Almost nine months ago, a terribly destructive fire devastated Westport Presbyterian Church in Midtown Kansas City.
Westport is a small congregation with, nonetheless, a big heart and a large outreach to its community. And it is determined to rebuild and stay working in Midtown. In fact, this week the congregation has been meeting with potential architects to choose one to move its rebuilding project forward.
(The photo here today shows what the back of the building looked like after the fire. I found the photo at http://trumanslepthere.blogspot.com/2012/01/for-us-its-love-of-god-and-love-of.html.)
As he does now and then, the pastor, Scott Myers, asked me if I'd fill in there as preacher on a Sunday when he'd be gone, and so that's what I did this past Sunday at the congregation's temporary location, The Villa, an event space just a few blocks from the church building.
Because lots of Kansas Citians have been impressed with Westport's spirit and have expressed concern about its future, I thought I might share with you today the sermon I preached Sunday in that I tried to encourage the congregation to move ahead with its mission.
Using Ezra 3:8-12 and I Corinthians 1:18-25 as my biblical texts, here's what I said:
I have a confession to make. I
envy Westport Presbyterian Church. Oh, not for the disaster you've been through
in the fire. I wouldn't wish that on Satan's minions.
Rather, what I envy is the
opportunity you now have to reinvent yourself as you recover from the fire and
its aftermath. It can be a time of astonishing grace and a lesson to all who
watch what you do.
My congregation, Second
Presbyterian, did not have such a compelling event to move us to rethink our
past, our present and our future. Rather, our event was the installation of our
new pastor, Paul Rock, two years ago.
That moved us to create a
visioning task force that I chaired. We called it the GPS task force, and in
our case GPS stood not for Global Positioning System but God's Purposes for
Second. We were nothing if not clever. Or something.
The result of our work was a
51-page report full of some 150 recommendations for how we become the church we
need to be to move into the future. You can read it all at Second's website if
you want to.
One of the passages of
scripture we used to guide us in that work is the one we heard this morning
from the wildly popular book of Ezra. (When last did anyone preach here from
I chose that passage for today
to tell you a bit about what we have learned at Second through our GPS process
in the hope that some of it may be useful to you here at Westport.
In the Ezra story, the people
of Israel return to Jerusalem after an exile
of several decades and they begin to rebuild the temple.
What's the result of this
effort to create a foundation for a new life together as the people of God? The
result was both shouts of joy and bitter tears.
Some people shouted with
exultation at the new possibilities as they began to create the new temple.
Others wept because they were old enough to remember the old temple and what
was being rebuilt was not what they remembered.
Friends at Westport, you will face this same division,
and may be facing it already. However you rebuild, some will shout for joy at
what it represents for the future and some will weep because your new space
will not exactly be the old space they remember with love.
Listen to those who shout for
joy and help them remember that not everything about the future is guaranteed
to be bright and untarnished. Listen to those who weep and help them remember
that not everything about the past was bright and untarnished.
Help both groups remember that
what is important is what God is calling you to do and to be in the future — a
future that will be in harmony with your wonderful history.
And what can you say about the
future toward which God is drawing Westport?
You can say with the Apostle
Paul in our reading from Corinthians today that it is foolishness, God's
foolishness. That's the future God has in mind for you. And for Second Church.
Heck, we can be fools together.
Some people will ask: What?
That little Midtown congregation that could barely scare up 100 people to show
up on a Sunday morning for worship is going to rebuild and try to continue to
And you will say: Yes. Exactly.
That's what we think God is calling us to. And we are committed to God's
Others will ask: Why don't you
just fold up your tent and merge with another congregation?
And you will say: No. That's
not what we think our Midtown neighborhood needs. That's not what we think God
is calling us to do.
Rather, you will say, God is
calling us to be fools for Christ. God is calling us to be faithful to the
mission of the church in our time and our place.
And just what is the mission of
the church? Ah, a really good question.
I very much like the way missional
church leader Michael Frost of Australia
put it last year at a conference I attended.
Frost said the mission of the
church is not to grow the church. Rather, he said, the mission of the church is
this: To alert the world to the universal reign of God in Christ. And we do
that both by proclamation and by demonstration. (repeat)
That is, we preach the gospel —
meaning the in-breaking of the reign of God, the idea that, as Jesus said, the
kingdom of God is at hand — to all who will hear, but we also demonstrate what
the reign, or kingdom, of God will look like when it comes in full flower.
So, for example, if we believe
that in the kingdom
of God there will be no
poverty, we work now on small demonstration projects to show what the
world will look like without poverty. And if we can't help the whole world, we can
start with just one family.
And if, for example, we think
that when God's reign finally comes there will be peace, we work for peace now.
And if we can't bring peace to the whole world, we can work to bring peace to
our own neighborhood, our own family, our own congregation, even our own family.
And if we think that in the
kingdom of God no one will be homeless, we work to provide homes for people now
to demonstrate that coming kingdom when all will be at home in the Lord.
We don't imagine, of course,
that we can bring about the final kingdom
of God on Earth through
our demonstration projects. That's the mistake the so-called
post-millennialists make. And why they are forever disappointed.
But we do believe that by our
work we can draw in people who catch the vision and want to experience now what
Jesus himself said we could
experience now, which is a taste of the kingdom of God.
That, after all, is what Jesus
meant by the gospel. Turn, he said, for the kingdom of God
is at hand. And you can experience that now.
And speaking of Jesus, you
surely know that it’s not a wise thing for us be separated from him for so long
that we no longer recognize him. When we do come face to face with Christ, we want
to be able to recognize him.
