Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 26, 2020
“Invited to Be”
Matthew 4: 18-23 – New Revised Standard Version
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
The Ramones sang about the “Job That Ate My Brain.” Johnny Paycheck proclaimed, “Take This Job and Shove It.” Dolly Parton sang about tumbling out of bed and stumbling to the kitchen, pouring a cup of ambition, and folks like me on the job from 9 to 5.
If only Simon and Andrew had to worry about working from 9 to 5, maybe the offer by the stranger walking by wouldn’t have been so enticing. But fishing wasn’t a job. It was the life into which you were born. It’s what your father did and it’s what your children will do. Even if they wanted to sing “Shove This Jay Oh Bee” how could they have simply walked away?
James and John may not have been listening to country music while cleaning their nets, but if you combine some wisdom from Kenny Rogers as Jesus stands there, maybe we can understand why they jumped. After all, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” But to what?
There seems to be no scholarly consensus whether those four brothers knew who Jesus was. Or certainly, what they would be getting themselves into.
Jesus had just moved to the area, leaving his home back in Nazareth. In the succession of Matthew’s story, Jesus, at about age 30, was baptized in the Jordan. A voice from heaven proclaimed, “this is my son, the beloved.” Immediately, he was sent into the wilderness where he spent the next 40 days and 40 nights alone and starving, repeatedly tempted with food, power, and success. After this period of testing, the next thing we know is that Jesus heard that John had been arrested. That’s when Jesus decided to leave Nazareth and settle in Capernaum. From that time on, Jesus went around announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven.”
That’s the entirety of what Simon and Andrew and James and John might have known. They might have heard about some guy going around saying “Here comes the kingdom of heaven.” But they left poor Zebedee sitting in his boat wondering what happened. His sons left him to follow one of those itinerant preachers that came by periodically. Jesus wasn’t the only one out there gathering up disciples. So, what made him different? And how did those brothers know?
But sometimes, don’t you just know? I know that not everyone has had one of those “ah ha” moments, one of those epiphanies where things all of a sudden make sense. But those who do understand, who have experienced an epiphany, maybe it was something about which you had been thinking, dreaming about a change for years, and suddenly, the door opens right in front of you.
In fact, that’s how I got here. It took a while for Art and I to finally decide we were ready for a change, but when we did, I immediately went on the UCC website that lists job openings, hoping to see something in or around Denver. There were a few along the Front Range. And then I read the two line description for Park Hill. “Oh, my God.” I felt it in my body. I called Art and said, “that’s where we’re going.” Seems pretty presumptuous, but here we are 12 years later. And I still feel as certain as ever that this is where I was meant to come and where I still feel meant to be. Although, if I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, I could never have predicted what our time together would have entailed. And the process we have gone through to get from there to here. But, through it all, I may not have always been sure what to do, but I knew I was called to be your pastor.
Perhaps that was true for those four brothers too. Jesus told them, “Come follow me and I will make you fish for people.” He didn’t say much about what they were supposed to do. But he did say, I want you to be my disciples. They weren’t given a clear job description, (what in the world is fishing for people?), but they were given a new identity. And it’s better to know who we are first and then what we’re supposed to do.
I think that’s been made especially clear to us as a church in the past year. Ten years ago, we adopted a strategic plan. A year ago, we commissioned a new planning team – members who help us discern what we were supposed to do next. What is God calling us to do? I suspected that one goal would be a programmatic emphasis on helping people get to know each other. Relationships don’t develop by osmosis but by intention. We were seeing the effects of that. Without relationships, people will drift in and out without notice.
The process, however, never quite came together. Feeling stuck about next steps, Dwight Meyer and I, the chair of the strategic planning team, met with Jenny Whitcher, wondering if she could help get us unstuck. Instead, she proposed a totally different approach. She proposed a relational campaign. I didn’t quite understand it, but something felt right. She met with the Governance Team and proposed it to them. They didn’t quite understand it either, but something about it might, maybe, perhaps, sort of… It was difficult because she didn’t talk about what we would be doing. She talked about being in relationship with each other and our community. Not how to do authentic relationships but how to be in authentic relationships. Some of you heard this and knew immediately, I want to be part of it. Others waited, perhaps skeptical, but heard what was happening. And by the end of the fall, 75 folks had participated. And today, Jenny is here as we begin phase two. Going deeper.
But let me take a step back first. My apologies to our visitors today, but on annual meeting Sunday, I often give a sort of State of Church Address. I thought I’d make today’s, in part, a State of the Decade report, starting with some numbers.
In 2009, our average worship attendance was 82, up from 63 two years before. We had just had a Christmas Eve service attended by 128 people, 8 of those children. This year we had three Christmas Eve services attended by 293, of which 46 were children. Again, in 2009, average worship attendance was 77, up from 63. In 2019, it was 105. An increase of 42. At a time of churches in decline, when even the most faithful people attend worship less frequently, this is almost impossible. Humbling.
