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(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

It's Not About the Building

Sunday, June 26, 2016
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
Preached at Ewing Presbyterian Church

Scripture Readings: Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 and Luke 9:51-62


How strange, really, to be preaching in THIS building for the first time, to worship with you all for the LAST time as one of your pastors. We’ve traveled together spiritually for a little over 4 years, through some dreadful ups and downs. The obvious source of conflict for this congregation over the last decade has been this building—this building we are sitting in today. And then the good Lord drops this scripture in my lap and says, “Here, do something with this, would you?”

A scripture rejecting nostalgia on my last Sunday with you, preaching in a building from 1867 that we’ve been fighting about for 15 years (longer really), with a congregation that remembers baptisms, marriages, funerals as “properly” conducted here in this contested space. Man, Jesus is a jerk.

So here goes.

It was January 2012 when three separate friends pointed me to the position description circulating in the Presbytery for a Director of Youth Ministry for Ewing and Covenant Presbyterian Churches. The position description was three pages long, included ministry to the youth of two different churches wanting to work in collaboration. You all advertised that the job would be 6-8 hours a week.

I was amused.

And intrigued.

Youth ministry, no matter the context, no matter the size of the ministry, requires more than 8 hours a week. But I was intrigued by churches trying to do something different, working in collaboration, so I sent my resume.

Walt Brower, in his best professorial manner, corresponded with me by email with the formal flourish of a historian, and an interview was set for late January. When I arrived at the church for this interview (which remember was for a job that would take 6-8 hours per week), I found an interview committee of 2 pastors, 2 youth, 2 parents, 2 volunteer shepherds, 2 members of the Christian Ed committee and 2 members of the personnel committee. 12 people from the 2 churches.

We talked for an hour and some change. At the end the two youth, Molly and Robbie, pulled me aside and asked me what kind of activities I would lead with the youth if I got the job. I asked, “What do you want to do with the youth group?”

One of them said, “Burn it to the ground and start over!”

I think I fell in love a little bit right then.

So I leaned forward and said to them, “You know, my socks don’t match.”

And that’s when we knew it was going to work.

The adults took longer to decide. They checked every one of my references—I have never been so thoroughly vetted for any job. It took 6 weeks to make the formal decision. And I finally started working 6-8 hours a week on March 25, 2012.

We’ve had such a great time! My biggest regret in these last 4 years is that more of you didn’t see more of what we were doing. We connected to a third church almost immediately—to Lawrence Road—and we started the L.O.G. program (Love of God), a student-led retreat focused on spiritual formation, leadership development, and FUN. Several of our student leaders have come out of this congregation. You all have hosted countless fellowship meetings, prayer gatherings, communal meals, and games of hide and seek and tag. We’ve shown movies in almost every room in the building across the street.

Last year my contract with Covenant ended, and both Ewing and Lawrence Road opened their doors to the students left behind by that decision. Over the last year you all have welcomed our students from Trenton with smiles and meals and kind words. Hospitality to strangers is something you do well.

Yes, it’s been a good four years.

But of course, even as the youth have been cruising along, there have been other happenings here at the church that got in the way of relationship building and connection. My contracts with all the churches end June 30—this Thursday! And as this ministry comes to a close, I am unclear what the future relationship with the youth ministry we built will be for this church.

These last four years have been particularly difficult for this church. I was hired in 2012 under the direction of Pastor Elizabeth. It was no secret in 2012 that the church was in deep conflict with itself, with the pastor, with the presbytery. This sanctuary had been condemned by the township, public commentary had been harsh, the church was divided over whether to preserve this building or tear it down. The presbytery had sent mediators in, and mediation had not at all resulted in peace or any kind of unified decision. The presbytery had taken possession of the building and was in the process of negotiating the long-term lease with Preservation New Jersey that allows us now to be here worshiping on this morning. At least one of the arguments was over how many parking spots would be designated for use by PNJ. Another was over the color and style of signage.

At the end of that year Pastor Elizabeth left, and all of the fault lines in the congregation were exposed. We lost members—a LOT of members. I lost all of my youth group volunteers and a good number of families. We had a series of temporary pastors over the next year (including a period of 5 months when we didn’t have ANY pastor at all), and Pastor Paul came finally in October of 2013.

It’s taken a while to stabilize since then. Perhaps we are there now.

The youth, not understanding about a building, or even about personnel issues, or even about congregational conflict, withdrew a bit from the congregation. They stayed connected to the youth programs, but they faded on Sundays. It has seemed to many of you, I think, that we don’t have very many youth. If it wasn’t for the pizza boxes and crumbs that get left behind, you’d hardly know we’d been lurking about.

I’ve watched this congregation over the last few years, wondering what the future holds. I’ve talked with people who wish this building (and congregation) could be restored to its former glory. I’ve talked with people who wish this building would just fall down and be done. I’ve walked through this building with several people who can tell me where they were standing in 1973, which part of the balcony they threw spit wads off of, which of the elders were present when they walked down this aisle to be baptized, married, ordained.

And I’ve talked with many people who never set foot in this building until it reopened a year ago. I’ve talked with several people who prefer our sanctuary across the street, with it’s open floor plan, flexible seating, better lighting, better sound. (To which many of you jump right back claiming better acoustics for the choir in this old building—AND DON’T FORGET THE PIPE ORGAN!)

