Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A House of Prayer for All People

“My house is to be a house of prayer, but you have turned it into a den of robbers.”

There is something raw and living in these words and actions of Jesus that really don’t fit into church or our religious world. And, because I think we need this raw power of life from Jesus, and because I think our church traditions tend to domesticate that living message, I am going to do the best I can to tell the story of this passage, and stay clear of church doctrine.

Jesus comes to the place of worship for his people, the Jews, and what he finds is a business that is only open to paying customers. Jesus came from the country, into the holy city. This was a pilgrimage, of a holy man. He had prepared for this time, to come and worship in purity and truth with others in Jerusalem. But, when he got there, the temple was not a refuge of the world, but merely a reflection of the world. The children and the disabled were kept out; and peace and silence and purity and reverence were kept out. But, Jesus brought that holy faith into the temple that day.

He took a whip of chords and violently upset the businessmen and ran them out with fire in his eyes: “This is to be a house of prayer, but you have turned it into a den of robbers.”

Jesus must have known and felt how badly people in this world need a place that is holy and decent and peaceful – a place where human beings can pour out their hearts before God in praise and in their need.

When places of peace and refuge and hope are corrupted, then need to be cleansed. Because everybody needs a place where they can feel their soul alive again. Everyone needs a place just to be – a creature before the Creator, giving praise, crying out for help to the One above all others.
In most of the major religions of the world, those who believe take pilgrimages, or, at least many used to. A pilgrimage is, of course, a journey to a holy place that shows commitment and reverence. Each year at Passover in ancient Israel, the people from far off lands and from other regions of Judea saved and planned for the great trip to worship and celebrate during the holy time of remembrance of how God saved them from bondage in Egypt.

The older I get, the more I think of the trip each Sunday to worship as a pilgrimage. The journey starts sometime during the week as I try to find my way through daily life and work and worries and joys down a path to a holy place. And, a holy place is hard to find in this world, as you know. And, we don’t get to just find it and stay. No, we have to journey in this life through some tough places, taking on challenges, and enjoying the give and take, up and down of life, and like the Jews of old, we yearn to return to a place that reminds us who we are, what path we are to seek, and restores the soul, uniting us to the great power of truth and justice, the God of our redemption, the God of Jesus, the Christ.
And , I wish I had the ability and the power of truth, so that I could cleanse this place, make it full of the power and grace and goodness of God. Because, if I and we could really do that, we would all be renewed. To be in God’s presence is to be renewed, restored. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.”
I don’t have the ability to do that. But, I can point to the one who did and who does. The holy one of God, the one who came humbly, not claiming equality with God, but giving his life in obedience and for the glory of God. I don’t have the ability or magic to give you grace and truth and peace in your souls. But, I can point you to the One who has become the way of truth and light in this world. Jesus is God reaching out to embrace all people, to open a path of life for all people, and this way is a way of mercy. And, as Jesus knew as he walked into that temple. Places of mercy are few in this world. But, mercy is pushing forward in all of life, becauses the one who has created and sustains life is the Giver of Mercy, the Merciful One, the one whose peculiar form of justice is mercy.
As Jesus walked into that temple, seeing so many – the young, the crippled – who needed mercy being kept out of the temple. As he saw this, his heart was filled with a determination to provide that place of mercy and hope. That day he cleaned out the temple to make a way for those in need to find a place of peace and hope and redemption and purpose – where they could join with others singing: “bless the Lord, o my soul.”

Is that the kind of holy place we want? Is that the kind of holy place we are seeking and trying enable? If the Spirit of God comes upon us and shakes our holy place, will we end up shouting out praises to God or will we take cover, like the businessmen in the temple courts?

The reason I ask these questions is that I am filled with the conviction that the place of worship, where we call upon the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – I am certain that the spiritual quality of this place is a deep responsibility for us. In a world where mercy is hard to find, we need to give God a chance to bring it among us. Because one day a man, a woman, a child will arrive here among us weary of life, beaten down, and in need of grace and peace and mercy. And, if we aren’t a place alive with that Spirit of Christ, then that woman, man or child may go away starving for help for his heart and soul.

