Oct 9th, Mission Possible: A Group Project of Love, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski
Mission Possible: A Group Project of Love, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski.
As we continue to to emerge from the shadows of the global pandemic in, I often hear people say, oh, I wish we could, I wish we could go back to the way things were, or I wish things would just return to being normal again. Friends, there is no going back. There is only moving forward. You know, the question isn’t how can we return to the way things were? The real question is how will we choose to move forward together?
I meet monthly with a group of clergy, and recently we were discussing how much more complicated it feels trying to lead a church coming out of COVID than it was when we were actually forced to learn how to be the church in the midst of the realities of COVID. I mean, when COVID hit, we were forced to just figure things out, like learning to worship online. But now that we’re slowly coming out of COVID. We shared honestly with one another about the realities of lower in-person worship attendance. What seems to be a lack of engagement.
And the challenge of finding enough volunteers to do our ministries, budget struggles, the number of people who have moved away, and the number of people who simply have seemed to move away from participating in the rhythms of worship and church life.
The bottom line is that we all recognized that none of our congregations, including this one, is the same now as it was before COVID began.
The traumas of the last couple of years have changed us. And the honest truth that we need to face is that we are not going to magically go back to the way things were before, because that old reality is gone. A new reality awaits. It will not look exactly like what was, but can we trust that the Spirit of God is present and working in the midst of all of this?
It says this about God in Isaiah 43. Do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up; can you see it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
There’s no going back. There is only now and moving forward, moving forward together by God’s grace. You know, healing, healing from all of the traumas of the last few years. Healing is not returning to what was.
Healing is being open to the possibilities of what can be. A Presbyterian church was debating, and we had the same debate, how many worship services they should or should not bring back as they wrestled with the new reality we’re all facing and wrestling with. And in the midst of the debate, one of their leaders, one of their leaders said, I think we have forgotten that church isn’t a product we consume, but a group project of love that we work on together.
Let me say that again. Church is not a product we consume, but a group project of love we work on together, participating together in this group project of love, you know, just couldn’t be any more urgent than it is right now.
Jesus was asked by a biblical scholar. “Teacher, of the 613 Commandments and laws, which one is the most important?”
Jesus said “Love. Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor with the same passion and the same commitment.”
That’s our group project.
William Sloan Coffin said it this way if we fail at love, we fail at everything else. You know, at First Presbyterian, we’ve crafted we’ve crafted a new mission statement as we step forward in faith in these challenging times, our mission is to live the spacious and radical love of Jesus so that all might flourish.
The earliest followers of Jesus a few centuries before Christians actually formulated what they believed into creeds, these early followers of Jesus survived, survived brutal persecution and even flourished in a hostile environment. These early Christians not only survived, but they actually thrived, not because of their creeds and doctrines, their buildings, but because these earliest followers of Jesus were doing something new in the world, something no one had ever seen before.
They were loving their neighbors. Not just their family, their clan, their tribe, those who were like them. Not even just their fellow Christians, but they were loving strangers, outsiders, gentiles, pagans, even their oppressor and enemy, the Romans.
They shared meals with outcasts. They shared meals with those who were excluded from the table, those who were actually excluded from society. They pooled all of their money together, and they contributed money to a common fund to take in orphans that were abandoned and left to die in garbage dumps. They took food to prisons. They stayed behind when the plague struck, caring for the sick and the dying, often at the risk of their own lives.
Now, why would they do that?
Because they witnessed the same spacious and radical love in Jesus, who said to them, a new command I give to you. Love one another as I have loved you.
The church. If we are going to make it through these challenging times, we need to remember that the church is not a product to be consumed. The Church is a group project of love. The spacious and radical love of Jesus we’re called to work on together. And everyone’s participation in this group project is essential right now.
I don’t believe, as some do, I don’t believe that the church is dying. I do believe, I really do believe that something new is trying to be born. Something new that more closely reflects the spacious and radical love of Jesus.
In the last 50 years, membership in the Presbyterian Church USA has declined by 72%.
If this trend continues, our denomination will cease to exist in 29 years.
Wow. You know, many, if not most young adults who actually grew up in the church don’t belong to a church today. They are what is called the religiously unaffiliated.
But if you talk to them, many of them will still say that they love Jesus, but they see no need to be part of a church.
I want to share a story of a young couple who are members of a small Presbyterian church in Iowa who are an exception to this trend. Now, this young couple, they both grew up in Presbyterian churches in New Jersey. They met their junior year at Rutgers. They fell in love. They got married right after they graduated, and they were both recruited by different firms to work in Des Moines, Iowa.
They didn’t know anyone in Iowa, but thought it would be a grand adventure and perhaps they could actually afford to buy a house in Iowa where they couldn’t in New Jersey. So when they moved to Iowa and they began their jobs, they visited a few churches. They actually went to one small Presbyterian church twice, but it was mostly older people, and they weren’t really sure it was a good fit. And, frankly, life just got busy. And after living there for three years, the young woman noticed a lump in her breast.
