Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 28, 2018
“Bigger? Or Stronger, Readier and Clearer”
1st Corinthians 8: 1-6 – Common English Bible (adapted)
Now concerning meat that has been sacrificed to a false god: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up. 2 If anyone thinks they know something, they don’t yet know as much as they should know. 3 But if someone loves God, then they are known by God.
4 So concerning the actual food involved in these sacrifices to false gods, we know that a false god isn’t anything in this world, and that there is no God except for the one God. 5 Granted, there are so-called “gods,” in heaven and on the earth, as there are many gods and many lords.6 However, for us believers,
There is one God,
From whom all things come from and to whom we belong.
And there is one Sovereign Jesus Christ.
Through whom all things exist and through whom we live.
In his State of the Union address in 2015, President Obama declared “the state of our union is strong.” He then cited extensive data to back up his claim. Commentators noted it was a striking contrast to previous speeches that had been filled more with optimism than reality.
And so, in my annual State of the Church sermon on the day of our congregational meeting in 2015, I picked up on that theme and declared something similar: that Park Hill UCC is stronger. I am superstitious enough that to declare something too definitively is dangerous. I declared I would never live in Cleveland. No wonder why, then, I did! For 17 years. Even though, I subsequently came to love and defend it, not to mention, it’s where I met my husband.
So, I thought, to declare in 2015 “we are strong,” would have been an invitation to test the theory. A church, and in fact all of us, are never finished. We are always becoming something – either of our choosing or as the result of forces around us.
But we were, in fact, becoming stronger. We had just started bloom! a few weeks before. We were nearing the end of our first year of the Women’s Homelessness Initiative, in which 77 people had volunteered. And the narthex project had been completed, transforming our entrance into a welcoming place and adding an area for fellowship. The whole capital campaign was raising our confidence. And there was evidence to back that confidence up, not just optimism.
On Annual Meeting Sunday in 2016, my word for the church was “ready.” Ready for what God is calling forth from us next. Ready was a good word, although, as I look back, I wonder if God wasn’t laughing and saying, “We’ll see!” Yet, by then we had completed all our major capital projects. Growth was truly happening. Once we took out the pews in the summer of 2015, attendance and the number of families with children rose significantly. The difference was stunning, as though a switch had been flipped. Our sanctuary now reflected our theology – a sense of community created, the table in the middle of us, and the magnificent reflection of light upwards from the floor. Visitors noticed and kept coming back, some of you included.
And yet, perhaps I should have said we are readier, because who could have been truly ready when we gathered in shock for worship the first Sunday after the election. However, I think we were ready for the influx of people. We had begun working with Soul2Soul a few months before to energize and re-engage with issues of racial justice. The now well-established Women’s Homelessness Initiative provided an immediate opportunity to get involved. And again, following the removal of the pews the year before, when people came looking, we had in place a critical core of families and children from which to build. And we have.
When we met last year, the inauguration had been two days before. Saturday morning, dozens of us had joined the millions of men and women who gathered on every continent to declare resistance. As the months passed, increasingly it felt like the word of the year was “cruelty.” An inexplicable celebration of cruelty.
I started using the words “open, inclusive, just, and compassionate” over and over again to describe what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. It was the mission of Jesus on earth and our call as disciples of Christ to pursue such a world. When we gathered last year, we still didn’t know the extent of damage yet to come. What promises would become reality? Now we know. And with that, we all have greater clarity about our mission and importance as a voice on the religious left. And because we know who we are, it’s not surprising that this reflects in our statistics.
Every State of the Church sermon has to include some numbers to illustrate the story. I promise to keep them brief. In 2015 our average worship attendance – adults and children – totaled 77. In 2016, 87. Last year, 90. But within that, there are some interesting and conflicting details. There were 60 more people at Easter last year than the previous, breaking a 22-year record. Christmas just broke a 20-year record. On the other hand, however, last summer we had two Sundays with fewer than 40 people in worship, something that hadn’t happened since 2014. I started thinking, “Where’d everyone go?”
Statistics about children are the most dramatic. Last year between New Years and Easter, there were 10 or more children in church on 14 Sundays. The year before, 4 Sundays. The year before that, 1. There has clearly been growth. Not so much in formal membership, but in attendance and participation. Yet even more volunteers in WHI. More people committed to our activities of racial justice. But, then again, not as many in adult education after worship or even our innovative Sunday evening bloom! When we started bloom!, we consistently had 25-30 people every month. A few weeks ago, continuing a downward trend, there were 10. In addition, our organizational model to coordinate our ministries has not been working as we thought it should, so at the end of the year, the Coordinating Team declared its work complete. And now in the new year we have to come up with a different design to support involvement and leadership development.
