Tuesday, July 30, 2019

One Last Good Chance: Sermon at Judson Memorial Baptist Church. 28.July.2019

Our One Last Good Chance
Leviticus 25:1-7 & Mark 1:14-15
On the Occasion of my Seventh Anniversary
Judson Memorial Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN
Rev. G. Travis Norvell

One time my brother-in-law asked my father how long it took my him to learn how to become a bricklayer.  My dad replied instantly, “seven years.” My brother-in-law looked skeptically at my dad; my dad sensed this and elaborated a little more, “After two years I could use a trowel, but it took me seven years to master the trowel”.  

The movie The Biggest Little Farm tells the story of John and Molly Chester’s attempt to create a farm utopia on an old, hardpacked, dilapidated, lifeless farm an hour outside of Los Angeles, CA.  They get advice from a permaculture guru who tells them they have to rebuild the soil first until each teaspoon of soil contains one million microscopic lifeforms in it.  So they did just that, they started with the soil and built it up.  

They built a worm composting unit. They composted manure from the animals, they planted a diverse variety of fruit trees, crops, and obtained every farm animal imaginable.  It looked beautiful and it looked like all would come together within a year. But each season brings new problems, coyotes eat the chickens and snails the size of golf balls come from nowhere and eat the lemons and oranges.  The permaculture guru kept telling them, if you’ll rebuilt the soil and diversified the farm all will come together in the seventh year. In the seventh year...

Since my return trip from our racial justice pilgrimage to Memphis, TN last October I have read approximately 20 books on church revitalization/church rejuvenation. Out of those 20+ books I am holding onto this one line from Small Strong Congregations: “Your most productive work will not start until your sixth or seventh year!”  

Seven years ago on July 29, 2012 I began, officially, as your pastor.  

What is it about seven?

Six days God created then rested on the seventh.  Every seven years was to be a sabbatical year where the land rests.  Then every seven cycles of sabbatical years shall be a year of Jubilee where debts are forgiven, slaves are set free, and land is returned.  

So what are we going to do during this seventh year together?

First, how about what we’re not going to do.  No seven year itches.  

I feel like we are, emotionally and spiritually, just now ready for the work at hand.  

In divinity school the Dean of Students would tell us, “5 will get you 10, 10 will get you 20 and 20 will get you life”.  Translated for the pews it means, “If you’re at a church for five years, you should probably stay 10. If you’re at a church for 10 years, you should probably think 20.  And if you there 20, that’s probably the only place for you until retirement.”  

Going forward I am not thinking of my call here as another step of preparation for another call, I am thinking of our situation more like a rabbinical call: this is it for me.  (Think how many times rabbis move around, they don’t). 

What we are going to do together this year.  We are going to seize the moment.  

We have one last good chance to revitalize Judson.  

By last good chance I mean while we can still benefit from the resources at hand.
  1. Our giving increased by 10% from last year.  That is unheard of.
  2. We still have people who can literally move chairs and set up tables.
  3. While we have kids and youth.  
  4. While we have momentum. 

While we still have over 500 people who walk through Judson’s doors each week.  100+ for worship + 200+ associated with Judson Preschool + 100 associated with Meals on Wheels + another 100+ associated with the four counselors who use our building, the Girl Scout group, the opera company who is practicing here, the philharmonic and neighborhood group that has office space here and various sundry outside groups who use the building (and that doesn’t even touch the number of people and families who play on the playground, the people who walk their dogs by, the people that jog by, the people who sit on the steps for a moment).  We still have people who visit Judson because of the sermon title or what’s on the sign out front, The Southwest Journal even did a story on Deadra Moore’s sermon title! What zany world are we living in? We still average three visitors per Sunday. While we still have name recognition.  

This week a counselor called and asked if I would speak to a client of theirs.  Why me? Because years ago they had a positive experience at the Family Life Center that used to be here.  We have to seize this moment now before it disappears...  

Brothers and Sisters and Siblings the time is now, not next year, not five years from now, not ten years from now.  IT IS NOW.

In the 30th year of Jesus’ life he preached his first sermon with an urgency of now.  “The time is fulfilled”. In the Greek mind (the New Testament was written in Greek even though Jesus and the disciples spoke Aramaic) there were two ideas of time.  There was chronological time (day to day, week to week, year to year time), chronos.  

Then there was special time.  The time you fell in love, the time you found your calling in life, the time you finally stood up for something or somebody, think of Whitney Houston time 

“I want one moment in time
When I'm more than I thought I could be
When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away

Or Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton time, 

But that won't happen to us and we got no doubt
Too deep in love and we got no way out
And the message is clear
This could be the year for the real thing

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That kind of time is kairos time, it is what Jesus meant when he said the time, the kairos, is fulfilled.  And it kairos for Judson.  