After a biopsy, the doctor’s office called and asked to see her and her husband urgently. She had stage four cancer that was aggressive and needed surgery right away. When they got to the hospital for surgery, the admitting clerk, as they often do, she asked about her religious affiliation, and she said, well, I grew up Presbyterian, but we don’t really belong to a church. We did visit one Presbyterian church twice, but that was a long time ago, and I don’t even remember the pastor’s name. The admitting clerk said the chaplain could find out if she would like a visit from a pastor.
She and her husband were terrified. They weren’t sure what to think or do. So she just kind of just said, sure, fine.
The chaplain called the church and talked to the pastor. Now, this was a small church of mostly older adults, and even though it was, like, three years ago, the pastor actually remembered the young couple visiting. He went directly to the hospital and prayed with her before surgery and said, if you would like, you would be happy to stay with her husband while he waited. He stayed the whole day.
Now, after surgery, and when she was released from the hospital, this young couple were trying to figure out, you know, how they would do life, trying to figure out how they would cope with the difficult and rigorous chemo and radiation therapy that was upcoming. And one day, the husband apologized and regrettably said, I need to go into the office for just a couple hours. You know. She told him to go and assured him she would be fine. He left, and while she was lying down, there was a knock on the door.
She wasn’t expecting anyone, so she ignored it, and the knock persisted. Kind of annoyed. She got up, she opened the door, and there stood a lovely older woman holding a paper bag sideways. And she asked a young woman what her name was and then said, oh, good, I have the right house. And she introduced herself and said she was from the church.
The young woman asked, what church? And the woman named the church they visited twice. And she told her she made a casserole and some fresh baked rolls and some vegetables she had canned over the winter, and all of this food was for her and her husband.
And this older woman said she was sorry to hear of her cancer and that her own daughter also had breast cancer. And she said the whole church the whole church was praying for her. The young woman asked because she felt a little awkward if she could pay for the food. And the older woman said, Goodness, no. This is just what we do, dear.
She asked the younger woman if she would like some company. And the young woman said, you know, actually, I would love some company right now. So they sat together in the living room and introduced themselves. They laughed, they cried, they prayed together. The young woman was getting tired and apologized that she felt like she really needed to go lie down.
And the older woman said, you know, of course, dear, and I don’t mean to be rude, but it looks like your house could use some cleaning. I know you’ve had more important things to worry about, and I would love to clean if you let me. The young woman said, Can I pay you? And the older woman laughed and said, oh, sweetheart, we’re the church. This is what we do.
You go lie down. I promise I’ll be quiet. Now. Her husband came home. You noticed how clean the house was and said, honey, honey, you should be resting and not cleaning.
And the young woman said, no.
A woman came from the church. What church? He asked. You know, the pastor’s church. That church we visited twice.
And then she told him about the dinner that awaited them. Well, the next afternoon, there was a different knock on the door. This time a rather uncomfortable looking older gentleman kind of just thrust a bag at her and told her it was a chicken dinner his wife had prepared. It was not yet done because she wanted it to be hot when they ate it and she had to follow directions or he was going to get yelled at by his wife. And he does not like getting yelled at by his wife.
So the young woman assured him she would follow the directions. And he told her there was also pie and that the church was so sorry to hear about her illness and that they were all praying for them both. She thanked him and asked him, would you like to come in for a visit? And he sighed and said, well, no, not really. I’m not much for talking, but he said he noticed the screen door was not working that well.
He knew what was wrong, and if it was okay with her, he would be glad to fix it. I have my tools in my car, in my truck. It won’t take but ten minutes, and my lawn mower is in the back of the truck, so if it’s okay with you, might as well mow the lawn when I’m done with the door. The young woman said, oh, I don’t know what to say. Really, honestly, we’re so grateful.
How can we possibly pay you? And the older man gruffly replied, don’t be silly. We’re the church. It’s what we do.
When her husband came home, he said, Honey, honey, please tell me you didn’t mow the lawn or fix the screen door. No, she said, a man came from the church. What church? That same church. The pastor’s church.
The church we visited twice. And he brought a chicken dinner. And it’s not yet done because his wife wants it to be hot when we eat it, and we can’t mess it up or he gets yelled at. And he doesn’t like getting yelled at.
This congregation, with 94 members, all in their late sixty s, seventy s and eighty s and older, they provided a meal for this young couple and did various errands every single day for six months.
This young couple, they were terrified. They felt all alone, their future was uncertain, and this small, declining church they showed up. They participated together in a group project, making the spacious and radical love of Jesus visible when it was needed the most. The young woman told her family and her friends back in New Jersey, whether I live for six more months or six more years or 60 years, I am never leaving our church.
The church isn’t dying. Something new is trying to be born. And something new is born every time we show up as the visible expression of Christ’s love.
Because we’re the church. It’s who we are. It’s what we do.
The church is not a product to be consumed. It’s a group project of love. A group project to live the spacious and radical love of Jesus so that all might flourish. I know when I was in high school, there was always one or two that didn’t participate in the group project, and the project always suffered.
This group project this group project of love that we call First Presbyterian Church of Bend.
This group project needs every single one of us.
After the trauma of the past few years, there are a thousand reasons to clench your fists, to harden your hearts, to retreat in fear, to give into despair.
There’s only one reason to boldly go forward risking love.
It’s who we are.
It is what we do.