April 3, 2022 ~ Fifth Sunday in Lent ~ ROLL DOWN JUSTICE
Rev. Beckie Sweet
When I was Superintendent of the Northern Flow District, there were on that district several very small churches that were struggling mightily to survive. Some only had a few faithful folks worshiping on Sunday mornings and engaging in their ministries. There were so few, in fact, that they could not afford to pay a ¼-time pastor, or even a lay supply pastor to just come and lead worship on Sundays. Each time a congregation would get into that challenging situation, my prescribed response was, let’s conduct a Paragraph 213 Study to determine this congregation’s viability before we make any decisions. We are all aware that our communities are constantly changing, and that the community, culture, and needs are different than they were a decade or more before. A Paragraph 213 Study is particularly geared for communities in transition.
As the Paragraph description from the 2016 Book of Discipline reads, “Since every congregation is located in a community in some type of transition, every local church is encouraged to study their congregation’s potential.” That all sounds logical and helpful. But then it goes on to state, “The district superintendent may appoint a task force when the future viability of the congregation is in question….” Folks knew that many times, as a result of this Study, a church closure would take place. ~ But not always.
Constable is a little town located on a cross-road somewhere between Malone, NY and the Canadian border. The Constable UMC had never had their own full-time pastor. For decades they had been served by lay speakers, retired pastors, or the pastor of the Malone Centenary UMC, which was the case when I became acquainted with them. But the church in Malone was growing and needed more of their pastor’s time. In Malone, the folks resented sharing their pastor with Constable, and the pastor was increasingly challenged to find time to care for both congregations. We did not readily have a pastor who could serve that congregation for very little pay, and no provision of housing. Their self-esteem was low and it appeared that their future was bleak.
So, we engaged in a Paragraph 213 Study. Some of the folks were sure that I was going to close them down! In addition to gathering some demographic data, one of the first exercises in this study was an assessment of the church’s ministry in the community. Do the neighbors know about the church? What do the neighbors know about the church? So, the assignment was for the folks on the task force to, in some way canvas the community for answers. There were only two businesses in that community: a handy market gas station, and a bowling alley with a bar. I went to both to inquire of their patrons what they knew about the church.
Of the 20 or so persons I interviewed, the responses included these:
- Oh, that’s the church that gave my niece baby clothes when she suddenly found herself expecting a child. She had no job, and the father took off. We don’t know what she would have done without those clothes!
- That church brought meals to my sister’s family every week while my brother-in-law was incarcerated. What a blessing!
- A lady from that church brought yarn to my mother-in-law after both of her legs were broken in a car accident and she was desperate to find something to do.
- Their chicken barbeque’s are the best!
- The guy who helped me carry a box from the food pantry said he goes to that church.
- Their flowers always look so nice!
As the task force shared the responses we had received, the smiles on the faces of those in the room began to grow. People started sitting with their heads lifted, and I could tell that their hearts were full. This congregation was small, but they were having a mighty impact on the lives of their community. Their vitality and viability were shining, and they realized that God was not finished with them yet. God had work for them to do!! The good news ~ we found a recently retired American Baptist pastor who was willing to serve there, and that church is still going strong.
When I went out to depart following the completion of the task force’s work, I found the back seat of my car loaded with produce from someone’s garden. Quietly and generously, they shared blessings with me, in the same way they continue to bless their community.
Yes, God has work for us to do! The words of the prophet Isaiah are so poignant for us still today. During Lent, we often hear about fasting, or abstaining from food or something harmful in order to draw closer to God and focus on doing good in God’s name. Isaiah’s fast brings the good result of loosening the chains of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, feeding the hungry, providing the homeless with shelter, clothing those without clothing, and providing generous hospitality. All of this will bring light and love and new growth to the whole community. “You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail,” Isaiah says.
Mark Miller, who composed the music to our “Welcome” song, and to today’s anthem, “God Has Work for Us to Do,” has reflected on this. He states, “God is love, and we are God’s children. That is my statement of belief, and by faith, I will try to live my life to make the love of God real to everyone I meet. Although I believe the statement to be true, it does not mean that our world is a just place or that life is fair.
Mark goes on, “The for-profit prison industry still benefits from incarcerating young brown and black men at an alarming rate, the skies over certain cities are too polluted to venture outside, the water isn’t safe to drink in many towns, women are still being denied access to equal pay, corporate greed is draining the wages of the working class, the cost of an education is crippling a generation of incoming students … and the list goes on.
Mark concludes, “So, while I believe that God is love, and we are God’s children, I also believe God has work for us to do. The lyrics of Carl Daw strike a resounding chord in my soul when he declares, ‘til all the jails are empty, ‘til all the bellies filled, ‘til no one hurts or steals or lies, and no more blood is spilled.” God has work for us to do!!
What cycle or system of injustice are you passionate about addressing in your ministry? In addition to those already listed, perhaps it is the disappearance of indigenous women, which is so seldom reported on the news. Perhaps it is the living conditions in The Jungle behind Walmart, or climate change, violence against trans persons, or the need for more adults in the Big Brother/Big Sister program. Perhaps you will be a literacy volunteer, or provide housing for a family from Ukraine, or for Drucilla and her beautiful daughter from the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance. Perhaps you will contribute to finding a cure for cancer, or let the family on the next block know that they are welcome at Christ’s table and at ours.
God has work for each of us, and for all of us to do. Let’s respond with willing spirits. Let’s break the cycles and systems of injustice so that all of God’s children can blossom and grow. God has work for us to do!