Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on God they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season (in due season),
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they give life.
Today we celebrate our sixth birthday. In preparation for today, I wondered when we would stop celebrating birthdays? I didn’t grow up in a church that celebrated birthdays. Actually, I have never been in a church that celebrated a birthday, unless it was a big one, like 25 years or 100 years or 150 years. Maybe we treat church birthdays like we treat our own. We stop celebrating at some point, like maybe after 21, or it seems for sure after 30. After 30 we only celebrate the big ones and we forgo the big party for 32, 46 or 57. We celebrate the early birthdays the most. Maybe that is because those are the ones where we see the most change. Year to year we see big changes. When Lila turned one, I felt a certain joy, because we had taken a parenting class before her birth which gave us reason to be afraid of almost every thing. Everything was a hazard, cute stuffed animals and a loose baby blanket could be sure and certain death. We celebrate milestones when we really need too.
Perhaps, we never celebrated birthdays at church because no one remembered when getting from one year to the next was a big deal, or none remembered when the church started. It always seemed that the United Methodist Church, just like the Presbyterian church or the Catholic Church or the Lutheran Church, had always been there and in someways would always be there. These institutions were a part of the community, solid and stable and not changing much. But the truth is there is change. Our big institutions, all of the mainline church denominations, have been facing decline. The world is changing, and the way people connect to church has changed too. We are in a time of decline across the board. You might be able to see it in a sanctuary but you can just as easily read about it in plenty of well-research studies. The world is different. Stores are open on Sunday, kids practice soccer on Sundays, no one moves to town to join the closest United Methodist Church just because their Mom raised them that way. So why are we here starting a church in an uncertain time? It makes no sense. Research shows the mile radius around the Abbey to be filled with people who are high in their distrust of clergy and disinterest in the church, and a high interest in “alternative spirituality.”
Today we plant a church because this new day gives us new hope. Today no one feels obligated to join a church because they want to be good citizens, or need to network or like to sing in a group. No body has to come to church anymore. Which is the gift. Everyone comes because they want to. Because they seek and they long to, because they love. And our church is open every day all the time, a living sanctuary. We are here to share the gifts of the church, freely and lovingly.
We have a lot to give. We have inherited a strong foundation from our Annual Conference. Church institutions have talked about changing, doing it differently or being different for a long time but when it comes to actually putting money into that work, well that is a different story. New church starts are usually in a suburb with a cute white guy pastor who plays a guitar and has a tattoo or a piercing… but not both. But here, you have proof of people brave enough to really fund something different. We inherit their courage and the gift of a strong foundation.
We have been gifted with a strong call to justice by our mother church. First United Methodist Church has planted justice in our DNA. It is a church that refused to pay a pastor who preached with a pistol and disregarded the rights of Native people. It is a church that during its hay day was large and wealthy and white with powerful people, and it stood in solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement. It is a church that made Omaha’s first home for PFLAG and stood up for LGBTQ+ rights, before it was cool. This call to justice is seeded in our very being.
We inherit the grace and courage of our tradition. John Wesley and his brother Charles and their little group of college friends that created a movement. WE inherit their integration of the head and the heart and the hands. Their deep well of grace and their holiness that was both social and personal. Their call to action, meant they showed up. Showed up to create schools for young people without access, they showed up to feed the hungry, and they showed up to change tax codes and laws that kept people poor. They showed up in prisons and preached in fields, they worked to make fair labor standard and abolish slavery, and their little holiness club turned into a movement that spans the globe yet today.
We bring all of this to the table, it is a part of who we are and it is how we show up. Showing up is at the heart of our theology, we are about to enter the season of Advent where we talk about God showing up. And it is not a distant metaphor, it is as real as breath. Emmanuel, God with us, God within us. And when we celebrate Christmas, we remember God showing up and not as the oldest son of a popular king, not as the oldest son of the Chief Priest to reform the temple, but God shows up born to a woman who shouldn’t be pregnant and by some accounts surrounded by farm animals... which was not recommended in any childbirth class.
We show up here because that is our call. It is simple and profound. And sometimes even showing up is hard. It took a lot of paper work and asking and re-asking to get started at all. And there were days when I looked at the struggle before us and thought is this ever going to work? Will we make it? Will it matter? And every time I have leaned into this poetry of Psalm One, the phrase of bearing fruit in due season. I have looked at worship attendance and worried. I have looked at our coffee bar and worried. I have looked at our giving and worried. In our first year, 2012, we raised in a whole year what we will often this year raise in one month. There was reason to worry, particularly if you looked close and realized that most of that money was the gift of my mom and my boyfriend. But the truth is in every moment there was an answer. A reason to hope, the season was winter and spring would come, in due season we would bear fruit.
That is the gift. In this uncertain adventure, that every moment of uncertainty has been met with people who bring gifts; gifts I don’t have. I didn’t know anything about coffee, I didn’t even drink it, but Chris Smith did. There was no class about permits or paint colors, plumbing or Excel spreadsheets, but all of those needs were met with the gifts of people who care. Every moment that seemed like an obstacle has been an opening to learn about a new gift and to grow the Abbey through the gifts of others. You bring gifts to this community and I am ever grateful. May we have to courage to use them to grow. May we deploy them for God’s love with the foundation of where we have been and a eye for every year to follow.
May it be so.
1. What is your favorite birthday memory? What do you love or not love about marking a year of your journey?
2. How do you identify with the Psalm? What would it mean to pray it daily for a week?
3. What are the gifts you bring to community? How do you feel called or challenged to use them?