Wednesday, October 29, 2014

All Saints Day -- Sunday, November 2

Next Sunday, November 2nd, we will celebrate All Saints’ Day.  All Saints’ Day invites us to remember those whom we love that have gone on through the gates of larger life.  In some mysterious way we are gathered with all those who have gone before, with those we love who live in different parts of the world, as well as with those in the room with us. From the earliest days, the church has taken this opportunity to celebrate, and you are invited to join in the celebration of resurrection.

On Sunday, November 2, we will mark All Saints’ Day with a special liturgy and prayers of thanksgiving for those saints who are dear to our congregation.  Please think about those saints you would like to be named and honored on November 2 during worship. The names can be those of family members, friends, or people from other times and places whom you have never met, but have inspired you in life and helped you in your walk of faith. Please bring a photo or a small object that reminds you of that person.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ordinary 30A -- October 26, 2014

Who Do You Love?

Guest Preacher:  Alan Olson

            So for the past couple weeks I’ve been hitting the books pretty hard. The other day I took the Worship & Sacraments exam for the PC (USA). This is one of the four ordination exams that Candidates for Ministry must take before the Commission on the Preparation for Ministry—the CPM—can certify the candidate as being ready to receive a call to ministry. One of the other things that a candidate must do before certification is preach a sermon before a member of the CPM. And hey, look, there’s Tom Smart, a member of the CPM. Hi, Tom!
            So on Friday I took the Worship & Sacraments exam. Maybe it would be more accurate to say I retook the exam. I took this exam back in July, along with the other three ordination exams. This was two and a half weeks after I got back from Africa. I passed the other exams the first time around, but not Worship & Sacraments, which was the subject that I thought I knew the best. But I overloaded my schedule and I didn’t realize that after I got back from Africa, I’d be too tired to study. I tried to study. Really, I did, but I just couldn’t concentrate.
            This time around I’ve put a lot more time into my studies. I’ve been reviewing old exams and writing practice essays every day. I’m really sick of paging through the Directory for Worship. And I’m busy doing all of this right before I have to preach a really big, important sermon. Notice a pattern? I didn’t see it until I started writing this sermon; but clearly, I have a habit of overloading my schedule. I try to cram too many important things into a narrow passage of time. What can I say? I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.
            So, on Wednesday night, I was trying to do some work on this sermon and I was trying to work through one . . . more . . . essay! By 11:30, I’d had it. My brain was fried and my body was beat. The well was dry. At that point, any sane person would have brushed his or her teeth and gone to bed, but this is me. And I saw a link to a blog entry in the Huffington Post, and it looked really interesting. Notice a pattern?
            The title for the blog entry was “Most Depressing Brain Finding Ever.”[1] The writer discussed an article from Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale. In his research, Kahan looked at how people processed information about politics. It was fascinating. Now before I say anything else about this study, I want to emphasize that I am NOT trying to lead a political debate from the pulpit. So I won’t go into too many details about the experiments, but what Kahan found is that our political beliefs affect our ability to do math. Seriously.
            Kahan showed some numerical data to the people who participated in the study. First he said the data were about a skin cream, and then he asked the participants to analyze the data. Most people were able to correctly analyze the data. However, when Kahan showed the same data, to the same people, and said those data were about some political topic, people were unable to reach the same conclusions. In other words, when people believed the data were about a skin cream, they could do the math. But when they thought the numbers were about politics, they couldn’t do the math; no amount of objective information could convince people that their political opinions were misinformed. Politics was more powerful than math. Now before you go convicting your neighbors for their misinformed opinions, please remember that I left the political details out of this sermon. So I want you to hold all of that stuff about how we process information in the back of your head while we consider this morning’s Old Testament and Gospel lessons.
            This story in this morning’s Gospel lesson also appears in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Jesus’ adversary in this version is described as a Pharisee, and a lawyer at that, and he asks Jesus which commandment is greatest. As usual, the authorities are trying to trick Jesus into making a mistake; as usual, Jesus offers a better answer:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus responds by quoting Scripture, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18; Jesus says that all of the law and all of the prophets hang on these two pieces of scripture. So let’s take a closer look at the text from Deuteronomy.
            The Book of Deuteronomy is presented as a series of speeches—sermons, actually—given by Moses, to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. In these sermons, Moses recasts the law that was given to the Israelites in the Sinai. In fact, the name Deuteronomy actually means, “second law.” Most scholars think that Deuteronomy was composed over a number of centuries, and long after Moses died and the Israelites entered the Promised Land.[2] The Book of Deuteronomy articulates covenant theology, which is the “shape and substance of Israel’s faith.”[3] It provides a systematic interpretation of what it means to be in a right relationship with God. The authors of Deuteronomy were trying to reaffirm and revitalize the central tenets of the Jewish faith. And so is Jesus. Notice the pattern?
            In a dispute with a Pharisee, Jesus begins by quoting a portion of the greatest statement of faith in the Old Testament: Shema y’israel, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad. That is, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Scholars refer to these verses as the shema. Practicing Jews also know this as the shema, because that is the first word in Hebrew: Listen! Hear! It’s a command. You can almost hear Moses preaching to the Israelites: Listen to me, guys! This is really important! The Lord is our God; the Lord, alone! This is the great statement of monotheism. It sets the Hebrew religion apart from all other religions of the ancient Near East. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin identify the Shema as the essential statement of the covenantal relationship between God and humanity.[4]
