What Have We Learned?

January 27, 2019
Reverend David Shinn

Psalm 82; Philippians 4:4-9

Well, Tim and Meghan are in Palestine and left us four Associate Pastors in charge of the church. Hmm, Sarah, what do you think we can do for fun around here? Alanna, you have any ideas? Oh, Matt, I am sure you have good ideas.

Tim and Meghan, if you are watching, worry not, for we will be faithful and good Associate Pastors and use our talents well.

Let us pray…

With your living grace, O God, fill us now with your presence as we have received your word. Enlarge our imaginations, and give strength to our bodies, for we are ready and willing to be your servants of justice, peace, and mercy here in our church and beyond our community. Come, Holy Spirit, and stir our hearts with your holy words. In your name, we dare to ask and pray. Amen.

Guess what? It has been one year. It has been one year since we opened the doors of the new building and launched the Open Doors Open Futures vision into new and existing spaces. Remember Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson who was our guest speaker from last year’s Dr. King weekend? He exhorted us not to worship the new building. He reminded us that the new building is a tool we use for God’s ministry of justice and peace. He called us to use it.

Use it, we have. Then, last Sunday, Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett challenged us to be a Matthew 25 church. We are to feed all who hunger, give drink to all who thirst, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned. A powerful vision for us to live by.

So what have we learned in this year of learning? How have we activated the building? How can we continue to reach out to those who are in need?

Just a quick recap. As soon as we opened our doors, there was this small, no-name sport event in town. It made a mess and altered the social services in the city, and generated additional challenges for people who are experiencing homelessness.

How did we respond? You braved the frigid temperatures and welcomed our guests, provided a restful place to just sit and warm up from the frigid Minnesota weather, and made bag lunches. There were vegetarian options too!

We had no idea how many would come in. Yet, that did not deter your determination. Many of you signed up and volunteered to stand ready for anyone who was in need.

If you recall, we also opened our storage space for anyone who would like to store his or her belongings during the day. Due to security concerns, police officers and the National Guard didn’t want anyone walking around the Nicollet Mall area with luggage and bags. Again, many came in, and made good use by storing the only possessions they had.

Tim shared with us that one gentleman dropped off his luggage, prepared himself, went for a job interview, and came back later that afternoon to tell us that he had gotten the job.

Folks, that was just the first couple of weeks. Then off we went with the year of learning.

Throughout the year, you responded to the usage of the new building with enthusiasm and joy. For the first few weeks, there was also the look of awe and confusion on many of your faces. Remember the bewildered look when you first stepped out of the new elevators? For the first few times, there was a slight moment of panic, “where am I?” or “what floor am I on?” But soon, you grew to know and use this building well.

We started a new worship service on Sunday night called Gathered at Five. #G@5. Westminster Hall is the sanctuary for the city! In March, we launched the senior center by partnering with the downtown library to serve seniors who otherwise may not have a safe and warm place to fellowship with each other. St. David’s moved in and started their program in March as well. We launched the New Old Adventure which “strives to enrich the lives of older adults by providing useful education tailored to both their spiritual and everyday needs.”

One of the four visions of Open Doors Open Futures is to engage the city and invite the city in. With our building and event planning staff, so many groups have come in. I am not able to list all the groups. Just as an example, we hosted over 700 people in our building this past week and 500 people on Wednesday alone. The city is coming in and we are here to welcome and partner with them to make our city and our world a better place.

Now, this is not a pat on our back moment or resting on our laurels time.

Beloved in Christ, we live in a time when our government is not quite functional, political discourse defines the headlines, political elites are tone deaf to the plight of the millions, disrespecting Native American elders is re-framed with a coached response from a public relations firm, transgender soldiers are labelled as unpatriotic and unfit to serve our nation, a Texas size island of plastics is drifting in the Pacific ocean, and polar ice caps are melting beyond the rate of no return. We read these headlines every day. We good Christian folks cannot sit idly by and be blinded by our comfort and privilege. The systemic and structural racism, heterosexism, classism, and environmental degradation must have a response from us God fearing and loving people.

Did you come this morning/evening expecting that I would repeat the gloom and doom headlines? Of course not. Talking with Sarah this week about the service, she reminded me that people come to church on Sunday seeking a chance to fill their hearts with something positive. You have come so you can receive an inoculation against despair and a booster shot to live out your call from God with intentionality and faithfulness. Let us listen to what the scriptures are telling us.

In Psalm 82, we are witnessing a mythical trial against the lesser gods with the small “g.” With the almighty God, the big “G,” as the judge, the psalmist as the prosecutor brings the charge against the lesser gods, or one may interpret as the proud and powerful among us, who have been corrupted by power and privilege.

