THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
FEBRUARY 7, 2021
LUKE 12: 49-53
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
When I came to CLC as interim pastor, the congregation was on life support. Two poorly attended Sunday services totaled, at best, around fifty people.
Except for a congregational council, there was hardly any internal structure for ministry.
Although the congregation’s motto was “in the neighborhood for good,” there was next to no outreach and no idea about what it takes to attract new people.
I often found myself suddenly feeling depressed during worship.
Around 1950, Carl Jung stated that “the Gods have left the church and they aren’t coming back.”
Yes, at least at CLC, the breath of the spirit was on oxygen.
Yet, from the minute I preached on transformation as the call from Jesus to his people, I was met with resistance.
This is not surprising. Any leader of any institution, who tries to introduce change, will be met with resistance.
For example, as interim pastor, the Southwestern PA staff had asked me to help the council make a decision about whether to continue with these two sparsely attended worship services or consolidate them.
The council had not been able to bring this issue to a vote because certain key families threatened to leave if there was a consolidation.
That was my first battle. After struggling to get the issue on the table and, after heated discussion, the council voted to consolidate the two services.
And yes, families left, and the war was on.
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?” Asks Jesus.
And most of us would answer, “Hell yes.”
I come to church to find peace.
The highest Christian virtue is being nice.
Aren’t we supposed to go along to get along?
Not according to Jesus.
Jesus’ first sermon was brief: the kingdom of God is falling upon you. Be transformed.
On an individual basis, a person can respond to this invitation with a personal path of spiritual and psychological development.
But we run into immense difficulties when we attempt to transform an institution and its members.
The resistance can be monumental.
Even when a congregation is in decline, many people are still invested in everything remaining the same….
From the pulpit, I once said that I am not a traditional pastor and the congregation erupted in laughter.
But there is a dark side to that reality.
Not being a traditional pastor means I don’t fit easily into the institution.
If I am carrying the message of transformation and a congregation is hunkered down in self-preservation mode, there are going to be fireworks.
Jesus says it beautifully in this morning’s gospel.
He speaks of bringing fire to the earth. And, in this case, fire has two functions. It destroys old growth and creates the ground for new growth.
The Phoenix rises from the ashes.
Jesus boldly says he has come to create division. And that is, of course, what happens when a new message is delivered.
In order for new growth to occur, the old must be burned to the ground.
In order for there to be unity, there must first be division.
When new ideas are put out there among a group of people, we discover what people value. We find out where people stand.
Division precedes unity.
Following Jesus may indeed be in conflict with the values of an institution.
Some people will be angry when the fire of Jesus burns down the old structures.
And that is what happened here at CLC.
Again and again and again….
A congregation might be imagined as a chemistry laboratory vessel. (slide) The transformational impetus creates energy that fills the vessel.
And that energy creates heat. And tension. And power.
But is it peaceful?
No, it’s not.
The inner process contained by the vessel generates anger. Conflict bubbles up. People leave the congregation.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace? No, division.”
This work of transformation is tricky business.
In more secular terms, the only person who likes change is a baby with a loaded diaper.
Even when the change is about becoming who God calls us to be….
To lead this transformational process is risky business. To let yourself be seen with regard to what you believe and know is to invite trouble.
Better to keep one’s mouth shut and maintain the status quo….
I am so grateful for those of you who caught the vision of what might be possible at, who embraced transformation, and who aided in the rebirth of CLC.
Thank you. Bless you. We fought the good fight, didn’t we? And that is nothing to be ashamed of…
Because wherever you look, CLC is positively different than it was a few years ago.
Over seventy new members joined CLC. Talented, dedicated, and supportive people interested in personal and community transformation and service.
Creating the Millvale community counseling center.
Renovating our social hall so that it is now a beautiful space in which people can gather.
A renovated sanctuary, technologically equipped to meet the challenges of worship in the 21st century.
A revamped Sunday morning educational program for children.
A staffed nursery.
A quality food bank feeding the people of Millvale during the pandemic.
Raising up new staff members who helped lead the charge.
A contemporary worship service with the SoulSpirit band.
We’ve had new events for the community: Fat Tuesday, a carnival for the Millvale community, a wonderful Christmas concert.
Working on the development of ministry teams.
We created a space for our teen members.
We were in the middle of a number of projects: air conditioning the building, exploring the installation of solar panels, establishing a playground for children at this north end of Millvale, upgrading the kitchen so it could be used by afghani immigrants for their catering business, becoming home for real time interventions, a theater company.
And now, who knows whether these ministries can be fully developed?
But we almost made it.
We almost made it.
This level of transformation for a faith community does not happen without the leader becoming the symbol for all the changes; without undergoing serious attack.
So be it.
Deb and I are worn out. Disillusioned. Just done….
In my work as a pastoral psychotherapist, I would sometimes see a vision of how a new client might be transformed if the therapy was successful.
In a similar way, I saw the vision of what CLC would become if our transformation was successful.
That transformation has been aborted. Even though that is, perhaps, an uncomfortable image, the life of CLC has been torn asunder….
My resignation and impending retirement, comes on the 47th anniversary of the murder of my mother.
It is fitting, because this all feels like a tragic and traumatic dying and a death.
And there is no way of knowing what the rising from the dead will look like or if it will even occur.
CLC has been left in the tomb….
In parting, I want to re-tell a story about little Scottie in third grade. The smallest child in the class.
I was quickly completely my in-class assignments and, since I couldn’t sit still, I would be fidgeting and bothering other kids. Today, they would likely want me to be on ADHD meds.
But my teacher, Mrs. Mock, had another idea’s
She showed me a bookcase filled with a series of books on great Americans: George Washington, Betsy ross, ben franklin, Florence Nightingale, booker t. Washington, and on and on.
She told me that when I finished my class work, I could come over to the bookcase and chose a book to read.
I was and am a voracious reader, so I started to zoom through the books.
And so, Mrs. Mock had another idea.
Since I was so short, she got a coke crate for me to stand on.
And when I finished a book, she hauled out that crate and had me give a report on each book.
There was the call to be a preacher, even though I didn’t know it at the time….
We live surrounded by the presence of God. God comes to us as our life.
On the one hand, that is fantastic news. If you are willing to start from the perspective of God’s presence with us, you begin to develop an eye and an ear for his speaking to you through your life experience.
On the other hand, what is harder to accept is that the presence of God draws us into suffering.
We are not transformed without suffering. Suffering is the way.
But if we come to understand the way of the cross, our suffering has meaning and purpose.
It hope that this is true for you.
The kingdom of God is surrounding you.