            Why would the authors of Deuteronomy need to restate this? Why would the covenants that were expressed in Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus need to be restated and then placed in the mouth of Moses? One answer is Israel had a long history of questioning God and worshiping other gods when they doubted God’s love and care. Think of the golden calf. Think of the Second Commandment. Remember, too, that in the time of King Ahab, the people of Israel were trying to worship both God and Baal. And Elijah said to the people: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, follow him.”[5] There is even archaeological evidence of these divided loyalties: there are inscriptions at cultic sites from the Northern Kingdom dedicated to “YHWH and his Asherah.”
            Yet for all this, for all the times Israel turned away from God and worshiped idols, God still welcomed the chosen people back. And when even that wasn’t enough, God didn’t give up on humanity. No. God sent Jesus into the world, so that humanity might have another chance at reconciliation. Notice the pattern?
            Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing. What does God do when humanity still can’t get it right? God sends Jesus. What does Jesus tell us to do? Love God with every fiber of your being. It’s worth noting that the verb, to love, has a different sense in Hebrew than it does in English. In English, the verb describes a state of being. I love my mother. I love pizza. I love the Steelers. At no point in the last three sentences does my love require me to act. Though I love pizza, I have no plans to eat pizza after church today. Now I’m going to watch the Steelers today, but in March or April, I will still love the Steelers, even if there is no game to watch. I might even love them more because they’re not playing and I won’t have to watch a bad football game. My love doesn’t call me to action.
            The Hebrew language is very different. It’s a language of verbs. The verb, to love, implies action on the part of the one who loves. To love God is to act on that love. To love God is to act ethically in service to God and on behalf of God. So Jesus reminds us that we are commanded to love God. We’re not supposed to argue which of the Ten Commandments is most important; we’re supposed to love God with every fiber of our being and in everything that we do. Oh, and Jesus says something else. He reminds us of Leviticus 19:18; he commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This isn’t just a state of being; this is about acting on our love. We must demonstrate our love in tangible ways—for God and for the rest of humanity. God created our neighbors, too, so showing love for our neighbors becomes an act of love for God; it is a way for us to remain in the covenant with God.
            But that’s not easy. Some people are difficult to love. And there are so many problems out there. At times, it doesn’t seem like our love is enough. Sure, we all want to be God’s church, sent out into the world, but it just seems like it’s harder to do that nowadays. Thirty years ago, it seemed like it was easier to be the church.
            Something changed. We see that something is different, but we don’t know who was responsible or why it happened. We want what we used to have, but it’s gone. We can’t quite figure out where and what God is calling us to be. We see lots of data and we hear lots of explanations—conflicting explanations. We talk about things but we don’t seem to move forward. We’re stuck.
            We’re stuck and we’re busy trying to figure out where we went wrong. This is true in all of the mainline denominations. It’s as true for the Lutherans and Methodists as it is for us in the Presbyterian Church. Our congregations are in decline and we miss how things used to be. We miss the families that we don’t see in the pews anymore. Maybe it was easier to be the Church when there were more people in the building, but they’re not here anymore. And we’re bogged down, trying to figure out what went wrong.
            Despite our best intentions, things changed. I’ve only spent a little bit of time here at Emsworth, so I don’t know all of the bits and pieces of your story. But here’s what I believe to be true about the changes that have happened here over the last generation: it isn’t Susan’s fault. It isn’t Bob Downs’ fault. Nor is it George Leitze’s fault. It’s not even your fault. The world changed. That’s it. Now we have to find a way forward.
            Remember that study I talked about a few minutes ago? Once we start talking about politics, we lose the ability to do simple math. I think what that study shows is that we don’t want to let anyone challenge our identity. If you and I have different opinions about the President, and I say something about the economy, and then you offer some piece of data that conflicts with what I just said, then you haven’t just challenged my statement about the economy, you’ve challenged my identity. The question about politics really becomes a question about identity, and I’m not going to let anyone challenge my identity.
            The bigger problem is we trust too much in our own ideas. We form our identities around our faith, yes, but also around our ideas, our sense of place, our political ideologies, and our cultural sensibilities. We construct our identities around these other things, and then we hold them sacred. We are not to be questioned or challenged on our beliefs about guns or birth control or the righteousness of loving the Pittsburgh Steelers. The problem, really, is that we do not base our identity in God and in Christ. At best, that’s just part of our identity, one part among many, competing for our loyalty.
            The answer, the way forward, is Jesus. Recognize the pattern? When we get bogged down, when we turn away from God, God doesn’t turn away from us. When we can’t figure out where to turn, God sends Jesus into our lives. And what does Jesus tell us? Love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all of our might, and also, to love your neighbor as yourself. What stops us from doing these things? We don’t trust enough in God’s love and God’s faithfulness in us. We make idols of ourselves, our minds, and our past. The way forward is to turn away from our idols and toward Jesus. The way forward is to find our identity in Him. When we let go of our idols and embrace God, we show our love in visible ways. We love God in the original sense of the Hebrew verb and we do the same for our neighbors. This is how we are called to be the Church in the world. Not the church of thirty years ago, but the Church of today! So turn to God and turn to Jesus and love the Lord with all your heart and all your might and all your soul! Thanks be to God! Amen!

