Sunday, January 1, 2017

The State of the Church

As you know, every year about this time, the President delivers his annual “State of the Union” address to Congress. Your pastor should do nothing less. This then is “The State of Your Church.” It is an appropriate way to open the 50th year of ministry at Highlands. For half a century, this church has sat on this hill, a part of the neighborhood, a part of the community.

It was in 1967. Ronald Regan became governor of California; the Doors released a record called’ Light My Fire” and the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band;” the Packers beat the Chiefs in the first ever Super Bowl; three astronauts died in a fire on the Launchpad; LBJ made Thurgood Marshall the first African American justice to serve on the US Supreme Court, Muhammed Ali refused to go to war in Vietnam where thousands of young people were dying.

It was in the midst of all of that that a group of dedicated Presbyterians laid the corner stone of this church. They built the physical structure as well as a spiritual structure that has endured for five decades. This church had pastors and lay leaders who left a mark in the community. Highlands was one of the moving forces behind starting Habitat for Humanity, working with the Cheyenne ministerial association to open COMEA and start NEEDS.

The church is family and like all families, this one went through some tough times in the 90s, losing members which led to financial challenges. Like all churches, the children of those who dedicated time and resources to building the church didn’t stay in the community or the church. Attendance dwindled.

It was more than a decade ago that I first preached here. The sanctuary faced the other way. I preached from that old pulpit back there. I came once in a while, a part of a list of local preachers Wendy rotated, spending her days trying to find one with an open date. I recall there weren’t many folks in the pews very often, sometimes 12-15, but those who were had been here a long time and had dedicated a great deal of their lives to making sure the doors stayed open.

One Sunday morning I preached a sermon asking how they felt about the real possibility that they might be the last people to ever worship here, that when the final one departed, the lights would be turned off and the doors locked? One of the old timers said to me afterward, “Well, pastor, “that may just be God’s will.”

Well, it wasn’t. God had other ideas about that building on the hill at Pattison Avenue and Mountain Road. God had other ideas about the people who sat in those pews. We have not only remodeled our building, we have remade our community into a place that is clear about what we believe and who we are…where people can come for progressive theology, where questions and study are a part of faithfulmess, a fellowship of those who care for one another, and an opportunity to live out God’s call in your life as a part of Highlands’ commitment to the community.

Rev. Richard Crocker of New Hampshire came to Wyoming a couple of years ago to study the impact of social and cultural controversies on the Presbyterian communities throughout Wyoming. He found that most avoid any dialogue about the tough social issues of our time. He contrasted Highlands with them. His final report included this statement:

Like many other mainline Protestant churches, the PCUSA in Wyoming is trying to move forward, albeit slowly and deliberately, against strong cultural headwinds. In such a storm, there is a tendency to huddle together for protection. That is certainly one strategy for survival. Another strategy, such as the one adopted by the Highlands Church, is to raise a progressive flag and say “This is who we are.”

This is who we are! And who we are doesn’t just define this small group but it’s the flag we fly as we go into the community with a voice and a message that will be the catalyst for growing this church in 2017, doubling our attendance and multiplying our missional impact in the community.

The next year will be a challenge for anyone who cares about the poor, the elderly, immigrants, the prisoner, those who are without health insurance or fear losing what they have, others who rely on Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps or other parts of what we have known as the “social safety net.”

There will be many challenges for Christians who care about these things. BUT…these are the times for which God created the church.

I have never been one to judge the vitality of a congregation by counting the numbers of people who show up on Sunday mornings…but I have concluded that Highlands needs a strategy of growth. Growth not simply to count more people on Sunday mornings but to have more people with other gifts to share in the work we have to do. Whether this church has an average attendance of 20, 30 or 50 or 100, God calls us to do the same…the needs of the community are not set on a sliding needs scale that gives any significance to the size of our church.

And I think God has special need of a faith community that is willing to speak out, to be heard, to not only feed the hungry and help to house the homeless, to help to heal the addicts but to ask what there are so many hungry and homeless and hurting people in this city. In that regard, Highlands has a unique and often lonely voice. Growth means that voice will not only be louder but more influential.
I ask each of you to help one another double the average attendance this year. That means each of us taking personal responsibility to invite ONE other person to come and learn what it is that makes Highlands your choice.

This year as we celebrate our 50th anniversary, we will launch the “Highlands has a future Campaign.” You’ll hear more about this in the spring but it is an acknowledgement that God won’t permit Duane and I to stay here forever. The church needs to do some succession planning. Remember what Proverbs teaches, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” A church without as vision has no future. This church has a vision for the future and will not perish but it also needs a clear strategy for moving into that future.

Over the last year or so, something happened seemingly by accident, something that if you sit back and look at it, you’ll see God’s fingerprints all over it. Quietly and without any specific plan, Highlands has become an incubator for significant developments in this community. We have provided the space, the leadership and the seeds.

Compassionate Cheyenne and RESULTS. I hope we can continue to be open to those and other similar opportunities to plant these kinds of ideas and nurture them and help them grow. It’s like Jesus’s parable about scattering seeds. Yes, some fall among the thorns and rocks and never produce. Others fall into good soil and reap a great harvest. In the coming months, let’s scatter more seeds.

Among them is the question of Highlands’ response to the plight of refugees and immigrants. We cannot be silent about this. It is sinful to call ourselves followers of Jesus and not cry out about the fact that we live in the only state in the Union that refuses to work with the federal government to resettle refugees. We can’t be silent as we watch what is happening in Aleppo, as we witness people drown in boats they hoped would deliver them from the violence in their homes.

Through scripture God admonishes, “When strangers dwell among you in your land, do not taunt him. The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a native among you, and you shall love him like yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt—I am the Lord, your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34). 

God created us and our fellow human beings, not the borders that divide them and today determine who suffers and who watches the suffering.

In the first few months of 2017, I will ask this church to consider our response. We will have a dialogue about becoming a Sanctuary Church. You’d find resource material in the Clan and hear it from the pulpit and during the Lenten suppers. I encourage you to do your own Googling and learn more about this movement, a movement in which hundreds of churches including many Presbyterians, have found to be a Christian response to what is the major crisis of the day confronting the conscience of the church of Jesus.

Finally, Highlands should discern how we might model ways of caring for the environment. We’ll conduct an energy study to determine what we can do to make this building more energy efficient and look at emphasizing recycling.

Pound for pound, person for person, our little church does as much or more than any faith community in the city. But, isn’t that what we are called to do? I hope we will not become tired by the work we do but inspired to do more and to enlist others to help. As Paul said, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

Highlands is a gift to the community and our greatest gift to the community is to continue being who we are.

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