I think my word for 2018, instead of stronger, or ready, or a description of our world as “cruel,” I think our word could be “clarity.” Not that everything is clear. But we know who we are as a church and our calling in the world. We have greater clarity. But we also need greater clarity, about how to organize so that everyone can find their place for ministry. And how to build community, if bloom! is not it. And how to do faith formation beyond Sunday School. I pray for greater clarity to find a new path forward on these issues.
Looking back, our word for 2017 was clearly “generosity.” Because, wow, one of your clearest responses to the cruelty in our world has been generosity in the face of it. Through Sunday morning Compassion in Action offerings, you gave a remarkable $28,000 to our mission partners; up from $17,000 the year before, and $12k when we started. Add to that our support of ministry through the UCC and the gift market and sponsorships for orphans, among other things, and total contributions beyond our walls adds up to over $67,000 for mission, compared to $51,000 the year before. Not including solar or socks and backpacks and school supplies and sleeping bags… on and on. For a church our size!
Now, all of this could start to sound like boasting and bragging. So much so that I was struck by this rather odd passage from Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, one of today’s texts from the lectionary. Remember that Paul’s letters are listening in on one side of a conversation. Either something’s going on or he has heard something or he has been asked a question… and the letters in the Bible are the response. Which, again, means we only know half of the conversation.
In today’s reading, some controversy has been raised about whether Christians should eat meat that has been sacrificed to a false god. Why is that an issue? And why is his response framed as an issue about knowledge? And perhaps more importantly, why should we care?
“Now concerning meat,” he said, “We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up. If anyone knows something, they don’t yet know as much as they should know. But if someone loves God, then they are known by God.” Love.
And so, about love and meat, he concludes, false gods are false, so what difference does it make if we eat meat sacrificed to them or not? They are nothing, so what harm can there be? It’s a surprisingly open-minded response. It doesn’t really matter, so don’t make an issue out of it. Do you love? (If only the Christian church took such an attitude to so many other issues in our day.)
But I still wonder, what’s the problem with knowledge? Scholars suggest that Paul is talking about a social elite, who claim special knowledge. Although, if you think about it, meat was already something only the richest could eat as often as they wanted. Perhaps sacrificed meat was the only thing the poor could afford. Paul said, go ahead, eat whatever you want, because the real point of Christian community is love. Did Paul say this to embarrass the rich? Who is he talking to, or about? To lift the lowly and topple the powerful from their metaphorical thrones?
Regardless, I found this obscure passage oddly relevant. It raised in me a caution; to take caution in my celebration of our growth. What does it really matter? It is just like an American, me, to be taken by numbers. Bigger is better. More is better. Success is when you can point to more. Yeah, I know it’s not true. But, oh, isn’t it? So, I appreciate the correction offered by this text.
Knowledge doesn’t matter, if you don’t have love; just like the size of our church. Or in our personal lives, the size of our paycheck doesn’t matter; getting our first liver spot or graying hair or deepening crows-feet doesn’t matter, getting recognized for our accomplishments doesn’t matter, titles don’t matter, a bigger office or a bigger audience. And growth does not matter, if your purpose isn’t love.
Growth could lead to arrogance. For example, in celebrating our growth, I could point out that only 37% of UCC churches even have Sunday schools any longer. Youth groups. I could cite for you that 88% of UCC churches don’t have youth groups anymore. To put us in context, I could point out that we are now bigger than half of the other churches. Kind of sounds like knowledge flirting with arrogance. But I still think it’s important to know. And it truly saddens me that year after year, while the UCC closes one church every week, it only adds one every month. We now have fewer than 1 million members in less than 5,000 churches. Does it really matter? I can hardly say fewer is better. Yet, are we about growing love in the world?
When Park Hill officially voted to become an Open and Affirming Church in 1991, there were fewer than 100 other. Today, there are more than 1,400 welcoming congregations. Isn’t more better? When I was ordained 25 years ago, there weren’t even 10 openly gay pastors serving in churches around the country. Now there may be that many in just the Rocky Mountain Conference alone. More is better, especially because it’s about growing love.
But bottom line: Are we, Park Hill, better this year because we have more than last year and the year before that? What is better?
I just hope that no matter whether we are growing or not, you know that we are stronger together.
And I hope that no matter what else we do, we are readier than ever to love in midst of this cruel world.
And I pray that no matter who we are, we are clearer than ever about what really matters. Are we about love and ministry and building community?
And if as a church, big, small or in between, if we have helped you become stronger, and readier, and clearer about God’s purpose and plan for your life, then, it is to God that we give the glory. We didn’t do this. As this odd passage about meat says, “It is to God from whom all things come and to whom we belong. And glory to the one Sovereign Jesus Christ, through whom all things exist and through whom we live.”
None of this is of our own making. So, in addition to God, let us thank the generations of our past who built this church and upon whose foundation our ministry is able to build. They did not build in vain.