            Now, friends, as you depart from this place, remember that God never turns away from us. Remember that we are commanded to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. Remember that we are commanded to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And remember that love is an active verb; love leads to visible acts of faithfulness, justice, mercy, and peace. So go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love and act upon that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say,

[1] Marty Kaplan, “Most Depressing Brain Finding Ever.” Retrieved from Huffington Post, 10/23/14:

[2] Clements, Ronald E. Deuteronomy. In Volume 2 of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press (1998), 278.
[3] Brueggemann, Walter. Deuteronomy. Nashville: Abingdon Press (2001), 17.
[4] Miller, Patrick D. Deuteronomy. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (1990), 14-15.
[5] 1 Kings 18:21

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Food Drive -- North Hills Community Outreach

Let's Fill These Empty Shelves

As we were gathering for worship this morning, the shelves of the North Hills Community Outreach food bank, located in the old Suburban General Hospital, looked like this:

And this:

Let's do something about all that empty space.  This week, fill your grocery cart with non-perishable foods for our hungry brothers and sisters in the North Boros.

Most needed are cereal, peanut butter and jelly, canned vegetables and canned beans, juice, pasta and sauce, rice and rice mixes.

Bring your food to church on Sunday, November 2nd and we'll be sure to get the food immediately to the food bank. 

Today, our friend Alan Olson preached a sermon to remind us that our love for God isn't a feeling, it's an action.  Let's love God on behalf of our neighbors this week and fill up those empty shelves!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ordinary 29A -- October 19, 2014

God With Skin On

Exodus 33:12-23                 

Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”

And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

In today’s text, we are stepping into the middle of an argument.  In fact, we find ourselves in the middle of a really heated argument between Moses and God.  At the heart of this conflict is the question of how much more God is willing to take of the stubborn, stiff-necked people of Israel.  And as arguments go, this one is a doozy.  Hang onto your hat folks.  I think it’s safe to say that things are becoming seriously unraveled on this trip to the Promised Land.

