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State of the Church 2019
February 17, 2019
First Presbyterian Church, Columbiana
Rev. Fritz Nelson

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:22-31

As First Presbyterian Church, Columbiana enters its 154th year of proclaiming Christ crucified among our neighbors, within our community, we remain faithful to the very one in whom we find our strength, the very one in whom we find our power, the very one who gives us – as a church and as individuals – life.

God gives us life. In Christ we’re able to live life to its fullest. Yet some days death seems to haunt us. Our memories – the blank spaces –seem to possess their own power. I pick up a hymnal and remember Patti Minteer. I plan my regular Thursday visits and Miss Pat Libb’s ready welcome. I look out on Sundays and see where Dan used to sit, where Don used to sit, where Van used to sit and miss their wisdom and leadership. We make a quilt for Wilma and mourn when we cannot personally drape it around her shoulders. The silence of John McGeehen’s mandolin at Christmast time deafens us. We flip through an old directory and remember – Peg Forney, Alice Barrick, Sue McGeehen, so many others.

As the saints receive their reward, fewer and fewer of us remain. Fewer and fewer to paint hallways, move furniture and cook dinners. Fewer and fewer to attend circles and bible studies and worship. Yet Christ still calls to us and we still follow, knowing all we need – the ideas, the wisdom, the financial resources, the energy – will come from God through the immense grace of Jesus Christ.

Up and down Park Avenue, along South Main, in the coffee shops, the breweries, the city council chambers and the meeting rooms of the Chamber of Commerce, a new spirit envelops Columbiana. Some might call it renewal, or gentrification or becoming too much like Poland, but new comers and longtime residents alike are making significant investments in our community. Artists set up studios. Freelancers find community. Farmers partner with chefs and brewers. Entrepreneurs open new businesses. The city invests in infrastructure and a private citizen funds a major makeover to the park. Housing values rise.

We too have been making our own investments. The basement project marks the single largest investment we’ve made in our building since the Good Shepherd window yet its merely a capstone to investments we’ve made over the last several years. Investments in outreach programming such as THE HUB and Concerts Under the Dome. Investments in web sites and communications capacity. Investments in our congregational health and healing, in a vision of a new type of community, of a community rooted in Jesus Christ, of a community where everyone finds welcome, where both children and elders are valued, where compassion leads and neighborly support follows, where we live lives guided by the Holy Spirit, rooted in gratitude and linked with our neighbors.

While I applaud our business and community leaders for their vision, I also know making Columbiana the place to be for artisans and entrepreneurs won’t heal the divisions between neighbors, the broken relationships, the loneliness of growing old, the anxiety of our young people, the black hole of generational poverty and the immense damage to our social fabric cause by the opioid epidemic. Our community needs a spiritual revival to match its economic revival. It needs a revival of faith, a revival of hope, a revival of love, a revival of caring, a revival of relationships. Economic wisdom must be matched with the foolishness of God, the proclamation of Christ crucified, the proclamation of resurrection.

Such a tall order for a little church. Yet our size, I believe, is our advantage. Blessed with smallness we know we cannot serve just ourselves – we must serve our savior and open ourselves up to the community. God has provided the people, the resources, the vision to bring revival to our town. God has uniquely positioned us, at this time, at this moment, to lead such a renewal in our community. We’ve spent the last couple of years building the infrastructure – our statement of values, talked about town programs such as THE HUB and Concerts Under the Dome and now the renovations on our building. Now we just need to continually, intentionally connect with those among our neighbors who experience the same calling we experience, who yearn for revival in their lives, revival in their community; who yearn for a new way, a holy way, a way connected to creator and neighbor alike.

Toward this end we have spent the last year learning how to communicate beyond the congregation as well as we communicate within it. We’ve even managed to get on television a few times. But God’s word, God’s vision travels best person by person, invitation by invitation, life example by life example.

As a congregation our biggest challenge for 2019 isn’t getting through this upcoming renovation, its relearning how to invite. How to invite people to a concert or a program. How to invite people to worship. How to invite people to experience the power of Christ in their lives. It all starts there. And it all starts close to home. Invite a child or grandchild to come help paint. Invite a friend to a HUB event they might find interesting – and then invite them to another. Invite someone who used to attend this church, and still doesn’t go anywhere else, to come back. Invite a relative who perhaps considers herself spiritual, but not religious, to walk the labyrinth or sit by the campfire during Summer Unplugged.

A few months ago, as we were getting serious about the basement, Sue Stoy came to the session with a vision. Our church community and the residents of our town are getting older. Too many of our neighbors spend all day, every day, staring at their walls and watching TV. Could we take our newly remodeled basement and make it a welcoming place for our older neighbors? Could they come for lunch? For fellowship? For exercise? To sing and play music together? To make art? To study scripture? To be in community with one another? From bathrooms, to floor surfaces to even the design of the labyrinth, Sue’s vision has been on the forefront of the Session’s mind.

Can our building become a welcome haven for our older neighbors? Can THE HUB meet its potential? Can we get through the next three months of renovation chaos? Can we get the painting done?

I was wondering all this at 3:50 pm on Wednesday when, in advance of the great moving day, I left to go pick up Eric from daycare. Randy was here. I’d seen Ed out of the corner of my eye, but the building was eerily quiet. When I returned less than twenty minutes later, the basement was swarming with workers, two classrooms had already been cleared out. By 5:30 not one thing to be moved remained.

I knew then we could do it. Not just get through this basement project – but continue the journey to radically rebuild and renew our community in the image of Jesus Christ. We can minister to the businessman who recently told me how inspired he was by the commitment our congregation was making to our community. We can embrace the neighbor who confessed during intermission at the theater how excited she was for our upcoming Lent retreat. We can fill our newly renovated space with seniors who would otherwise be sitting home alone, with seekers who may eschew formal worship but find meaning as they walk a labyrinth; with those whose struggles leave them craving a word of encouragement; with those who want to deepen an already personal relationship with Christ. And we can be present in our community – whether on our lawn during Street Fair or in the parking lot with a rummage sale during Springtime in Columbiana, or holding classes at Generations or Lamppost Farm or serving at The Way Station and The Banquet.

We can do it, but we cannot do it alone. In our weakness we will be forced to reach beyond ourselves to those God has already placed in our community and filled with a similar vision. We will be forced to become a congregation not just of doers but of inviters. We’ll need to actively solicit the Holy Spirit and God’s blessing through intense and steadfast prayer. We’ll need to actively invite our families, our friends, our neighbors, strangers we meet along the way to join with us in revival, in celebration, in the resurrection of our lives, of our families, of our community.

While on retreat a couple of weeks ago, I had a vision. It was our closing circle, but instead of us all facing inward holding hands, we were all turned sideways, like team mates getting ready to take the field. One hand, in the center, linked us to our church family. The other hand, outside the circle, stood ready to accept the hand of our neighbor. Because of the way we were turned, we couldn’t always see who was grasping our hand, but it didn’t matter – for we were ready, inviting, waiting, fully receptive to whoever God called into our midst, confident in their finding blessing through us and, us being drawn closer to God through them.

Amen.