Pass out the Chocolate: A Charge to First United Presbyterian Church of Troy, NY

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This charge was offered to the First United Presbyterian Church of Troy, New York on the occasion of the Installation of their new pastor, the Rev. Gusti Newquist on June 1, 2014.  The photo at the bottom is of summer beach pails filled with chocolate and salt water taffy, which was handed out after the Charge.

This charge is offered in the Spirit of the National Network of Presbyterian College Women, whose ministry taught Gusti and I, who were recipients of its grace and love, to engage in prophetic ministry, to play and to welcome change.

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So before I begin my comments on the charge to the congregation today, I would like to first read a short section from one of my favorite theological volumes, The Prisoner of Azkaban (Vol.3) by J.K. Rowling:

A few weeks ago I spent the week in Maryland at a leadership formation retreat for people like me who are new to Presbytery leadership work. In our opening worship service the “graduating” class of leaders (those in Year 3) were asked to offer some words of wisdom or some small gifts to symbolize things that we would need in the new ministry we were entering. My friend, Rev. Jean Radak, the Presbyter in Newton Presbytery in NJ read this section from Harry Potter that I just offered to you today. Jean offered these words of wisdom,

“Dementors are everywhere. Our job is to pass out the chocolate.”

Ministry is a tough business these days. Congregational ministry is probably the hardest type. We hear this all the time, that this is a rough time for being “church.”

I know this.

I acknowledge this.

Yet I also feel something else.

That this might be one of the best times to be in ministry.

One of the best times to be about this holy project of being “church.”

Here’s why:

 

Number One

Dementors are real.

Dementors are what keep you from all goodness, they steal your soul, they remove all the warmth and happiness from the world. Dementors work for the government that is in thrall to the ways of Voldermart.

I told you, Harry Potter is theological….

Take dementors seriously. Take evil seriously. Do not hide from this force in the world or in our communities. Let it be one of the things to shape the ministry you will share with Gusti, that will be a light and a beacon of the prophetic Jesus for this City of Troy and for our Presbytery:

Gusti and I were walking some of the streets of Troy a few weeks ago, talking about ministry and society. She reminded me that we live in and do ministry in the Empire State. Even more than living in the empire of the United States, our State purposely calls itself “The Empire State.” The origin behind this term for New York State is unknown, but it is thought to mean to reflect its longtime power and influence, its resources and wealth that has been a part of our national story for centuries. Albany of course is one of the five oldest cities in the United States. An empire is a place of homogeny and control. It is a way of securing the resources of many for a few. We live in Empire today in the United States. We live with its resources and its consequences. Not all in our State are faring well. We have the 25th highest rate of poverty in the United States. 37% of households headed by women live in poverty. Nearly half of children in upstate New York live in poverty[1]. Yet we are the 6th wealthiest country in the world.

How can we as people of faith stand by silently with this reality?

We must make the healing of the divide one of our top priorities.

This is what the ministry of Jesus was all about.

Jesus died a victim who rose up against Empire, proclaiming the Good News that the Reign of God is greater than anything else.

This is our highest calling as people of faith.

This is a dementor that needs addressing.

This community of faith is a place to learn about living in Empire, and then seeking the way forward as those who follow Jesus.

Your new Pastor is thinking about Empire and its consequences.

I charge you as a congregation to do so as well.

With depth and rigour and prayer.

And then take the ministry the Spirit is offering you out onto the streets.

 

Number Two:

Play

I read to you today from Harry Potter as a reminder to not take yourselves too seriously.

Enjoy ministry.

Enjoy life!

These are gifts from God!

Even though serious things go on, what does Professor Lupin do? He passes out chocolate! We need sustenance!

So play.

Revel in ministry.

Delight in it.

Do not worry.

Eugene Peterson, who offers one of my favorite translations of the Bible offers this rendering of Matthew 6:

 “If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds…

…If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.”

Your new Pastor likes to play.

I charge you as a congregation to do so as well.

With depth and rigour and prayer.

And then take the gift of play the Spirit is offering you out onto the streets.

 

Number Three:

Welcome change.

Congregations, just like this one are spread out all over our country. Much of what we do in congregations is relics of a time that has passed us by. We are in this in-between space as congregations.

It is painful because we are letting go of things we all hold dear.

And it is exciting because something new is being birthed by the Spirit, right here, in our midst and we get to be a part of it. A few examples:

Worship on Sunday morning.

Sundays are no longer a set apart time for anyone.

Sitting in rows and pews facing forward listening to one person talk.

We don’t learn that way anymore. Authority is a different thing these days.

The pews in all our churches, they probably need to go.

The Sanctuaries, we all love and treasure, they will need to be Sanctuary in a new way.

If we open our doors on Sunday morning, put out the welcome mat, people will walk in.

They won’t. We need to leave and go find those in need of God’s life-transforming, healing grace.

 

In your great wisdom you have called a Pastor who knows these things.

Who is unafraid of these things.

Who has visions for the future and has a keen sense of where things are going.

Who is a risk-taker.

And who will love you.

So follow her.

Follow Jesus.

Do not worry.

Change is everywhere.

But God’s love for us is steadfast.

Never-ending.

A wellspring of life-giving water.

And full of un-ending grace.

 

May God’s Holy Spirit richly bless this new chapter of ministry here at First United Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York.

May you be given energy, intelligence, imagination and love in great abundance.

May you take huge risks.

May this season of ministry with Gusti be blessed.

May you proclaim the truth of the prophetic Jesus to all you encounter.

 

Do not forget to pass out the chocolate.

Do not forget to have fun!

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[1] http://ams.nyscommunityaction.org/Resources/Documents/News/NYSCAAs_2013_Poverty_Report.pdf

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One response

  1. In general, people need community more than they need the denominational church right now. Yes chocolate and yes we join THEM, and not sit back and wait for them to join US. We listen and hear what they want and need. And that is very much God’s work.

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