To be clear, we are entering into an argument in chapter 33 of Exodus that began in chapter 32.  As you may recall, Moses was significantly delayed in coming down from Mt. Sinai where he is studying the covenant with God, and after a good while – 40 days to be exact -- the people begin to panic.  With Moses nowhere to be seen, the people are pretty sure that God has also abandoned them, so they turn to Aaron, the guy Moses left in charge.  And with Aaron’s blessing, they all decide to melt down all their jewelry and make a substitute god to make themselves feel better.  Which of course, you know, is exactly what God just got done telling them NOT TO DO.  In the Ten Commandments.  Remember that part about not making idols?  Well, the people of Israel, in their fear and panic, throw out the rules.

So they make themselves a bright and shiny idol.  While a golden calf seem like an odd choice to you and me, for people in that day, a calf was the perfect choice for a deeply frightened people.  In the ancient world, a calf or young bull represented everything good -- strength, fertility and endurance.  Best of all, a golden calf is the sort of god that the people of Israel could see and touch and hold in their hands and depend upon.  Unlike Moses who had probably ditched them or been eaten by a bear up there on Mt. Sinai.   And it’s probably just as well because things with Moses hadn’t been going so swimmingly.  And a golden calf seemed better than YHWH who had also turned out to be a huge disappointment.  What kind of God was this – so demanding on the one hand, and completely unreliable on the other?  Since neither Moses nor God seemed to be coming back anytime soon, Aaron and the people took matters into their own hands.

You know the rest of the story.  The Israelites are really whooping it up at the altar they’ve built for their shiny new god. It’s all fun and games and revelry until Moses shows up.  Moses is furious, mostly because he had just finished using every negotiating tool in the book to change God’s mind about frying up all the people like so many sausages as punishment for their idol worshipping ways.

God had told Moses up on the mountain about what was going on with the people.  But when Moses finally comes down off the mountain and sees for himself the people yucking it up, Moses loses it.   Moses is so sick of the constant second-guessing and complaints and whining that he shatters the stone tablets he just finished hauling down the mountain into a million pieces.  He grabs the golden calf, throws it into the fire, tosses the charred ashes into the people’s drinking water, and then literally forces them to choke on their false god. And then he calls out the Sons of Levi – the priestly order – and tells them to go kill all the unfaithful  people, and that’s just what they do.  The Levites kill 3,000 people including many of their own relatives. 

It’s not a pleasant scene.  It’s a horrible scene.  It’s a terrible, bloody day.  All because the people just couldn’t hold it together long enough for Moses to come back. 

When God seems completely absent, it creates a choice for all human beings.  When God gets quiet, we can choose to stay faithful, hang in there, and wait to see what God is up to.  Or we can become so anxious that we begin to look for something else to fill the space that belongs to God.  And all of us have felt abandoned by God at one time or another, and all of us have filled that empty space with anything – everything – but God.  We turn to an idol that we can design and, most of all, an idol we can control, instead of trusting an uncontrollable God.  Human beings do it all the time. 

Anyone who has ever suffered great loss can understand what one scholar calls the “crisis of presence” experienced by the Israelites.  Most of us have had those dark nights of the soul in which we wonder where God has gone and if God is ever coming back.  Like the Israelites, all we want is for God to show up and save us.  It doesn’t seem too much to ask, does it?

This violent, vindictive Moses is not one I like very much, to tell you the truth.  This is not a God I like either.  For while I understand the anger, I also understand what life must have felt like for the Israelites without the steadying presence of Moses. 

I don’t think I ever noticed before that 3,000 people die in this story.  And I can’t think of a way to pretty up that particularly awful scene up except to say what is painfully obvious.  The people messed up.  Sin in scripture, sin in our lives – sin always has consequences.  Sometimes the consequences are small ones that we barely even notice.  But sometimes, our sins create terrible suffering for innocent people.  The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is a pretty good example of how poor countries suffer due to a lack of basic political and medical infrastructure – infrastructure that is within the power of the rest of the world to help provide.  It isn’t until those of us in more developed countries feel personally threatened by a life-threatening disease that we move to act decisively to rescue our neighbors.

But God is merciful to the Israelites.  God decides that God will not destroy them, but God has also decided that God won’t go with them.  God is done being so personally involved with these feckless people. God’s hurt is as deep as their sinfulness. Instead, God will send an angel to lead them.  God will keep God’s part of the deal – the people will get to the land God has promised them.  But God tells Moses that God has had enough of the stiff-necked Israelites. 

