Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Brief Return to Tiny Church

Sunday, June 12, 2016
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
New Covenant Presbyterian Church
Mt. Laurel, NJ

Scripture Readings:
Ecclesiastes 11:1-2, 5-6
Luke 7:36-50

Send out your bread upon the waters,
for after many days you will get it back.
In the morning sow your seed,
and at evening do not let your hands be idle;
for you do not know which will prosper,
this or that, or whether both alike will be good.

As I wrote this sermon on Saturday, a 15 year old boy was murdered in Trenton. I don't especially know how to speak of these things to people and churches who don't experience them. I don't always know how to go between these two realities well. I just know that I will preach in the morning at Tiny Church and then come back to Trenton to be. We will pray for this young man and his family. We will do what we can, each of us.

Dear friends, it has been almost 5 years since I left Tiny Church—can you believe it? My oldest is 16 years old. He just got a job! The little one, El Segundo, is 13 and finishing 7th grade. Sometime this spring he grew taller than me by an inch. His voice has dropped to a deep gravelly bass. No longer does he run about church sanctuaries and hide under pews. These days he programs computers. They eat, these two boys, like locusts, devouring entire grocery store harvests.

These last few years I’ve been working with three churches in and around Trenton, ministering to
youth, young adults, and their families. Each of the churches was big enough to want a youth ministry but too small to afford one of their own, so we pieced it all together and made a collaboration that held together for a while.

I’ve been blessed and lucky to stay in one place for a few years. The work came with a front porch where I spend evenings if I can, watching the world go by. I never expected to do youth ministry again after I went to seminary, but after I left you, that is the work that presented itself, and we've had a good run with it. My contracts with those churches end June 30, and so I return to you after these years away, in a similar place to where I was when we last met—unsure and about to be in the wind. I’m really not certain what comes next. I’ll stay with the porch a while, if I can.

June 30 marks 10 years since I left California as well. We packed up the family in our van and drove across country that summer of 2006. Took us 8 weeks to get to New Jersey—we saw so much on the way! It was an epic road trip by way of the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon, Yellowstone and the Badlands, Las Vegas, the Mall of America, some time with family in South Bend, Indiana, caves in Kentucky, a stunning bookstore in the German section of Columbus, Ohio, a farm in Amish country, and then finally, at the end of August, New Jersey. I expected we would be here 3 years and then we’d be off to some new church adventure, somewhere, anywhere. I was certain we would not stay in New Jersey.

And yet, here we are. Still in New Jersey. Still doing youth ministry. Expectations are fragile things.

What an adventure it has been these last few years! We began with a small, suburban ministry that grew to a nice size. The focus of our ministry shifted to include students from outside our church families until in the last two years most of the students involved have little historical connection to our churches. The group has become diverse in terms of racial/ethnic identity, class, and sexuality. Over the last year it has become difficult to hold together until now, in its last month, it is clear that whatever continues out of this ministry will look different than what has been. So be it. There have been successes and failures, joys and sorrows, frustrations and satisfactions.

And I…am in the wind again. People have been asking what is next, and I don’t really know. Other than I will hit the road in July and expect to be back in August. It will be good to pause a minute, to sit in stillness and quiet, to drink with friends, to consider what has been and let it go, both the good and the bad; to make space for whatever new thing God will pull me into.

I think I will go pour myself out over Jesus’ feet for a bit. Perhaps when I am done I may go in peace.

In a couple of weeks I am officiating a wedding between two young men. They are sweetly in love, and I find myself delighted to conspire with them in holding together in this world that spends too much time tearing us apart. Which sort of surprises me because I don’t generally enjoy weddings. I have some general (and specific) disagreements about the concept of marriage—and you can buy me a drink another day if you want to hear more. But I find myself in the space of two months officiating at two queer weddings, and there is something in it of flipping off the world that says we aren’t supposed to survive and thrive. I met these men through a student I worked with as a chaplain at a university. And I ended up at the university because of my youth work. And I ended up in the youth work because I had recently left Tiny Church. And I ended up at Tiny Church because you dear people took a chance on me, a seminary student, divorced, single mother, closeted bisexual.

