State of the Church (Columbiana)
February 16, 2020

State of the Church (Columbiana)

Passage: Matthew 5:1-12

State of the Church (Columbiana)
February 16, 2020
Rev. Fritz Nelson

Text: Matthew 5:1-12

As First Presbyterian Church, Columbiana enters its 155th year of proclaiming the gospel among our neighbors, I am pleased to announce we remain faithful – faithful to our Savior, faithful to each other and faithful to the community God calls us to serve.

Last Monday, the elders met with Rev. Jules Joy for our annual Presbytery consultation. Rev. Joy, who pastors the Petersburg church and lives here in town and has worked with our elders over many years. When she asked what was inspiring us the stories began to flow: working together on the basement, finally feeling welcome in the church, hosting the PEP Club, THE HUB, the funeral dinner for Marla, the senior lunches. Awe, excitement and energy filled everyone’s voices. Jules leaned back and smiled. “Things have changed a little, haven’t they,” she said.

You know, we’re doing it. We’re really doing it. Three years ago we pledged together to restore our community. We pledged to radically welcome everyone. We pledged to embrace our children. We pledged to show compassion, to support one another, to walk in faith daily, to take responsibility for our ministry together and, most of all, to be thankful. And we’re doing it. We’re not there yet but we’re doing it. We’re reaching beyond ourselves, becoming a blessing to others. As we bless others, we become blessed.

Two years ago this congregation helped launch Pathways to Independence, the anti-poverty program of the Way Station and our deacons remain its largest non-governmental supporter. Last fall we began hosting monthly lunches for seniors. In March we’ll renew the lunches and Pathways to Independence will begin holding classes in our building. When I saw how the schedules overlapped my heart froze. The building’s big enough but I remembered being told about how put-out older members of the congregation were when Alpha and Omega was scheduled at the same time as their dinners. I picked up the phone. Can we make this work? Of course, said Sue Stoy. We’ll just all have lunch together. Of course, said Tammy Blackburn, the Pathways coordinator, it will be great to have lunch together.

The old First Presbyterian would have built a bunker wall between the two. The emerging First Presbyterian will laugh as toddlers interact with the elderly, will rejoice as those who have been through hard times form relationships with those going through hard times and will celebrate as together we catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

Once everyone leaves we’ll reset the building for an evening of worship and classes with THE HUB. At the same time as we pledged to restore community together we pledged to launch a community spirituality and life skills education program. We’ve been doing it for three years and we’re still not sure what THE HUB is. Neither do we know what we’re doing or where we’re going. But we know the Spirit is working. We know THE HUB attracts people who have been wounded by church, burned out by church, stressed by church or would never think to go to church. And we know they experience hope, healing, renewal and resurrection.

Programmatically the senior program and THE HUB will remain our primary priorities going into this year. Both have great potential, fill important needs, bring blessing to many and are straining our capacity as a congregation to the limit. We could say we don’t have capacity and scale back, or we could keep following the spirit and start inviting people beyond our congregation to help.

Over in East Palestine my friend Geraldine got inspired to organize a fashion show featuring Biblical Women. But she needed more women in her show than were in the entire church, so she asked for help. She asked at Silver Sneakers. She asked her kids. She asked her friends. She asked her quilting group. She asked Shirley Pallard. The show’s on March 4th at noon if you want to go. There’ll be lunch.

It’s a new way to be church. Instead of looking around and seeing a lack of people and a lack of money, we listen to the Holy Spirit and invite others to join with us. To help expand THE HUB we’re seeking partnerships with the Presbytery and General Assembly to provide additional funding and guidance. The senior program has already forged a publicity partnership with Meals on Wheels and seeks additional partnerships regarding funding and transportation. We also must recruit volunteers from beyond the church to support both programs, lending their prayers, presence, gifts, services and talents to ours.

The other day I was asked how we plan to get all these people who are in our building here at 9:00 on Sunday morning. First of all we haven’t even begun serving all the people the Spirit is calling us to serve. At some point I think we became afraid to invite people because we weren’t sure if they’d experience Christ in us and through us. Well I have news for you. Those who’ve joined us in this journey to restore community come away having experienced hope, healing, renewal and resurrection. They feel the Spirit and want more.

So we, the core members of this community, must get over any reservations we may have and invite. Invite, invite, invite. Invite your kids and grandkids. Invite your neighbors and your friends. Invite former members to come back and see what is happening. Know what’s going on, be excited about what’s going on and invite.

Inviting people to the party is only half the job. We must also be good hosts. We already know the basics of hosting. Cookies and punch after concerts. Pizza, snacks and “Grandma Louise” when the PEP Club meets. Conversation leaders at tables during the senior lunches. Embraces and words of condolence at funeral dinners.

We’ve also experienced our share of hosting fails. Longtime church members isolated by limited mobility left to sit alone. Invited guests shunned due to differences in race, class and language. Hosting must be intentional. It must be active. If we ignore those who come through our building I promise you they will not become part of us. But if we intentionally, generously embrace our guests, if we listen to their stories, feed them good food, accompany them on their journeys, listen to their ideas, invite them to return, enthusiastically embrace whatever assistance they offer, allow them to bless us as we seek to bless them, we will find our community not only restored but renewed and expanded.

One final story. A few weeks ago, as I was leaving The Way Station after a meeting, Ellen rushed from her office into the Thrift Shop. “I thought I heard you,” she said. “Can we hold GLOW – the Way Station’s summer day camp for at risk middle school girls - in THE HUB space?” “Sure,” I said. “Get Judy the details. We’ll make it work.”

I went to leave, but Ellen wasn’t done.

“I was at the Being Neighbors event,” she said. “For the first time in my life I experienced the church being the community I always thought it was supposed to be. All sorts of different people, grappling with hard questions, and loving and supporting each other while they were doing so. I knew then and there I wanted to hold GLOW in the HUB space. I wanted the girls in the same space where I experienced hope, healing, renewal and resurrection.”

GLOW already had space. Ellen changed it because she wanted her girls to be part of the community she’d experienced here. And she’s given us an incredible opportunity to be hosts. How can we help make this the best summer ever for those girls? Can we show up, listen to their stories and become mentors? Can we invite them to share their stories in worship, to join us at the park on July 4th, to hang out with their families at Lamppost Farm during Summer Unplugged? Can we throw the most amazing end-of-camp party Columbiana has ever seen?

We’re doing it. We really are doing it. We’re restoring community and this church is becoming an amazing place. I’m excited to see what the Spirit is going to do with us and through us in the year to come. I’m already tired. I have lots of questions. I have a few concerns. But I’m excited. Its going to be an amazing year.

Praise be to God from whom all blessings flow. Amen.