I read a story about a little boy who was asked by his mother one night to go out into the yard and to put his toys away. He started to go outside, but once out there he quickly turned about and came back inside. He told his mother "I’m afraid of the dark, won’t you come out with me?” His mother reminded him that he wasn’t really by himself, that Jesus was always with him and would never abandon him. With that the boy went out again. But no sooner had he gone out than he returned, saying he was still afraid of the dark. When his mother reminded him that Jesus was with him and that he wasn’t by himself, he replied that he knew that, but that "sometime I need somebody with skin on."

That’s what Moses is looking for in our text today.  He needs more than just God’s promise of presence.  Moses wants more than just an angel.  Moses wants the real deal, somebody that Moses can see and touch and know is with him. Moses had never been exactly thrilled with this job of leading the unruly Israelites to begin with, and to travel on with only a proxy standing in for God is a deal breaker.  So we hear Moses’ audacious argument with God in our text today.  Listen to the first part of the exchange as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message:
Moses said to God, "Look, you tell me, 'Lead this people,' but you don't let me know whom you're going to send with me. You tell me, 'I know you well and you are special to me.' If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don't forget, this is your people, your responsibility. God said, "My presence will go with you. I'll see the journey to the end." Moses said, "If your presence doesn't take the lead here, call this trip off right now. How else will it be known that you're with me in this, with me and your people? Are you traveling with us or not? How else will we know that we're special, I and your people, among all other people on this planet Earth?"

Moses wants what we all want.  Moses wants certainty.  He wants God in the skin.  Moses knows that without God’s presence, the Israelites are no more special than any other people on the earth.  The only thing that makes God’s people distinct from all other people is God’s presence.  Without God, Moses and the people have no identity at all. Without God, they are just another dusty, nomadic people, scratching out an existence and depending upon whatever idol they can muster up to make it through another day. 

And perhaps it is Moses’ straight up confession of deep neediness that causes God to give in.  God says, “All right. Just as you say; this also I will do, for I know you well and you are special to me. I know you by name."

It’s the craziest thing, isn’t it?  After everything that’s happened – the unfaithful people, Aaron’s blunder, the calf, the dancing, the broken tablets, the broken promises – despite all of it, God is what God always is.  Merciful.  Gracious.  Steadfast in love. 

But while there are no limits to God’s love, there are limits to how much God will reveal.  God will go with the people and Moses will see God, but Moses will not see God’s face.  Moses asks to see God in all God’s glory, but all he will see is God’s back as God moves into the future.  It is as if Moses is experiencing what Paul describes in I Corinthian 13:12, “…now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 

We are known.  We are loved.  God chooses to be in relationship with us, which means that God accepts being vulnerable to the pain that happens when we mess up our relationship with God and with other people.  God is distraught when we get distracted by idols and depend on something other than God to know who we are.  Yet this story, and indeed the whole story of scripture shows how God chooses again and again to abide with us through all of our wilderness wanderings. 

It is enough.  A glimpse of God is enough for Moses and the people to begin again.   In the first verse of the next chapter of Exodus, God will hit the restart button and say to Moses – go get two more tablets of stone, and we will try this again.  Forget about the tablets you smashed to bits in anger, forget about the calf and the chaos. Let’s take another 40 days and 40 nights up on Mt. Sinai, just you and me.  We are gonna make this work.  It is enough for God and it is enough for Moses to know that they need one another, and the people need Moses if they’re going to be what God has always intended for them to be.  A blessing to the whole world. 

Sometimes it feels as if we are all stuck in the cleft of a rock trying to see God’s face. I think the whole church is living in a what feels like a “Rock of Ages” moment, seeking the presence of God, waiting to catch a glimpse of God’s glory so we can know in which direction to go.  We are all longing to see God with skin on.  Sometimes the promise of God’s presence doesn’t quite cut it.  We want more. 

We want the real deal when we’re scared out of our wits by what tomorrow will bring or what we see on our televisions or what we fear about our churches.
We want the real deal when we’re lonely.
We want the real deal when we’re sick or in pain.
We want the real deal when the bad news arrives and we don’t know what to do.
We want the real deal when we’ve lost the one person we can’t do without.