There’s no winning the building wars, just like there’s no winning the worship music wars either. I cannot count the number of congregations I know who are struggling over buildings—struggling to define themselves outside of what a building means, struggling to find mission beyond keeping the doors open, struggling to see a way forward under the crushing financial responsibility of centuries old plumbing and wiring.

As I leave you this morning—for good this time—I’m not here to tell you to abandon this building or to embrace this building. I’m here to say that I watched you over the last four years lose families and youth to the disagreements over this building, and that it doesn’t really matter from where I’m standing who is right or wrong about the building.

And oh, Lord, do I know. During coffee hour, several of you are going to remind me that it’s not just about a building.

To which, all I can say is: you’re right.

It doesn’t really matter what you do with this building. You can choose to never worship in this space again. You can choose to worship here every week. You can find some happy compromise. None of that really matters—the building is a distraction.

It’s always been a distraction. And it’s been deceptive. It’s been easy to think that this decade of conflict has been about a building and the personalities that coalesced around the two sides of conflict. Someone told me there are records dating back over 50 years that there was a lengthy disagreement about the color of carpet to be placed in this sanctuary, and that people threatened to walk out over the wrong color choice.

You know who ELSE has an opinion about these buildings? The birds—can you hear them chirping and tweeting while I preach? The birds are NESTING in the roof of this building. They don’t really care what we use it for. Across the street the groundhogs live in the new sanctuary/fellowship hall. Or I should say they live in the basement of those buildings. We had one in the basement of the office building for a long time. We called him Gus. Gus the Groundhog. Finally got him to move on, but a few months ago I saw a tell-tale tunnel—yeah, the groundhogs live over there. Are you Team Bird or Team Groundhog? When you aren’t worshiping in these buildings, they’re just giant bird nests.

I want to use this last time in your pulpit to remind you not to be distracted. There are literally people dying in the streets less than five miles from this church. There are black and brown folk literally DYING. Don’t be distracted by a building!

I won’t be here to say it again in subtler ways. I won’t be here to nod politely at coffee hour when the subject comes up. Church is not about a building. Worship is not about pews or chairs. The call of Christ Jesus is not about lighting and sound and carpet color and parking spaces. The call of Christ Jesus is to uplifting and upholding the humanity of God’s children—we are called in to worship each week to be refreshed and nourished by the Word of God and the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And then we are driven out by the Spirit to be the Hands of God at Work in this World. That is what church is. And none of that requires a building of any kind. That we HAVE two buildings to choose from is an absurd luxury when there are people dying—black and brown people DYING--less than five miles from here, of exposure to the elements, because there’s no room in a shelter.

There’s no looking back when answering the call to follow Christ. In fact, you’d better focus on what’s ahead. Because if you don’t look where you’re going when you’re plowing a field, you’re going to make a mess of things. There’s no room for nostalgia when people are starving. There’s no room for the good old days, when the good old days led to this moment now where people are getting shot and stabbed daily in the next town over because of extreme poverty, racism, lack of education and opportunity—all of which are exacerbated by the privilege we enjoy here—a privilege that includes the choice of two buildings to worship in.

The only thing relevant, when answering Christ’s call, is what’s next? What is the work that needs to be done right now? What is the thing that will be useful to those who are suffering? What is the privilege I will give up/exhaust/offer up to others? What excess do we have that others could use? No need to come at me during coffee hour about privilege—I’m a queer, divorced, single mother, white woman pastor, I know my intersections of privilege and oppression—do you?

The call to follow Christ Jesus for the privileged (and each of us in THIS room has a place to sleep at night—if you don’t, come see me at coffee hour) is not about survival or preservation. It is about instability, change, sacrifice, letting go.

I’m preaching to you all this morning, but as always, the preacher preaches what the preacher needs to hear. If you’re offended, well good, so am I. If you’re distressed about what the future holds, well good, so am I. If you have an opinion about this old building or that old building across the street, well good, so do I. Yeah, yeah. So do the birds and the groundhogs.

But none of that matters. Christ doesn’t give a rat about which building we sing our songs in. Or used to sing our songs in. Or will sing our songs in. There is no “faithful” choice about which building to use. Other than this: there is work to be done in this world, this community, your very neighborhoods, your very households—kingdom work, healing work, loving work. Faithfulness isn’t about church membership or numbers or bank accounts or sustainability. Faithfulness is about giving what we have to those who have not. It’s about not looking back and putting our hand to the plow. It’s about following Christ all the way to the cross. And really, if we’re doing the work we are called to, the cross will find us.

Meditate on this scripture. Memorize it. Take it into your heart and let it influence every decision you make from here about church, these buildings, your ministry:

When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up—when he knew that he was going to die (And have YOU figured out that you’re going to die too, yet? Do you remember that there is birth and death and something in between? All that really matters is what you do with the in between—you can’t change that you’re going to die—you know this, right??)…

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

My study Bible includes this uncomfortable tidbit: “We are not told how these would-be disciples respond, whether gladly or in sadness. Undoubtedly, this serves as an invitation for Luke’s readers to take the measure of their own response to such a call to unswerving discipleship.”

You take your measure yet?

Man, Jesus is a jerk.

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