I have specifics, you have specifics, but let us center around this metaphor, it’s on the front of your bulletin; it’s simple and it’s straight from theologian Richard Rohr and I think he meant it just for us.  

The Bible gives no comprehensive basis why evil exists, why suffering takes place, why human beings experience tragedy.  The Bible simply operates with the assumption that chaos exists. We all experience chaos. We all respond to chaos. We went through a divorce, we or a family member or close friend came out as gay or lesbian, a parent died, we miserably failed at something, our dreams were crushed, something tragic or tramautic happened, we stopped believing in God, Christianity stopped making sense, our faith seemed hollow and shallow, and on down the line…  Some people respond to chaos with Order. They build safe place amidst the chaos to keep the danger at bay, “Don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t chew, don’t go with girls that do.” That’s an Order box response to chaos. Some people respond to chaos with Disorder, they define their lives over against the Order they and others built, “Their religion is simple, mine is complex and nuanced”.

Conservative churches are Order Box congregations, Liberal churches are Disorder Box congregations.  Neither are mature congregations. Once you jump out of the Order Box, you cannot go back. And once in the Disorder Box you cannot go on in life simply defining ourselves over against what we used to believe. 

I recently bought a bluetooth speaker that fits on my bike so I can listen to sermons and podcasts while on rides.  I have crossed a threshold of supreme preacher nerdom. Oh the looks I’ve received over the past couple of weeks. While listening to Richard Rohr’s explain his simple metaphor of boxes for the spiritual life I had to pull over.  That’s it. Hallelujah. Over the past few months I’ve been banging my head over and over against the Disorder Box. I kept thinking if we just do it better then we won't need to change, just do it better. But Rohr invited me to another place, to the Reorder Box, to the reorder pastor, to the Reorder Judson.  

Have you seen the movie or read the book A Man Called Ove?  It tells the story of an aging Swedish widow whose life of Order collapsed after his wife died, he was laid off from work, and a pregnant Iranian woman moves next door.  He tries to die by suicide but each time his attempts are thwarted. He quickly moves from Order to Disorder. As he moves moments of tenderness, compassion, humor and grace emerge.  By the end he is in the midst of a Reordered life. The same is true for Best of Enemies the story of desegregation in Durham, NC centered on two people, one the leader of the local Klu Klux Klan chapter and the other is a community activist.  Order is clear, the other is the enemy. Disorder - desegregation and they are ordered by a judge to work together to provide a way forward. Reorder - they both changed and became lifelong friends and worked together for the common good.   

If we are going to live into the new life God has for us in kairos time we will do so in the “Reorder Box”.  There is healing after pain, there is reconciliation after being harmed, there is getting up after failures, there is belief after doubt, there is life after death.  We don't have to apologize for the Bible, we don't have to be embarrassed that we’re a church, we don't have to be ashamed that we’re Baptist (because in a few years folk won’t even know the difference between Lutheran and Baptist anyway).  What we have to do is live honest, compassionate, loving, authentic, vulnerable, Christ-centered lives. Let us take the gifts from the Order Box and the gifts from the Disorder Box and let us pilgrim together to the Reorder Box.  

Brothers and Sisters and Siblings this will be difficult. Another line I’m holding onto, “The experienced church leader has learned that while renewing an established congregation may take only half as many radical ideas as projected, it will take twice as long as anticipated, and be three tims more difficult than ever imagined. We can never underestimate the time and energy required”.  And yes we’re all have to sacrifice our sacred cows, so what? This is our last good chance, while the opportunity is present, while we still have the energy and potential, while folk still harken our doors, while we still have name and recognition to cash in on... What are we waiting for? The time, kairos, is now. Let’s do this.  

Saturday, July 6, 2019

A Prayer for Bicyclists

While perusing the church library the other day at Judson Memorial Baptist Church I found a title that intrigued me: Prayers for the Domestic Church by Edward Hays. 

It emerged from the 1970s Catholic movement of prayers and blessings for home life, i.e. the Domestic Church.  In this book there are all kinds of neat and interesting prayers/blessings: for pets, for before meals, for seeds and even the "wedding bed".  Sure enough there was even a prayer for the purchase of a new automobile.  One could pray for a mutual enjoyment intercourse, a tasty meal, playful pets, and the new car smell but, no prayers for bicyclists. 

In my morning prayers I pray for my family, my church, friends and bicyclists in the Twin Cities (although I feel my prayers reach family in WV, I feel my prayers have no effect for bicyclists in Albert Lea or Duluth).  Most mornings before I start pedaling I will pray for a safe journey (recall one child and my spouse have both been hit by automobiles, one child went over the handlebars, one child wiped out, and yours truly has gone down on numerous occasions).  This morning practice, coupled with the absent of a prayer for bicyclists caused me to write a prayer for bicyclists to pray before they cycle. 