We want God’s presence.  And if Moses could trust that brief glimpse of God’s back, how much more can we who have received the incarnation of God in Jesus trust that God is with us right now?  Through the power of Holy Spirit, we can see and touch and know God through the glorious skin of our fellow human beings. 
We are the real deal for one another.
The real deal glory that is the reassuring voice.
The real deal glory that is the unexpected visit or phone call.
The real deal glory that is seeing Christ in the form of the person standing in front of you.  Or sitting next to you.  Holding your hand, rubbing your back, cracking a terrible joke at just the right moment, saying absolutely the wrong thing but saying it so kindly and lovingly that it sounds like prayer.  Stumbling and bumbling with you just like we all stumble and bumble through the wilderness of human existence. 

That is the real deal, so much better than any idol we can imagine.  God with us, as clearly as we’ll see God in this life.

God promises to stick with Moses, but not in the way Moses wanted God to stick with him.  God stuck with him anyway.

Jesus told his disciples that he would be with them always, but it took them a long time to understand what that promise meant.  Jesus stuck with them anyway and sticks with us always.

God promises to always be with us, but hardly ever in the way we would choose it if we were designing the God we want.  Our golden calf sure does sparkle and it surely does shine.  But every winsome idol in the world can never, ever be as real a deal to us as the Holy Spirit in all its messiness and disruption and comfort and grace. 

May we hold out for what is real.  The love of God, the peace of Christ and the constant presence of the Holy Spirit.  One God.  For us.  With us.  Though us.  Now and forever.

Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Adaptive Change Conversations Begin at Emsworth U.P.

On Monday night, about half of our active members/friends gathered for a pot luck supper and conversation as we continue to move through the Unglued Church process at Emsworth U.P. Church.

Using the information gathered through the New Beginnings report and the results of the six-week "house meetings"process, the folks who gathered considered three "future stories" for the church, and participated in an activity called "Animal Farm" which will help the congregation uncover those issues in our past and present that may hinder our movement toward a faithful way forward as a church.

Below you will find the three "future stories" and the comments they generated.  Additionally, you will see what issues the "Animal Farm" activity uncovered.  

At the end, you'll read about coming events in November in which we will meet with other churches in Pittsburgh Presbytery who are also going through the Unglued Church process.

As always, if you have questions or ideas, please get in touch with Pastor Susan, or with any member of the leadership team at Emsworth:  Jon Stellfox, Bez Stellfox, Tom Smart, Marti Smart and Donna Hunter.

Future Story 1 -- Redefining The Mission

It is 2020, and so much has changed here at Emsworth U.P.

Back in 2014, we realized we really needed to step out and understand our community with fresh eyes.  We began to do prayer walks in our neighborhood.  We stopped and prayed for homes and businesses, and we would chat with other pedestrians that we encountered.  We spoke with political officials, leaders of non-profits, and others in the community who had a sense of the needs in our neighborhood.

Soon we began to transform the way we do thing to better reflect our community and our missional perspective.  Some of the things we changed included:

            ·We formed small groups to meet, pray, study scripture and have discussions in homes, coffee shops and other places in the community.
            ·We went out to festivals, sporting events and other places in our community – even laundromats! -- to interact with others and talk about our mission and ministry.
            ·We renovated our worship space and experimented with different worship styles and times to make our church a place of meaningful, vital worship.
            ·We updated our building’s layout to make it completely accessible for all ages and abilities, including updated restroom facilities, sound and visual technology, and meeting areas.
            ·We made significant financial investments in pastoral leadership and leadership training for our laypeople.
            ·We completed the labyrinth and prayer garden with the cooperation of our neighbors, and got word out to the community about it being there.
            ·We put up signage around the church to let the community know who we are and what we are about.
            ·We undertook significant local mission activities including (Meals on Wheels, The Doorway, Shepherd’s Door, The Table, etc.) and not only provided financial support, but also significant leadership and volunteer support.

Change has come slowly, but with each new relationship we give thanks to God and look ahead to new and different ways to transform lives.

The future story suggested by “Redefining The Mission” is a long term strategy in which the congregation moves through a series of adaptive changes resulting in a whole new way of being church.  This option requires significant energy, ingenuity, creativity and spirituality because people will be leaving behind previous ministry and doing a very new focus in ministry.  According to the New Beginnings material, this type of future story requires the greatest amount of time, energy and resource.