It is because of this church that I am ordained—ordained to this tiny, 22 member church, 1/3 time supply pastor.

Do you remember that first day I came to you to preach for the first time? Pastor Tim had just left, and you were seeking a seminary student to preach for a few weeks in the summer until you could find a new temporary supply pastor. I came with my children that morning, because they were too young to leave alone. I hoped they would behave long enough to get in and out. I had hoped you wouldn’t see the challenging parts of our family made public. I had hoped that I wouldn’t have to be mother while I was being pastor—I am always at my worst professionally and personally when I have to mix the two. But there wasn’t money for a sitter or even a sitter to be had, so I brought them.

I was going to preach that day on the passage in Genesis where Rebekkah is pregnant with her twins, Esau and Jacob. Everything went wrong that could go wrong in the service. I stumbled over words. The electric keyboard broke, and as Joe carried the keyboard out of the sanctuary, yelling over his shoulder, “I’ll be right back! I think there’s an old keyboard we could use in the back room!” we sang He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, because I still had one foot in raising a preschool child and I couldn’t think of any other song we might all know. Joe came back shaking his head and began to fiddle with the old organ to see if any sound might be coaxed from its keys. To no avail!

We moved on to the scripture reading and the sermon. As I began to read the sermon, I told the story of Rebekkah’s twins in the womb, already fighting and wrestling as they would for the rest of their days. And as I read her bitter words, “If it is to be this way, why am I to live?” my oldest took the youngest in a head lock, nearly knocking over the chairs. The youngest screamed and ran up, literally underneath my skirt. Oldest came and stood by my side, grinning from ear to ear at the spectacle he’d created, waiting to see what you would do.

I summoned every ounce of cool I could find, paused in the reading of scripture, and asked, “Is there anyone who might sit with my children for the rest of the service?” And a few of you came forward and did just that. I preached, we sang Jesus Loves Me with Joe still seeking some way to make music. We said some prayers. I blessed you. And then I scooped up my wayward sons and scuttled them into the car. I wasn’t angry with them, children are just children. I had just hoped that our difficulties wouldn’t be so obvious.

As I got into my van, not even 5 minutes after the end of the service, an elder called out the front door of the church, “Katie! Katie! Wait! The session has met, and we’d like to hire you!”

You must have met in the hallway in the 30 seconds since I’d gone out the door. I was astonished. Later you said, “It was perfect. We figured if you could handle everything that went wrong with the service that day, you could handle anything.”

I came back until the end of summer, and on the last Sunday of August I said, “It has been wonderful. Thank you and God bless.” And you all looked at me like I was out of my mind and said, “You’re coming back next week, right?”

And so it went for the next year, while I finished seminary, and while Tiny Church was busy not really looking for a pastor. I’d preach a sermon. You handed me a check. And then I’d say, “Do you need me next week?” And you would say, “Yes! Wonderful!” And I came back the next week.

You kept me in groceries that year, and the occasional bottle of wine. You offered me a place to perfect my craft, the pulpit of a tiny church who simply wished to be loved for who they were. I more or less succeeded at that. There were times I pushed too hard on one thing or another. And times when you all were stubborn like mules over something else. But more or less we muddled through. And in the spring of 2009 you offered me the chance to be ordained to this ministry, which I accepted most gratefully.

I served here two more years until December of 2011. I was your 15th pastor in 50 years and it was an honor. You are a quiet church, and on the surface it is easy to think that not much happens here. And yet what you were always in trouble for was letting out your space for the community to use. For a while we had 3 other churches meeting here—the 7th Day Adventist congregation on Saturdays, a small evangelical church early Sunday morning, and a pentecostal church on Sunday afternoons. There was an AA meeting, boy scouts, girl scouts, and Bible studies for the other churches throughout the week. We were a voting place. There were food drives run through our back rooms. There wasn’t a day that went by that the church wasn’t used by somebody for something. And it was used by people who didn’t have another easily accessible space. New Covenant functions still as a community center, a place of generosity and welcome, despite your tiny size. “We don’t really do much,” you would say to me. And yet this church was so well used we drew complaints from others that we didn’t keep it sacred enough. “You can’t just survive on renting out space!” people would say. And yet, you do just that.