The psalmist cries out, “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” How much longer will you, the big G God, let these small g gods run amuck and oppress the poor, the disenfranchised, and the powerless? How much more must the innocents suffer at the hands of the evil doers? How long will you not “rescue the weak and the needy, and deliver them from the hands of the wicked?”

Give justice! Give justice to the weak and orphaned. Maintain. Maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute! Their sorrow and their misery will not go forgotten, for God will rise up and judge the earth. All nations, remember Matthew 25 as the trial of the nations, belong to God. God will not stand for injustice. God will defend the weak, the orphaned, and the lowly.

It is so easy to fall into pessimism and despair when we confront the injustice of the world. Here is another heartbreaking reality I learned last week from our social justice forum speaker, Mr. Michael Walker. As a former Minneapolis school district educator, he put up a shocking slide that illustrated the graduation rate for African American male students as mid 30%, and the average GPA as 1.99. As a parent, grandparent, uncle or aunt, and caring family member for young people, how can our hearts not break seeing those numbers? More importantly, how can we not act to reverse this crisis of humanity?

As Mr. Walker spoke to us, there was this profound sense of urgency. There was also a deeper sense of joy; the joy of serving and loving the students and desiring them to have an opportunity to succeed. The darkness around Mr. Walker will not consume him for the light of joy will lead him.

Paul speaks boldly against the dark situation with such joy in Philippians 4, likely looking up through the grates of a prison cell in the ground when he wrote the letter to the Philippians. Scholars put this letter in the late 50s and early 60s. In other words, Paul’s life expectancy and quality of life were about to become even more perilous with multiple imprisonments and eventual execution under Nero.

Undaunted by his current circumstances, Paul speaks with joy to encourage two sisters in conflict at the beginning of this chapter. Make peace my sisters, he urges them, and to be “of the same mind of the Lord.” Then Paul sings praises and tells them, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”

From the horror of a Roman prison, Paul speaks from the deep well of his joy in a God who will return soon to judge the nations and set all things right once more. He commands us to rejoice!

With headlines and stats that raise our blood pressure and inflate our anxiety, Paul tells us to support our rejoicing with prayers. “Do not worry about anything,” because we all know worrying does not alleviate any troubles at all, so instead, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God.” No matter how insurmountable or how trivial your prayers may be, bring them to God who loves us.

We cannot be free of anxiety by our own effort, but we can meet Christ at the place of our deepest and most troubling concerns. Christ, who has descended to the depths of human despair, knows where to meet us. As you wade into the water and pray, drink and be nourished by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Let our hearts be filled with gratitude. And the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” As the gratitude nourishes and transforms us, we will experience a renewed sense of focus and strength.

Last Sunday, at the G@5 worship, Sarah led the worshippers to place their prayers for justice on the trees of lights. It was the similar faithful petitioning that she and Meghan invited the pedestrians of our city to participate in last summer.

There were so many powerful prayers. I was thoroughly moved by our members’ profound faith. Allow me to read a couple to you.

“I will pray for more patience and understanding. I will speak words of kindness and love. I will strive to be a bridge.”

“Speak in the face of fear. Speak out!”

“We will pray for a world in which all people feel loved. We will not remain silent in the face of apathy or hatred. We will act!”

Then Paul tells us to focus. Focus our minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. Beloved, this is not an exercise of positive thinking, and not a denial of reality. This is holding joy in the face of injustice, oppression, and dysfunction. This is the act of Christian discipline against despair. Focus our minds and activate our hands and feet for the service of God in what is true, honorable, just, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. This is how we can “be of the same mind with God.” (Philippians 4:2)

Some would say that our world is on fire right now. Let me tell you something. It was the same during the first century of Rome. The narcissistic, corrupt, and duplicitous tyrant Nero will burn the once eternal city of Rome down and falsely accuse the minority and the lowest social group called Christian for this infamy. Yet Paul, undaunted by this reality, tells us to rejoice, pray, and give thanks! For Paul will meet those exile Christians and form bonds and friendships that will keep the early church growing.

What have we learned this year? While our efforts are united, the work for justice in the world is massive. The worries of the world are weighty. The systemic and structural racism and sexism are deep and entrenched. Opening a new building is one tool. Using and activating the holy space is a start on this long road of conciliation for the powerless. We meet the needs of the world together. We rejoice in God’s presence in our lives. We pray for Christ’s strength to fill us. We give thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit. We stand and walk forward together because God has called us to tear down walls and build bridges.

Tim has named this new year as the “Year of Invitation.” Extend the invitation not from a self-centered or self-serving position. Invite each other to this great call. Invite your friends to this vital ministry. Invite all people of God. Let us rejoice, pray and give thanks.

Amen.

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