Choosing Now Over Later
We’ve been exploring together six choices that our church faces about our future. Following the outline of Paul Nixon’s book I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church, we have have named these choices:
- Choosing Life Over Death
- Choosing Community Over Isolation
- Choosing Fun Over Drudgery
- Choosing Bold Over Mild
- Choosing Frontier Over Fortress
And our last choice and the topic of today’s sermon, Choosing Now Over Later.
Nixon opens the last chapter of his book with a disclaimer that seems self-evident: Of course, there are times when waiting is a good thing. George Washington in the fall of 1775 wanted to attack the British forces that held Boston, but had he done so, the Americans would have been routed. The time was not right, and the Continental Congress advised Washington to wait, But the great general did not wait long. When the time appeared right, Washington attacked, and his audacity and assertiveness surprised the british and enabled him to frame key battles on his terms. George Washington was not one to wait any longer than absolutely necessary.
When it comes to truly urgent matters—like the future of our church—you cannot wait five years, three years, or even six months. You have to act. The leaders of the Civil Rights movement—people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and C.T. Vivian– understood this quite well. In Dr. King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail, he write about time and urgency, saying:
Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill-will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will…. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
The scriptures agree with Prophet King. “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
We live our lives one day at a time. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow never comes. Today is the only day we have.
No one dies yesterday and no one dies tomorrow. When we die, we die today.
If we as a church are to live into our calling as a church, we must redeem the days, because we haven’t much time. Our world is perplexed, our nation is adrift, confused, and divided, the fabric of our communities is threadbare and torn. We must act with the fierce urgency of now, and BE the church in these difficult times. There are people in our neighborhoods who long for a word from God to make life more meaningful, people who have been living in isolation from God and from their neighbors most of their lives. They crave connection. Hw long do we intend to wait before offering them ministries and relationships that can help them, restore them to their best selves, discover the joy of Jesus’ better way, and fall deeply in love with the God who longs to be connected to them? There are injustices and legacies of human suffering that must be addressed by God’s people. Is there a healing word from God? Can this mess we’ve made of the world ever be fixed? Can marriages be made whole, can children be reconciled to parents, brother and sister united, addictions overcome, demons of prejudice, racism, sexism, and classism be cast out? These things are all heresies, all contrary to the will of God who has called us to peace grounded in justice and fairness. God has entrusted this good earth to us, and we have raped and pillaged it. How long do we intend to wait before making common casue with other people of good will about doing something about economic injstice, discrimination by race and gender and class, or the plight of refugees in our broken world, and the unfolding genocide that threatens to annihilate entire peoples on earth. How long do we have to wait to be the church God has called us to be?
Paul Nixon, as he moves around this country working with struggling churches, has heard all of the excuses.
- We need to get out of debt first.
- We need to do a better job at pastoral care of our current members.
- We don’t’ have enough workers for things as it is now, let alone new more ministries?
- We first need to spend a couple of years on a self-study.
- We need to wait until Mrs. Smith dies, because she runs the place and she won’t approve.
Guess what, says Nixon, if your attendance is stable and not in a free fall, a little bit of debt will not hurt your church, especially if the debt is related to the financing of something that is likely to help you grow. Guess what, if we wait until we have flawless pastoral care, we are making a choice to defer ministry to the wider community forever. Guess what, when a church makes a commitment to do ministry in its community, leaders emerge, because God is always speaking, always calling apostles who have encountered the Risen Christ to get out int the streets and get busy. And by the way, if you’re waiting for mrs. Smith to die, she will live to be a hundred and five, and it will be too late. The church will be closed.
Did you know there is a historic church up the river in Kingston, New York that was down and out, down to its last nine members? Well, a new pastor came and she came with a vision to feed people because they were hungry. And pretty soon the church filled with hungry people, and Pastor Darlene invited everyone of them to attend worship services. Over the years she invited thousands of people, and several hundred of them said yes! But I’m getting ahead of myself… Before the church began to turn around, there was great dissention among the church members at the changes they were seeing, and about “those people” who were coming to church. One day, Pastor Darlene was driving home from an out of town meeting, and when she pulled up in front of the church she saw that there were chains on the doors of the sanctuary. Her heart stopped. She got out of her car and walked into the church, climbing the stairs to the highest point in the church, and there she poured out her heart to God, saying, How long, God? How can I lead this church to welcome its neighbors? And then she had a vision, and the vision was of a key, and in her mind’s eye she saw the key in the top drawer of the secretary’s desk. So she went into the church office, opened the drawer, and lo and behold, there was the key. She took the key, walked outside to the chained doors, put the key in the lock, and sure enough the key fit the chains. She took off the chains and roped them around her neck like a necklace. And at that moment she looked up and saw a few members of her church walking up the street to her church—including the man who had put the chains on the doors. The church members were headed to a meeting, which turned into a turning point for the church. Sensing she needed help, Darlene went back up to her prayer nook up in the organ pipes for another conversation with God. And she distinctly heard the voice of God saying to her two simple words, over and over, Love them, love them, love them, LOVE THEM!
Well, there are various accounts of got said in the meeting that followed. No one at the church talks much about it now, but there was a memorable exchange when one of the members complained that “somebody that looked like a drug addict sat next to me in church on Sunday.” Darlene countered: “Check the sign outside. It does not say Clinton Avenue Country Club! This is a church! We have to love folks and open wide our doors, not chain them shut!” And then Pastor Darlene moved from person to person hugging them one by one and saying to each of them in turn, “It’s all about love, and it starts with us.”
From the unchained doors a new church was born of the Spirit, a true Pentecost church—not a pentecostal church, but a church where, as on the day of Pentecost thousands of years ago, the Spirit of God began to break down barriers between people and created a fellowship of the least likely people one could imagine together in community. Members of the church now report that everyone who enters receives a warm welcome. And as the chains and barriers came down, people began to experience God’s grace and mercy in their lives and to be transformed by it. Not long ago they did some visioning together and asked how can we better serve this transient neighborhood, and they came up with the idea of a second chance home for pregnant teens. The last I heard the church was working to create a space for six pregnant girls, using grant money from the county to make the renovations, and addressing wiring issues that the church would have otherwise had to repair using its own money. In a short time this church traveled a long way. I’m not sure what will happen to these folks, but aren’t you glad that the legacy of this church, the single thing they will always be remembered for, is NOT that they were the church that chained its sanctuary doors shut! And don’t you think every one of those six girls, not to mention the six babies born, when they grow older, will remember how some people they didn’t even know, people who were just doing what God has called them to do, had offered them a place to live, and get their act together, and make a new start? I’m telling you, that church needed those girls as much as the girls needed them.
And that, my friends, is why we must choose now over later. Amen.
ng Now Over Later
- Source: Paul Nixon, I Refuse To Lead A Dying Church, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006. This sermon is drawn from ideas in this book. I am grateful to Paul Nixon for his ideas, and excited that many of us are reading this book together.