But we can't just jump to the prayer...Reader, did you know there was a patron saint of bicyclists?  The Madonna Del Ghisallo.

Pope Pius the XII on October 13, 1949 deemed her the patroness of bicyclists.  St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Portland, OR has a shrine to her (the only one in the US?)  I think a certain Baptist Church in south Minneapolis, MN needs one too! 

So here is a first attempt prayer written to the Madonna Del Ghisallo for all bicyclists.

Madonna Del Ghisallo,
Protector of all bicyclists,
you watched in agony
as your Son suffered a cruel and lonely death;
knowing too well the experience
of pathos, I pray you will keep
me safe and all others who pedal today.

May drivers be focused and not distracted,
for they are controlling 2,000lbs vehicles.
May folk look before opening car doors.
May there be three feet between me and other cars.
When I swerve to avoid a pothole,
may I not swerve into danger.
May all the nuts and bolts hold tight.
May my brake pads grip.
May my wheels turn true.
May I arrive safe and not too sweaty.
May daredevil squirrels be kept away...

Mother of God accompany us
help us to be ambassadors of peace and love and justice
fill us with joy
and let us be signs of your healing grace.


Monday, July 1, 2019

A Car-Free Tithe

A few years ago I began the experiment of riding my bike, walking and taking public transit for my job as a pastor.  I thought up excuse after excuse not to do it, but somehow found the unction to start pedaling.  One of the thoughts that propelled me was: just a couple of generations ago pastors didn't have cars and they seemed to do just fine.

Think about it: having a car in the city, until after WWII, was a luxury, not a necessity.

This week I read in Eugene Peterson's memoir, Pastor, that while in seminary he worked at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church where George Buttrick was the Senior Pastor (1927-1956).  As an aside Peterson mentioned that Buttrick did not drive or have a car.  George Buttrick, maybe the best white preacher of his day did not drive or have a car: he walked and took public transit (I'll have to consult with historians to learn if he rode a bike).  If the pastor of MAPC in NYC could operate without a car, then surely the pastor of a smallish Baptist church in Minnepolis can too!

A certain type of pastor, yours truly included, loves the writer/farmer Wendell Berry; we kind of idolize him and his way of life.  We live in cities, but dream of the country.  We love our technology, but curse how it has changed our lives.  We eat out all the time, but love the organic choices at Whole Foods.  We are baskets of contradictions.

Berry's insistence on minimal technology (he does not own a computer) and using draft horses on his farm makes me think further about what would pastoral practice look like without a car, without a phone, without email?

Because of the congregation I serve I cannot do this job without access to a car, without a phone, without email.  It is the way life is right now.  But I know pastors who do not have cell phones, and I know pastors who are not on social media, and I know pastors who do not have cars.  But I don't know pastors who do without all the above (but I'm sure they are out there).

I wonder what kind of lost wisdom we have lost with our reliance on technology and non-mass transit or self-powered transit?

Recently I was in my hometown of St. Albans, WV for vacation.  Going on five years of my experiment of biking, walking, and taking mass transit I saw my hometown in a different light.  It was designed, originally, at a human scale.  The population is around 10,000. When it was developed the population was around 2,500; and it feels that way.  Main roads are narrow, made for moving not for parking.

You can walk across this road in just a few steps (I tried to measure them with a tape measurer but traffic would not cooperate).  Other streets are wide and can easily accommodate cars and bicycles.

The town's mass transit is served by the Kanawha Valley Regional Transit, with service between St. Albans and Charleston.  The town used to have a train station, but it closed years ago.

I wonder what it would have been like to pastor in this city without a car (take the bus to Charleston or the train to Huntington or Cincinnati or Pittsburg or Washington, D.C. or New York City? (you can take the Amtrak Cardinal out of Charleston to Cincinnati or to D.C).    Or if the congregation was within the confines of walkable and bikeable city?

The truth of the matter is that you can do this now, but it ain't that easy.

Here is a new bike lane on Route 60 from St. Albans to Charleston.

You'd have to be high to use this bike lane.  There is no buffer between you and vehicles and the speed limit is 55mph.

And then there was this, about 1/2 mile from my the home I grew up in I saw this bicycles share the road sign.  I noticed something about it and sure enough, just what I suspected: bullet holes.

I don't blame folk for not walking, biking, and taking public transit all the time for their jobs as pastors. But I do think we can try to create the space and time for some periods of the job that we bike, walk and take public transit.  Maybe a car free tithe of some sort when we walk, bike, and take public transit for 10% of our trips.  We have to start somewhere.

Why?  Because we are losing ancient wisdom, connection to the community and place, when we get into our climate controlled sealed bubble mobiles, turn on our podcasts that already affirm what we believe, and go from point A to point B.