The group on Monday night felt that this was a difficult scenario to envision because it requires a much more community-oriented way of thinking.  The amount of change required to realize an entirely new mission for the church nearly overwhelmed them, although they realized such a story would result over a long period of time.  There was a sense that the congregation would “do what it takes” to make it happen.  They understood that part of redefining the mission would mean abandoning the notion of “bringing people in” to church, but would require an adaptation of going out into the community.  There was also great enthusiasm for small group ministry.

Future Story 2  – Resurrection and Rebirth

Back in 2014, our church made the important and empowering decision to enter into the New Beginnings/Unglued Church process in order to make some clear decisions about our future.  We considered all the things it might require to turn around years of declining numbers, and we questioned whether those of us gathered had the energy, will and financial resources to undertake a major revitalization process.

We began conversations about shared ministry with our sister mainline churches in the area.  We didn’t want these discussions to be motivated by desperation or fear.  Any bold ministry decisions needed to be about a passionate shared hope and exciting common vision for living out the gospel among people in our community.

We realized that we care deeply about things like mission and spiritual growth, and in many ways it felt like worrying about bills and our building distracted us from where our hearts really were.  We thought about what it would look like to continue on as intentional small group in another church community or in another missionally-focused location where we could worry less about resources and maintenance, and instead focus on our passions. 

Once we made the decision to let go of our building, we were open to all kinds of new possibilities in how we could engage each other and the outside world.   We did this in all sorts of ways:
            ·We began to worship in our homes, coffee shops, and in other churches.
            ·We looked for new and creative places for worship in the heart of our community, including outdoor worship.
            ·We considered leasing or sharing space in areas of the community where our mission, worship and other activities would be more accessible to the community.
            ·We sought out joint community and mission opportunities, and at these events we encountered others who wanted to know more about our ministry and calling.

Has it been easy?  Well, no.  Living out a gospel calling and life of discipleship rarely is.  But letting go of our material identity allowed us to fully embrace our spiritual identity.  We became re-energized for all of the passions that drew us to the church in the first place.  Looking back now, we are thankful for the Holy Spirit transforming and sustaining our witness to the world.

This future story is suggested by the “redevelopment” option of the New Beginnings material, and is just one of many hybrid options available to us.  The story presented included the provision of moving from our current location, and presented a number of possibilities for future locations to accommodate more missionally focused worship and ministry in our community. 

There was a strong resistance in the group to this future story – primarily focused upon the loss of the building.  Some group members said that this sort of change would lead to a significant loss of members.  Others feared that such a story would create an intolerable level of change and fear. 

On the more positive side, the group said that such a story would ensure the continuation of the congregation in some form, and would allow the community to spend more available funds on mission as opposed to building issues. 

Such a future story would require a very detailed plan, according to the group.  There would need to be a very clear sense of what such a story would be like before they’d want to move forward. 

Those who were most negative about this future story linked their opinion to their feelings about losing/selling the building.  They suggested exploring ways to get another church to share our current space.  They also felt that the church needed better “marketing” to attract visitors and new members.

Those who were most positive about this future story said they thought it sounded like an “adventure” and would help the congregation to stay together.  “We would do anything to stay together,” was a sentiment expressed by many in all the groups.

Future Story 3 – Grace-filled closure


After many months of conversation, prayer, and discernment with our congregation, pastor, apprentice and other Unglued Church colleagues, we realized that we did not have the energy or the resources to move forward as a congregation.  As people of The Resurrection, we realized that the death of our congregation, while difficult for us, did not have to be meaningless, but could plant seeds for future ministries. 

We talked and prayed and cried, but in time we realized that it came down to this choice --  we could continue on as we are and be able to maintain the status quo for a number of years, or we could use the financial and other resources we had remaining to us to ensure a continuation of ministry in the North Boroughs and beyond.

We took the proceeds of the sale of our building, as well as our remaining endowment, and set up a fund to support:

(some possibilities)

            ·A school/medical clinic in Malawi.
            ·A sustaining fund for Meals on Wheels in the North Boroughs.
            ·A gift to the Pittsburgh Presbytery to help fund new church development
            ·A gift to fund a particular new church development
            ·Shepherd’s Door/The Center/The Doorway or another area non-profit

During our last months as a congregation, we met and prayed together, and formed a plan for distribution of our assets, and as we talked, we also shared memories of our life together over more than a century.  Through the help of the presbytery, not only were we able to determine the way in which our assets were distributed, but also able to secure continuing pastoral care for our shut-ins and others unable to join another congregation.

