Sermon: “Who Is Following Whom?” (Lent 2) Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16 [2/25/18]

Today is my fourth Sunday in the pulpit.  Does that make me a long-term pastor? Nah.  I’ve just finished saying hello and have only begun the process of getting to know FCUCC.

Getting to know a community can be… confusing.  Here’s why:  every person has her or his own unique experience of the community.  There are some experiences everyone in the community has in common; stories people tell about those events are consistent.  But the vast majority of things that happen in a community, people experience individually.  Sometimes you end up with very different–even conflicting–stories of the same event.

A documentary, Stories We Tell, describes this dynamic.  An event happened in the movie maker’s family–a parent had an affair.  Years later, she invites each person in the family to tell his or her story.  Everyone’s story—especially about the affair—is different… sometimes the stories directly contradict each other.  You begin to see how each person constructs a narrative that helps him or her to make sense of the family, and of his or her place in it.

The same thing happens in communities.  We tell ourselves stories to help us make sense of who we are as a community, of what we are called to do, and of our individual place in the community.  One of my jobs as pastor is to help us all get on the same page-ish with the story we’re telling about who we are, why we’re here, and the work to which we feel called.

There’s one story, in particular, I’m wondering about today.  It’s a story I sometimes hear from folks both inside and outside FCUCC.  Are you ready?  “FCUCC is an aging congregation.”  Have you heard that story before?  Have you told that story before?  If so, how does that story help us make sense of who we are as a community of Jesus followers?  How does that particular narrative help us as individuals understand our place within the community?

What does it even mean to call a congregation “aging?”  Are we talking about chronological age?  If so, we might well be an “aging” congregation.  Do you know the average age of people in the United States?  In 2016, it was 37.9 years.  Would you say the average age of FCUCC members is higher or lower than 37.9 years?  Thanks to Mr. Finley Stuart Snider, the average age has skewed down a tad this week…but I think it’s safe to say that the average age of FCUCC members exceeds– perhaps signficantly–the average age of people in the United States.

But is chronological age the only thing that’s meant when a congregation is described as “aging?”  Among my colleagues, when we talk about “aging congregations,” it’s often a euphemism for “dying congregations”…that is, congregations who cling so hard to the way things used to be, they can’t change or adapt to what the church is becoming.  And so, they die.  It happens all the time.

If that’s what people mean when they refer to FCUCC as an “aging congregation,” I’m not going to say they’re wrong…but I will say that my experience of FCUCC thus far has led me to construct a different narrative.

Here’s some of what I’ve seen that’s helping me construct my narrative of FCUCC as an alive congregation.  We’ve had roses on the communion table–the symbol in our community of births–two Sundays in a row.  Betty Dillashaw works consistently with the children and has asked when they next can ring in worship.  Last Sunday, there were at least six teenagers here for worship…and that didn’t include some regulars who were away last week.  Also last Sunday, in response to the children’s suggestion a couple of weeks ago that wearing hats and/or party hats might help us share God’s love with other people–many of you listened.  You wore hats, up to and including hats with blinking lights.

Are we a chronologically older congregation?  Absolutely.  Are we a dying congregation?  Absolutely not.  Based on what I’ve seen the past four weeks, we are a congregation that takes delight in all people, but perhaps especially in younger people.  We also are a congregation that not only is NOT afraid of change, but that seeks every day to effect change.  What is acting the world into wellbeing if not a commitment to changing the world?

Abram and Sarai.  Were they an aging couple?  You bet.  He was 99; she was 90.  Were they a dying couple?  Absolutely not.  When God said go, they went.  They didn’t get everything right—and in fact, got some things horrifically wrong…particularly with Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac.  The writer of Genesis, though, takes great pains to remind us that even these deeply-flawed nonagenarians were able to bear and keep alive God’s fierce hopes for the world.

So.  How will we keep alive God’s hopes for the world, we who don’t always get things right, but who seek with all of who we are to go when God says go?  (Pause)-

How will we keep God’s hopes for the world alive in the wake of yet another—what disgusting words those are, “yet another”—how will we keep God’s hopes for the world alive in the wake of yet another school shooting?

While what happened on Valentine’s Day at Margery Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was “yet another” school shooting, the response this time has been different.  Teenagers are rising up.  To quote shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez, teenagers are “calling BS”—on adults, on legislators, on a country that lacks the moral courage or political will to stop the COPMLETELY UNNECESSARY slaughter of innocents.

Protesters gathered outside of the Wescott building

On Friday’s News Hour, David Brooks mentioned a conversation he’d had this week with college students.  When trying to define their generation, a couple of students said, “You know, we’re the school shooting generation.”  Do you hear that?  We’re the school shooting generation.

What have we done?

At UCC General Synod in 2015, I met Leah Gunning Francis.  Her book, Ferguson and Faith:  Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community, had just come out.  This was just 11 months after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, and the protests that ensued.

Leah teaches at the UCC’s Eden Seminary in St. Louis and had been asked to interview faith leaders in the protest movement in Ferguson, to hear their stories and to see what might be gleaned from them for faith leaders moving forward.

When I asked Leah what her biggest take-away from the project was, she shared with me what many of the older faith leaders share with her.

In the first days of protest, the usual characters showed up to offer their support and leadership.  Many of these folks either had been involved in the Civil Rights movement or were using the same methods used by those in the Civil Rights movement.

It quickly became clear, though, that the old methods no longer worked.  The “old guard” soon realized they no longer knew best when it came to addressing racism—especially that experienced by African American young men—in 2014.  As the realization dawned, the older members of the movement stopped talking and started listening to the young people.  They soon shifted into the role of mediation.  They served as a literal buffer between law enforcement and protestors.  They put their bodies on the line so that the young people could say and do the things that needed to be said and done in that moment and time.

I believe we’re now in a similar time….a time when those of us with some age on us simply don’t have as clear an understanding of what’s going on as do our children, card-carrying members of “the school shooting generation.”

…which means it’s time for us to stop talking and listen.  At last week’s prayer service in the wake of the Parkland shooting, we had a time of commitment, when we were invited to name things we would DO in the wake of the shooting.  One person said, “I’m going to spend more time talking with my grandkids.”  At first, I didn’t get it…but then I realized that’s exactly the kind of commitment we all need to be making right now.  We need to LISTEN to our children.  We need to hear their pain, their rage, and their ideas.

Without the mediators in Ferguson, it’s likely the protests would have devolved into violence much more quickly and, perhaps, with more devastating results.  And I don’t think anyone would dare to say that a whole lot has been resolved in Ferguson.  The struggle against systemic racism continues.  I do think, though, a key gift of what happened in Ferguson—a gift that we can keep alive—is the realization that, while sometimes the older generation leads the young, sometimes the only way forward is for the older generation to follow the young.

So, what will be our role in the wake of “yet another” school shooting?  That’s something we’re going to have to figure out together—all of us together…old AND young.  I invite us to begin the conversation downstairs after our time of fellowship.  If you are ready to effect some change on gun violence, if you are ready to listen to the “school shooting generation,” if you are fed up with complacency among legislators and voters on this issue, if you are determined to keep God’s hopes for the world alive, I invite you to join me for some frank conversation and active plan-making.

If God chose to start the promise with two deeply- flawed nonagenarians, surely we here at FCUCC can keep it going.  Don’t you think?

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©2018

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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