For instance: It was a quiet
day in heaven, and St. Peter had hardly any business at the Pearly Gates. As it
got to be around noon, Peter saw Jesus walking by and called him over.
Could you watch the gates for
awhile? Peter asked. I need to take a lunch break.
No problem, said Jesus. Take
So Jesus sat down and waited.
And waited. And waited. Finally, off the in the distance, he saw what appeared
to be an old man walking slowly toward the Pearly Gates. Jesus watched with
great interest as he got closer. And as he did, there was something about the
old man that caught Jesus’ attention, though he wasn’t quite sure what it was.
Eventually the man got all the
way up to the gates, and Jesus, by now quite intrigued by him, said to him,
“Sir: I want to welcome you to the Pearly Gates. But before I can tell you
where you will spend eternity, I need to know a little about you. Can you tell
me about your life?”
The old man replied, “In my
life, I was a carpenter.” And Jesus’ eyes got bigger as he stared at the old
man, seeming to recognize something in him.
“What else?” Jesus asked.
The man said, “I had a son. And
the son died and then came back to life.”
And Jesus stared at the old man
“Dad?” he asked. “Dad? Is that
And the old man replied,
That’s the sort of joyful twist
you will be giving to doubters who think Westport Presbyterian Church died in
For today Westport Presbyterian
has the opportunity to create a new future, one in which you will be committed
anew to demonstrating in small ways what the kingdom of God might look like
when it finally comes to Midtown Kansas City and to the whole cosmos.
You will show this to everyone
through the work you do to promote the arts, the work you do to care for
children and for the elderly, the work you and Scott do to promote interfaith
understanding (speaking of which, by the way, do not forget to wish your Jewish
friends well as the High Holy Days begin at sundown this evening, and if you
have no Jewish friends, it’s not too late to get some; they will enrich your
You also will show what the
kingdom of God will look like through the work you do to provide a home for
agencies in our community that are themselves working in harmony with the idea
that one day, as Julian of Norwich put it, "all shall be well, and all
shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
Since my work on the GPS task
force, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the future of the church. In
fact, this coming Saturday I will speak to a Minnesota Valleys Presbytery gathering
near the Twin Cities about this subject, and I intend to tell them to watch the
progress Westport Presbyterian makes as it literally rises from the ashes.
Indeed, both Westport and Second have an opportunity to
show that Mainline churches do in fact have a bright future.
It will be a future in which we
show again that Christianity isn't easy, that church is not just a service or
social club. Rather, Christianity means preaching the cross, which Paul told us
will strike many people as foolishness. And it means being an advocate for
people who are not important enough by society's warped standards to be taken
As some of you know, I write a
biweekly column for the National Catholic
Reporter. In a column in July I suggested that what I called the current
hierarchical, institutional expression of the Catholic Church is dying in America and
might be gone in a few generations, though it was unclear to me what might
I was overwhelmed with
responses from readers. Many shouted for joy that the old church would go by
the wayside, a church they felt had outlived its usefulness and become a
detriment to the gospel.
Others wept and defended the
status quo, while they quoted over and over the idea that Jesus appointed Peter
the first pope and said that on this rock Jesus would build his church and that
the gates of hell would not prevail against it.
There it was once again, joy
and weeping at change — or at least suggested, predicted change.
It's inevitable, this
combination of both joy and weeping. And I hope that as you work your way
through all the plans you must make, all the decisions you'll face, all the
tough calls, you will remember that it will not happen without both joy and
Your task is not to let the
joyful people become unrealistic about what you can really accomplish and not
to let the weepers prevent you from accomplishing anything.
Just remember what we heard God
say through Paul's letter to the church at Corinth:
"I will destroy the wisdom
of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts."
The world outside the doors of
Westport Presbyterian Church is full of spiritually hungry people, to say
nothing of people who are literally hungry.
They may think it's completely
wacky for this congregation to be preaching the gospel of the in-breaking kingdom of God when much of what they see around
them argues against that — the crime, the poverty, the ignorance, the economic injustice
and on and on.
But I'll tell you what I think
can draw them in so they can hear the transformative gospel of Jesus Christ,
who came to start a revolution of love and grace. It's your willingness to
engage in the primary mission of the church.
And, again, what is that? It is
what Michael Frost said it was, to alert the world to the universal reign of
God in Christ by both proclamation and demonstration.
Your foolish job is to recommit
yourself to preaching the gospel of the coming reign of God and to
demonstrating what the kingdom
of God will look like
when it finally arrives. It will look like mercy and compassion. It will look
like justice and peace. It will look like respect — and most of all it will
look like love because it will be love.
So, friends of Westport, the road ahead of you is full of
challenges but also full of the promise that God will be with you every step of
the way, encouraging you, loving you, celebrating with your joy and mourning
with your weeping.
As I say, I envy you this
journey and will be praying for you and wishing you success, even as I hope you
will be praying for us at Second as we reinvent ourselves once more so that we
can be, like you, fools for Christ in a world that needs to know the one who
loves us enough to save us.
May it be so. Amen.
* * *
RELATING TO MUSLIMS EVERYWHERE
As everyone knows, this is a difficult time for relations between the United States and Muslims around the world -- given terrorist attacks from people identifying themselves as Islamic and that hateful "movie" mocking and denouncing the Prophet Muhammad, produced in the U.S. by creeps. Still, as this well-reasoned New York Times editorial suggests, the U.S. must stay engaged with Muslims wherever they live, in part because they make up about 1.5 billion of the Earth's population. It's important, however, not to conflate the "Muslim world" with the "Arab world." The most populous Muslim nation is, after all, Indonesia. And not all of the Arab world is Muslim.