marriage was once again on solid ground. And so the three of us, my husband, myself and our counselor agreed that we didn’t need to continue our appointments but could just check in from time to time if we felt the need.
At our last appointment I gave our counselor a letter that I had written to her. And in this letter I told her irina, I am so grateful to you because you saved our marriage. She looked at me and she said, no, the two of you did that. You did the work. But I’m glad I got to support you along the way.
Sometimes I think we forget that being saved by Jesus to follow Jesus means that you have others around to save you on a daily basis. To remind you of who you are and who you are called to be. To remind you how far you have come and point you to where God still needs you to go, to come alongside you so that you don’t have to walk alone. When Jesus called the first disciples to follow him, he didn’t call them to a solo journey. Something you might notice as you read through the Gospels is how much time the disciples spend bickering with each other.
It’s actually something I’ve always appreciated because their bickering reminds me how human these disciples were and how they didn’t follow Jesus alone. Come to think of it, maybe they bickered with one another because they were never alone. But they didn’t just argue. The disciples supported and cared for each other, helping each other through times of doubt and guiding one another along the earth, living out the good news together. It’s almost as though Jesus said to them look, you didn’t choose each other, but if you’re going to follow me, this is a group project.
As a young child, I visited Big Basin, California, home of the giant redwood trees enamored with the beauty of such majesty. What struck me as particularly awesome was their mind blowing age, some being 1000 years old. But recently, within the last few years, a wildfire burned through the park leaving anyone who ever laid eyes on the towering redwoods heartsick at what was sure to be their death and their destruction. But thank God, those trees are resilient. In fact, redwood trees are often defined by their resiliency, most having survived several forest fires in their hundreds, if not thousands year lifetime.
And I recently learned the reason these 350 ft trees are so resilient is because they don’t stand alone forming tribes or communities. The roots of the redwood trees do not grow very deep into the earth, but instead intertwine with one another, sometimes even fusing together, often extending 100ft from their trunks, providing each other strength and support. These intertwining roots give them tremendous strength against the forces of nature, helping them to withstand high winds and drowning floods and even raging fires. They thrive in the embrace of one another.
Now the pandemic has brought many gifts the ability to slow down, to bake bread, to walk our yards, getting to know the birds who make their homes and our trees. We were able to learn alongside our children and our grandchildren. Though some of us may not consider that a gift, but for our church community, it brought forced creativity. We had to learn quickly how to create and stream worship, how to gather in virtual spaces such as Zoom. People from all over the world can and do now worship with us.
Online. Members and friends whose health does not allow them to join us in person now have a way to remain connected each Sunday. But I don’t think very many of us would say that we were thriving during the isolation of the pandemic. In fact, I think some of these new practices have come at a cost to our community. This journey of living, the radical and spacious love of Jesus so that all may flourish, or as Jesus concisely said of following him, was not meant to be lived behind a computer screen in the comfort of your living room.
I mean, I’m glad it’s an option for those that truly need it. But when Jesus called the disciples saying, Follow me, they left their homes. They left their family business, their busy lives, and they walked with Jesus and each other. To follow implies action, movement, and maybe most importantly, interaction. Their separate lives were brought into the same flow, doing the work of love that was theirs together to do.
Now, I appreciate that you can stay home and watch worship in your pajamas with a cup of coffee and a doughnut. And I really, really miss you when you aren’t physically present in the sanctuary with me, because your presence matters with us. It matters. It changes us. We are not fully who God has made us to be without you, friends, we need each other.
I don’t know about you, but it’s easy to feel alone these days. We haven’t healed from the trauma of the pandemic or the divisiveness of our political situation. Many of us are still wary of and out of practice of showing up, of getting together. But the healing process can only happen when we are in relationship with one another. As Mother Teresa diagnosed so many of our world’s ills, she said, we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other.
And his father, Gregory Boyle, points out, jesus was not a man for others. He was one with them. There is a world of difference in that. In the Book of Acts, we get this beautiful story about the first church. It says all the believers lived in wonderful harmony, holding everything in common.
