What’s the deal . . . with The Church these days?

By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA
Sept. 18, 2022

I Timothy 2:1-7

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and acceptable before God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth; I am not lying), a teacher of the gentiles in faith and truth.

Let us pray: Good and gracious God, we pray for all people. We desire to live peaceful lives. Uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

The glossy newsletter had just announced a new pastor at a big church in Durham NC. In the newsletter photos, I’m sure the new pastor looked competent and relaxed, but back home in Greensboro, facing a challenge like this, my friend Chris was daunted. Daunted by following in the footsteps of a pastor who had served that church for decades and was known by everyone to be “larger than life.” Daunted by the strange clunking noise coming from under the hood of every church that was not going to fix itself. Daunted by the enormity of suffering in the world and the needs of his young family. Now, self-help books might have told him, “Daunted means preparation for excellence!” But his gut probably said, “what have I just agreed to?” Two days later, he received a letter in his actual mailbox. It was from the former pastor.

“Mary and I just returned home from the weekend away and have read a copy of what was given to the congregation. We have already heard many of the celebrations about your call to Westminster and read the brochure you wrote.” He then went on the detail a few specific things he noted, ending with the key detail that he learned from their friend Johnny Atkins that Chris also didn’t like mayonnaise, surely a sign from the Lord. He then wrote this: “I want to insure you that I will be the chairperson of your fan club. Nobody wants you to succeed and prosper in this call more than I do. I am including a copy of the promise I made to the Session in 2006 and I intend to continue to honor it.”

You may be glad to know that I received notes of encouragement from seven former pastors of this church when I started here at BPC (from Revs. David Ensign, Meg and Jarrett McLaughlin, Jay Click, Beth Braxton, Mary Ann McKibben Dana, and Emily Berman D’Andrea).

Now, let’s turn to young Pastor Timothy who was just starting out in ministry in Ephesus. He had been an intern of sorts to Paul during his second tour in church planting and was on his maiden voyage of leadership at a time when things were rugged for the church. No doubt he was daunted. Daunted by the narcissistic leaders of the Empire who required you to worship them or face their wrath. Daunted by the needs of widows, young and old, and by what was generating so many widows to begin with. Daunted by the onslaught of preachers whose messages sounded nothing like Jesus but turned quite a profit. Daunted by preachers who kept restricting access to marriage and certain foods in ways that sounded more like legalism than love. Daunted by folks who were leaving in droves because of the hypocrisy they saw. And daunted by the normal running of the church among leaders who sometimes squabbled with each other or showed up with wine on their breath or repeatedly called him kiddo.

And around that time, I imagine a courier or mutual friend passed him this encouraging papyrus letter, that we call 1st Timothy, that spoke to his ache for encouragement.

Timothy, you’re like a son in the faith to me. Yes, prayers, intercessions, petitions, thanksgivings are for all people…. Leaders and kings included. And yes, Jesus is for all people… He gave his life for everyone. I am not lying… ” (1 Tim. 2:7). That is what I have been heralding all over this world. He commiserated with Timothy about how hard it is to compete with the peddlers of theological short-cuts by saying, “Without a doubt, the mystery of godliness is great” (1 Tim. 3:16). “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). And he took time to coach Timothy on what made for good elders and deacons. Unfortunately, Paul’s words about women’s leadership and slavery in this letter have historically caused a ton of the strife Paul was trying to avoid when he hoped for quiet peaceful quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. But Paul never set out to be Christ himself, which he also said in this letter, full disclosure, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” In this letter most of all we hear Paul, chairperson of the Timothy fan club, say, “Do not neglect the gift that is in you (1 Tim. 4:14). Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called. Grace be with you (1 Tim. 6:12). ”

What a blessing to read that. What a blessing to receive this message especially when the wind is in your face, especially when people leave the church, especially when kings and leaders and influencers sell people on the myth that there are short-cuts to a life of peace and flourishing. Short cuts like: This diet will give you the life you want. A better job and more money and a better house will calm the churn within you. A new relationship or a different church or strict set of laws will quell your loneliness. A new political leader will fix things.

Paul wanted Timothy to know that ministry was not hard because Timothy was young or in the wrong town or lacking the proper gifts or just a few centuries too early to see big church numbers. It was hard because it was hard. And you know what is even stronger than all that seems to conspire against you? The grace and love and eternal life that dwells within you.

What a blessing Paul gives to us now when we may feel daunted. According to the new data from the Pew Forum, Christian affiliation in the US dropped from 78 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2020. This change highlights the rise of the “nones,” those whose religious affiliation is ‘none’ or nothing in particular, and the research details what we already know, that ages 15-29 are when religious switching most often happens. It notes an uptick in disaffiliation among older adults and says that disaffiliation is concentrated among Protestants, both evangelicals and non, more so than Catholics. We might also feel daunted by the climate crisis or the long shadow of Covid or racism or the blinding speed of technological change and mass migration. And more than likely, we are daunted by our workload or how our loved one sounded the other day on the phone.

So how are things going in this church? Here are some numbers you might feel: 225 of you were here for worship in person and online last week, up from 123 on January 9th. In 2017, around the peak at BPC, worship attendance was 395. It’s easy to let those numbers define us. But, how about these numbers: 58 calls or visits by the deacons last week. Half a ton of food collected for the ECHO food pantry on Saturday. 42 hot dinners shared at Community Table. 58 preschoolers walking finger on the wall in the hall. 31 youth throwing colorful chalk straight into Adam’s beard at their kick-off event and 16 confirmands.

How do you account for the thousands of tears the flowed at funerals that were consoled with hugs and cookies and the promise of resurrection? How do you account for the widow who gets a ride to church and a smile that declares her pricelessness before God? And how do you account for the quiet prayer in the meditation room that lightened the 10,000 pound load on a mother’s heart? And how do you assess the intrinsic beauty of memorial stones and trees or a perfect anthem or a youth who experiences true belonging or words from scripture that feel like a telephone line through time? How do you measure the weight of a hymn sung full blast by the bedside of a woman with just a few dozen breaths left in her body or the lump in the throat of a parent as their child is baptized or says “I do”? And back to the story I shared at the beginning, how do you measure the impact of a former pastor like Rev. Holderness? By the church he helped build or the non-profits he started in Durham? By his son who won the Amazing Race and talks about church as part of his life to his millions of followers on YouTube? Or, by my friend Chris, now seasoned in ministry there, some 14 years later, who at Rev. Holderness’ memorial service, in a sanctuary swollen with sorrow and love, stepped into the pulpit and read that letter one more time?
How do you measure a year in the life? Cue all my music lovers out there.

The truth is… on the balance sheet of grace… all of it comes from God. All of it comes as a gift. All of it flows from the heart of our God mediated through Jesus quivering through in our hearts through the Spirit. It is daunting in the best way to stand on promises that have echoed over millennia, daunting in the best way to stand on the shoulders of giants who lived and died in the faith, sinners and saints, misfits and mystics, who made love visible in this world in pulpits and pews but also in peace efforts and protests, in public schools and libraries, Presbyterian hospitals and universities, and of course the pastor of public television, Fred Rogers. Seen that way, our lives become prayers. Our jobs become praise. Our church becomes a pallet in the hand of the divine painter. A packet of yeast to leaven an overbaked world. A pinch of salt in world starving on bland mass-produced food. A pop of light that the darkness cannot overcome.
Margaret Mead, an anthropologist who not coincidentally also helped draft the Episcopalian book of common prayer, famously said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Amen.