During my time here, two young women called the church. They lived nearby and wanted to form a Narcotics Anonymous chapter. They had called every church in a 20 mile radius, and we were the only ones who called them back. It took you less than a second to approve their request. I remember that session meeting—there was no discussion, simply immediate consensus that these women needed a space for healing and care. We had the space and they needed it. Problem solved, case closed. Mt. Laurel Realty Company, aka Tiny Church, was at it again. The last empty day of the week on our calendar was taken. Within a few months that NA group grew to a significant size. They met in the evenings so we never saw them, but one night I was working late in the office. 50 young people showed up and crammed into our back classroom. They didn’t notice me—young people don’t really give a rat about who is in the office. A group came by my door as they left the ash can out front. One of them hollered, “Hahahaha, I bet this church doesn’t even know who they have here. Fuck, man! If they knew they wouldn’t have us around!”

And I just smiled. Because I think if you knew it wouldn’t have changed a thing. This church has a heart for people in pain.

I am not accusing you of perfection, oh no! Do you remember the Great Toilet Paper Discussion? In which it was discerned that Someone was Stealing the Toilet Paper? We had a lengthy session meeting on the Topic of Toilet Paper. A motion was put forward to ask user groups to bring their own toilet paper. We nearly decided to lock up our toilet paper supplies. We did not, after all, have a line item in the budget for toilet paper. For all those years Tiny Church had toilet paper through the grace of women in the congregation who occasionally threw an extra few rolls in their cart during their weekly shopping.

And yet, even here, grace prevailed. We added a line item and started purchasing in bulk. The day was saved, hospitality survived, and the people had their toilet paper. We even were able to say that if someone was desperate enough to steal toilet paper, then they probably needed it. Having once or twice lifted a roll in times of need, I was glad for our Toilet Paper Resolution.

The Church at Rancocas Woods you used to be called, before someone came along and tried to dress you up a bit. New Covenant for the new way of church you were going to be. We were going to be bigger, shinier, theologically sophisticated, slick with those marketing phone calls, a praise band for a service across town in a school building. Oh yes! This church has been prodded into a dozen different ways of trying to be new. And yet it remains a country church, doesn’t it? Stubborn, strong, refusing to retire.

One time Ann told me, “You do what you want, pastor. I was here before you and I’ll be here after you go.” And she was right, wasn’t she? The Church at Rancocas Woods. Oh, I am fond of you, indeed. The beginnings of who I am and will be as a pastor are here in this church that welcomed me so queerly.

One time Jesus ate dinner at a fancy, rich man’s house. I imagine the china was fine and the food so cleverly prepared. The wine smooth and deep. And then a woman, a known sinner, stumbled into the dinner party and opened a jar of ointment. As the man looked on in astonishment, she wept over Jesus’ feet, pouring out the ointment, kissing his feet tenderly with such emotion. We country folk sure know how to embarrass people with fine manners, don’t we? I can imagine the way that man’s lip curled in disgust—I can imagine it because I have seen that look directed my way so many times in this life. I know well what it feels like to be looked at with pity and contempt—to be dismissed as irrelevant and weak.

And yet she stayed at Jesus’ feet, blessing him, touching him, pouring all that she had into this unauthorized, inappropriate, public massage. Looking between the two, Jesus made a choice and lifted up the woman, chastising the man who would look at her so arrogantly. And he sent her on her way, “Go in peace.”

And may you go in peace, my dear Tiny Church. May you never forget your roots as a country church. May you never forget that you are a church with a heart for those in pain. May you keep your doors open to the community around you. May you always be the ones to answer the phone and welcome in the destitute. And may you be blessed for your hospitality a thousand times over in return.


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