They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s needs were met. They ate together, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful as they praised God. It’s a story. It’s an image that has so much captured my heart that I have the scripture framed and hanging on the wall beside my own family dinner table. Like, I’m kind of hoping that if my family stares at this scripture long enough, we too might become like that first church, every meal a celebration, but I have teenagers, so not sure about that happening.
And no, that first church, they weren’t perfect. In fact, at times, the people of the early church were pretty awful to each other. Many of the epistles were written to church communities trying to convince them to quit being such jerks to each other. The church isn’t, never was, and never will be perfect as long as it is made up of humans. And just like the early church, at some point our community, our church will disappoint you or anger you or maybe even hurt you.
I hope not, but it’s probable. I think that is where we can see the miracle, because the early church hung in there. So they kept showing up. They kept meeting together. They didn’t gloss over their problems.
They named them and they worked through them. And as they did so, God’s grace filled in the cracks left by their brokenness. The author of the Book of Hebrews writes, let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching. Now, I kind of love the snarkiness of the author.
Do not give up meeting together, as some of you are in the habit of doing, as if to say you know who you are. But truly, it’s a simple invitation, but a profound one. How do we discern the work of love that is ours to do? Well, we’ve got to keep showing up, keep getting together. How do we heal from a pandemic?
Mess up, ask for forgiveness, experience grace? If we worked through the hardship together, remember how do we remember that we belong to each other? We’ve got to keep getting together. How do we break down barriers or work for justice or make sure that nobody goes hungry or without medical care? Advocate for the oppressed?
We keep getting together. How do we support one another? Embrace joy? Comfort the grieving? Raise healthy children?
Break bread together? We keep showing up. We keep getting together. How do we live the spacious and radical love of Jesus so that all may flourish? Friends, we’ve got to keep getting together.
Healing begins when we move forward together. And like the early church, our church won’t do it perfectly either. We’re a pretty messy bunch. But if we stick it out, if we keep getting together, like the author of Hebrews says, I guarantee we will be equipped to do the love that is ours to do. Right now, I wonder if the love that is ours to do in this very moment is to learn to love each other again.
You may have heard people say, well, I’ve decided not to go back to church. I mean, I like Jesus and all, but I don’t like the church. And I get it. But there’s a problem with this comment and the problem is Jesus himself. Because Jesus kept showing up at church or the synagogue, the temple, the religious institution of his day.
Sure, he criticized the religious institutions, but he never quit showing up to them and dragging his disciples along with Him, because he knew his presence mattered, as did the presence of his followers. How would the religious institution ever change if he didn’t show up? The same can be said of us. To follow Jesus means to follow Him into imperfect, messy community that is trying to live as God’s people, because your presence matters. As your pastor for community and care, one of my hopes for this year is to find ways to help you connect with each other and show up for each other.
There will be many ways to do that, but I want to let you know about a few happening right now or soon. Yesterday we hosted Lake Day at East Lake and we had a great time of swimming and boating and hanging out. September 18 will be our fall celebration and picnic in the yard following worship. On October 8, we will host an allchurch retreat during which all ages will come together to play and make art and earth and laugh. We will host lunches for seniors once a month.
The only thing on the agenda will be getting to know each other. And we will continue with weekly walking groups, monthly happy hours, suppers for seven, and other fun social activities, all intended to help us remember how to love one another in the center for wellbeing and wisdom. We will be hosting support groups, traumainformed yoga, as well as other ways to care for each other and for ourselves. Our deacons continue to connect and visit and create relationships with those who have a difficult time attending church in person. The hospital visitation team is resuming.
Visits at the hospital prayer shawls are being knit, quilts are being sewn. All in the spirit of showing up for our community and our prayer team. Our prayer team has remained strong throughout the entire pandemic. A group of about 150 people, all praying for your prayer requests.
Friends on Jesus’ last night, before he was betrayed and sentenced to death, he gathered with his disciples, tenderly washing their feet, breaking bread and drinking wine with them, showing them how to tenderly care for one another, how to love. And he told his disciples to keep doing this even after I am gone. He says by this, by washing each other’s feet, by eating bread and wine together, by sitting around a table together. By this everyone will know you are my disciples if you keep loving one another, if you keep keep getting together. Amen.