OK, more numbers. At the end of 2009, we had less than $9,000 in our savings and checking accounts. Plus, a loan and tons, a scary amount, of deferred maintenance. Today we have checking, savings, funds and investments of $150,000. That’s not because of a bunch of bequests but because of careful and wise stewardship. And we’ve turned all that scary deferred maintenance into $800,000 of improvements to our building and grounds in the past five years. Did you get that? Over 3/4 of a million dollars in pledges, gifts, grants, and special projects, including solar panels, the labyrinth, and more. Speaking of solar panels, ten years ago, our bill for gas and electric was $11,000. Last year, it was less than $6,000. How can utility bills be cut in half? And save the environment at the same time!
One more thing about numbers. We used to make contributions to our mission partners through our regular budget. In 2009, we budgeted $2,000, plus took the special UCC offerings. Then we started this every Sunday program in 2011. It kept growing. In 2019, our Sunday morning mission partners received a total of $24,000. Isn’t that extraordinary? And sales from the Fair Trade Gift Market for 20 non-profit groups literally doubled over the past decade.
Of course, there is always “on the other hand.” At the end of 2009, we had 183 members. Since just the 2016 election, we have received 62 new members. And at the end of this past year, we had a total of 184 members. An increase of one in ten years?! How do you explain that? Lots of deaths, relocations, and drifting away. But it’s the new cultural reality that more people participate willingly and fully in the life of the congregation without formally joining as members. Membership has ceased to be a meaningful descriptor of a congregation’s health, even though it still has a crucial function in a UCC church. It’s still important.
So, what happened in the past decade to explain our growth? One answer starts with that strategic plan ten years ago that articulated our mission and core values, such as compassion and justice.
We set seven goals, including a deepening spirituality that links head and heart, a focus on worship and youth, more effective social justice ministry, a simpler governance structure, and a decision about whether we should own our own building or sell and share with another church.
Those of you who were here for our move or stay decision know how hard it was. Painful. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, and yet without actually making a choice to stay and invest, I doubt we would be where we are today: A building that is welcoming, that we are proud to make available to our neighbors, and a worship space that feels transcendent. Gone are the rigid lines of pews that separated us from one another, forcing us to look at the front instead of at each other. Gone is the pulpit that was seven steps above the congregation, 20 feet away from the first person. Now we have a sense of community with communion at the center. Worship today is simply not what worship was like a decade ago. Which is one reason for our growth. In fact, worship attendance started increasing immediately after we removed the pews. I kid you not. Up 20% that fall.
Another important factor: Five years ago in April, we began our participation in the Women’s Homelessness Initiative. That wasn’t an easy decision either. Certainly, we thought we should but the question was more about whether we could. Could we sustain the level of volunteer effort necessary? And then, just as we were struggling with having enough overnight angels, Donald Trump was elected. Immediately, people wanting to bring light and love into the world stepped through our doors and right into service. 94 different individuals this past year alone, of which one third are neighbors and friends.
I wouldn’t welcome the pain of this world, but through it, during the past three years, the religious left has been reenergized. Today we understand more than ever what Jesus was talking about. In the face of a cruel empire, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, or, as Matthew describes it, the kingdom of heaven. Where the poor are the blessed ones, where people love their enemies, where our neighbors are fed, clothed, visited, and liberated from empires like Rome or America. We understand more than ever before how important it is to witness to a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. A world where Black Lives Matter, Love Wins, people take Me Too seriously, and borders are not littered with kids in cages. However, while the religious left has been energized, not every congregation has experienced the same kind of growth and vitality. Which makes all of this even more humbling.
In May 2016, we revisited our strategic plan and kept our mission statement and core values but adopted four new vision statements. Number one: “creating a loving community where everyone belongs and stands alongside each other in times of need, connecting new friends and longtime members to opportunities for discipleship.”
It was out of that first part of the statement that we began dreaming of a staff position for a Minister for Congregational Care. We started things in motion two years ago, to start last July with 10 hours per week and hope to grow it to a half time position one day – implementing the second part of the vision to connect people to their ministry. I’m happy to report that with today’s proposed budget, we will achieve this in September. In addition, among those four statements, we stated our vision to nurture individual spiritual gifts and talents. In a few weeks, as part of the second phase of our relational campaign, that is exactly what we will do.
The state of the past decade: vital worship, strong youth programs. Did you know that only 22% of UCC congregations even have a youth group? 2009 was the first of our many trips to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation – on which 60 Park Hill youth and adults have participated. There have been lots of physical improvements to our building, thanks to your generosity, and lots of new opportunities for discipleship through the women’s homelessness initiative and racial justice ministry and other activities, thanks to the leadership of many of you. But it’s when Jenny suggested that our “task” is to be in relationship with one another, it all clicked.
Sometimes someone will come along and say exactly what you’ve been waiting to hear, even if you didn’t know it. Like when an itinerant preacher, declaring that heaven is near, comes by and says, “Come follow me.” Sometimes snap decisions are foolish impulse buys and sometimes snap decisions are easy because you know who you are and you’re ready when someone asks. No more fear. Just step out of the boat in faith.
The takeaway from the gospel for today: It’s not about what you are supposed to do. But who are you called to be? No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, Jesus invites us to be his disciple. What we do will follow when the time is right.
 Matthew 4:17 Common English Bible
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world