On our last Sunday worship as Emsworth U.P. Church, we invited all of our former pastors and members to be with us one last time.  We invited the congregations of all of the Presbyterian churches in our area to worship with us that Sunday.  During the worship service, we introduced, commissioned and prayed over those who would continue the ministry for us – internationally, regionally, and locally.  Through our tears, we could see glimpses of resurrection and new life as a result of our decision to close with grace.

Many of us have moved to other Presbyterian churches in the area where we continue to work and worship with one another, as well as our new brothers and sisters in Christ. We’ve been surprised at the new energy we’ve found in that experience!  Many of us also work with those agencies and groups to whom we supported with our investments of our remaining assets.  Though we continue to miss our church, we are grateful that we made  the choice to make our final decisions together and plant seeds for continuing ministry.

One of the future stories offered by the New Beginnings report was “do nothing” and face a fairly dismal future of closing suddenly without planning for a legacy or a future.  Instead of presenting that story as a possibility, we looked at a future story of selling the building and using the proceeds to plant future mission and ministry in our community and beyond.

As you can imagine, this option is one that summons up difficult emotions.  Yet, it is an story that bears some consideration given the place in which we are standing now.

The group did report some positive aspects to such a story.  It would allow significant mission support to continuing ministries, and allow the church to leave a legacy.  Some expressed the belief that new energy for our people might emerge from our getting out of the continuing cycle of building maintenance and repairs.

The group was also very clear on the negatives of closure – loss of traditions and identity.  There was also a sense that closing means “defeat” and “giving up.”  Some said that closure could only be considered after the congregation “tries something” even if the things that are attempted fail.  Many said the prospect of closing is “depressing” and would want to wait a significant amount of time before considering such a story – maybe as many as 20 years from now. 


After the small group sessions and conversations, we moved to an activity called, “Animal Farm.”  The purpose of this activity is to begin to uncover what unresolved, unspoken, and unexamined issues might be holding the congregation back from making the adaptive changes we need to make to become a vital, outwardly-focused ministry in our community.

Participants were given post-it notes and asked to jot down responses to these questions.  We did not talk in depth about their answers.  The posters used in the activity will be posted in the sanctuary for the next several weeks to allow other members/friends to post their responses.  Below, you’ll find a summary of responses from Monday night’s group:

Sacred Cow -- What do we treat as that which cannot be "messed with" in our church?  
Worship times/day
Building (5 notes)
The “look” of the sanctuary
Session meetings
Big sanctuary

Elephant in the Room -- What issues need to be acknowledged and discussed that we are afraid to tackle?
Change that takes us out of our comfort zone
Loss of building
Why have members left?
Too few people
Lack of manpower/energy
Not in touch with our community
Hollow enthusiasm/lack of commitment
Too few people left to get things done
We will lose people before this is over
If building is sold and empty, we will be over as a congregation
No time for children in worship
Can we financially maintain the building?
Can we move forward with the people we have?

Dinosaur -- What is extinct or needs to die in order for us to move forward?
Closed minds
# of elders and deacons
Midweeks – need to revive them
The idea that we need to bring people to church rather than take church to the community
Ties to 11 a.m. Sunday worship
The idea that the church = the building
Rituals that are not relevant

Squirrel(!) -- What distractions are keeping us from moving forward?
Prayer garden
“Just one more chance”
Fear of doing something “different”
Focus on numbers
Doing the “work” of the church vs. outreach
Church = building

Road Kill -- Are we willing to name and embrace our epic failures in the past?
Free meals
Leadership training
Community dinners
Sunny Jim’s ministry
Attracting new people to church
Attracting new members
Masonic Village ministry
Good Friday service
Door to door evangelism
Solicitation to community for dinners, prayer groups, children’s programs

Next Steps

1. Meeting of Session and Deacons with Rev. Sarah Robbins to review the report from October 13 – Sunday, November 2 at 12 noon (after worship)

2. Meeting of all churches in Unglued Church program with our consultants/apprentices – Thursday, November 13 at 7 p.m. (location TBD)

3. “Fresh Expressions Vision Day” – Friday, November 14th, 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

4. Meeting of Emsworth U.P. with our consultant, Rev. Deborah Wright and Rev. Sarah Robbins – Saturday, November 14 at Emsworth U.P. at 10 a.m.