During the summer of 2012 while I was taking a summer sabbatical, Diane and I had the opportunity to share pulpit supply duties at a handful of small town and rural churches in Kansas, one of which was Hopewell Presbyterian Church.
Now Hopewell is what you would call the epitome of a little country church. Four miles west and two miles south of Anthony, Kansas, it sits on the southwest corner of a dirt road intersection smack dab in the middle of flat Kansas farmland. From the front steps of the church what you mostly see are miles and miles of wheatfield.
The ecclesial version of `American Gothic,’ if you can picture that.
Hopewell Presbyterian Church was chartered in 1887, by half a dozen or so farm families who decided they needed a church out by where they lived. So they built themselves one, from the ground up, with their own hands. And they did a good job, too; it’s a beautiful little church. Nothing fancy, just solid, well-constructed, built to last and lovingly maintained; updated with modern conveniences like electricity and indoor plumbing. A little white jewel set in the midst of a broad golden platter.
The first time I preached at Hopewell, there were about ten people in the pews; for the most part, representing remnants of two of the founding families. They were very friendly, respectful and appreciative. I got paid $75, plus tomatoes, cucumbers and corn for mileage. That summer the congregation was celebrating the 125th anniversary of the church. All in all it was a pleasant enough experience; but I drove home after worship that day wondering, “How in the world do they keep going? And why?”
“Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus told his disciples, “I am there among them.”
Of course, that does not mean that Christ isn’t with us when we are alone in our room, praying to God in secret. Surely he intercedes for us there as well. But here, in these passages of Matthew, Jesus is instructing his disciples about the nature and the character of his Church.
So many of our little churches in the presbytery are struggling to survive, right now; struggling to adjust to the sometimes harsh realities of change; trying to figure out how to keep the doors open and find a new way forward. And that struggle is prevalent throughout our denomination. Indeed, it’s true of mainline Protestantism in general, as well.
We believe ourselves to be living in a very different world than that of first century Palestine. But it may not be quite as different as we might think. Secularization is on the rise. Cultural attitudes are increasingly hostile toward the church. According to the Barna Group, despite our “Christian” self-descriptions, more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice. In recent decades, America has experienced a surge in unchurched people, and studies portend a continued rise in this trend. In addition to that, a growing percentage of the population has a negative image of the church and thus are less and less open even to the idea of church.
Mike Regele, in his book Robust Church Development, suggests that there are probably more similarities between today’s ecclesial culture and the seminal Christian church than ever before in the modern age. Regele points out that, in this country, we are now living in the largest English speaking mission field in the world. He submits that, today, we should view our church(es) as “mission stations:” places where Christians gather to get `refueled, reoriented and redirected’ to then go back out into the world – into their neighborhoods, communities and cities – to do the mission work of the church.
I serve on a couple of our presbytery’s committees (Leadership Development team and the Visioning for the Future Workgroup). And I’ve noticed at recent presbytery meetings and various committee meetings I’ve attended, that there’s been a recurring fantasy amongst my Presbyterian brothers and sisters: “What would it be like,” they ask one another, “if we didn’t have to worry about all these big old buildings? What if we didn’t have to pour all of our attention, energy, and money into maintaining these old structures? What if we could simply divert all those resources into doing mission?”
It made me think of something Fred Buechner wrote, “Maybe the best thing that could happen to the church,” he muses, “would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash it all away, the church buildings tumbling, the church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through the air like dead leaves, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost too. Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which was all there was in the first place” (The Clown in the Belfry, p. 158).
“Where two or three are gathered . . .” said Jesus.
And maybe that’s all it takes.
Lately I’ve been watching with great concern – as I’m sure all of you have – the tragic events unfolding in the Caribbean Islands and the southern parts of this country: with the destruction of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, accompanied by flooding from the single greatest rainfall in U.S. history; and now Hurricane Irma, the largest hurricane ever recorded to hit this nation’s shores. The resultant destruction has been overwhelming.
But, in the midst of these devastating events, the thing which I have found perhaps most powerful are the stories of people helping one another. The images of people putting their lives at risk to rescue others. And not just the Coast Guard, National Guard, or sheriff and fire departments (all of which continue to perform incredibly bravely and efficiently throughout these ordeals); but also just ordinary people, friends, neighbors, strangers – getting out their motorboats, row boats, rubber rafts and inner-tubes to save their fellow human beings. Or literally carrying others upon their shoulders through the storm surge.
I’ve marveled at the picture of a Caucasian National Guardsmen carrying a young Asian woman as she clings to her infant. Or a strapping African American policeman carrying a frail, elderly white man. There is no racial tension to detect in these poignant scenes; no political division apparent. And, as one public official being interviewed said, “We’re not asking anyone for documentation.”
And the pictures of folks saving animals: pets, dogs, cats, a baby dear. It’s truly amazing.
I felt a surge of emotion – and sort of a sense of vicarious determination and pride – when I first saw the image of a little elderly Asian man carrying a great big old soaking wet dog through chest-high waters.
Newscasters are labeling these folks as heroes. And so they are. But, I believe, it also reaffirms the truth that each one of us has an inner capacity to risk self for the sake of another in need; be they friend, family, neighbor or stranger. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, photo after photo tells the story of courage and compassion and resilience. So that, even in the midst of all those terrible scenes unfolding before our eyes there are yet these glimpses of hope, and a profound reaffirmation of the indomitability of the human spirit.
I would argue that such willingness to sacrifice for others reflects – indeed embodies – God’s grace in the very Spirit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
“Where two or three are gathered,” Jesus said, “there I will be with you.”
My opinion is, whether we lift these building up or tear them down makes little difference, if we lose sight of the truth that God is already working out there in the world; and through Jesus Christ calls us to join him in his mission of rescuing, restoring and reconciling.
The summer I preached at Hopewell Presbyterian Church, they were joyfully celebrating their 125th anniversary. That summer those good people gathered up over five hundred pounds of food for the Anthony Food Bank. One young man who had recently joined that church had just come back from a tour in Iraq, and was suffering from PTSD. As part of his therapy, he made these little beaded pieces of jewelry; would work on them, stringing them together, during the worship service. And then, as part of his mission, he would give those little works of art from the heart to others; friends, neighbors, strangers. He gave one such offering to Diane.
I now understand `how in the world’ Hopewell – and other such churches – manage to keep going. And why.
The church has a story to tell a wounded world: a story of reconciliation and restoration, a story of courage and compassion, a story of risk and sacrifice, a story of the resilience found in God’s grace. For: “Where two or three are gathered, there I am among them.”
In his book The Company of Strangers, Parker Palmer writes that “The church has been called to live as a gathered community who celebrate and support, challenge and resist, forgive and heal . . . when people look upon the church, it is not of first importance that they be instructed by our theology or altered by our ethics, but that they be moved by the quality of our life together.”
Let it ever be so.