In the end, I gues s that’s what we do have here at 1st United. Despite ourselves, we keep arriving here from our difficult journeys. Some of us stay away for a while, but we come back. And, we keep finding that renewal from our God who loves us, who values us, and who doesn’t seem to be able to give up on us. The one whose power fires the sun, the one whose wisdom holds all things together in the universe. We continue to find his touch, his power, as we continue to receive and help each other along the way. And, no we don’t run a real tight ship here. We try to have enough order to not let chaos run us over, but we don’t want so much order that we don’t have room for faith and new revelations from God in our hearts and souls.

We have been through many things over the past years – we’ve gone through some of them together, endured other things alone. But, through all of that, the words of Paul ring true: 2 Cor. 4:7-10.

We have appreciated being able to make these pilgrimages back to a holy and familiar place. I ask you to continue to work with me in giving God room to bring a spirit of peace and understanding and grace to each of us and to our community of faith. People of this world, including you and me, need a place of mercy they can count on. A place where they can worship God and feel a unity with others, and then return to their homes, work places, ,communities, and challenges with an awakened and illumined soul, a soul renewed by the Creator and Redeemer of all.
We have made many pilgrimages in our lives. Maybe we haven’t realized any religious significance in these journeys, but many of us mark our years and lives by special journeys we take again and again. Like going home for Thanksgiving or another holiday each year.

Or, travelling back home for a mother’s birthday, or travelling back to start a new school year. Journeys like this have always meant a lot to me. Returning to my seminary after being away for many years was like a pilgrimage back to a holy place, with holy memories. There is a sense in which each trip back to this place, this church, is a small pilgrimage. And, its not always an easy one to make. I understand that it has been hard for some of you from time to time to make your way back into this church after times of great loss, because there is something about coming back to this place that makes several of us face ourselves, our lives, our loss, our love and our hope.

Being the one who preaches about every Sunday, it is a given that I will make the pilgrimage (maybe it’s not fair to call it a pilgrimage if you are the pastor). When I don’t feel like I can make the pilgrimage, well, I just have to go on and do it anyway. And, I do understand why some of you stay away for a while at times. When it means something to you, its not always that easy to go. I am fortunate to be a minister, and have to somehow face where I’ve been and what’s up in my life each week as I prepare to preach. If I didn’t have to, I would have avoided a lot of things that could have overcome me. And, showing up over here each Sunday and Tuesday, so often restores my sanity, brings a sense of hope and the experience of care and love, that, it takes me by surprise. God will take us by surprise, if we remain humble and child-like enough to still be surprised.

Some of you show up more often when you are under great struggles; some of you show up less often when you are under great struggles. But, although some of you might stay away during times of great struggle, you often maintain close contact and share your struggles with one or two of us at those times. And, so, you stay with us, we stay together. What is important is that we stay together in the spirit, and don’t let even one of us feel too isolated , alienated, lost in this world. If we remain open to the graciousness of God, then our church will be a place of refuge and restoration and hope, and even when those who attend are away for a while, ,they will be encouraged to know there is such a place. Just as we are comforted even when we are away from home for a long time in knowing that we have a home where parents love us, where our mother loves us, where we will be received with open arms when we make it back home.

And, yes, I do believe this is such a place, a good home base in this world of struggle. And, we are considering whether to remain on these grounds or move to join with another small congregation over on Broadway, two miles away. On one hand, it’s a practical decision: big building, we don’t own, being dependent on the college’s survival which is in serious question. Look ing at it practically, those are considerations. Looking at it in a deeper way, thinking about a move makes us worry that we might lose a holy place. For those of us that have come to rely on making that pilgrimage back to this place, the thought of going somewhere else on Sunday is a little unnerving to say the least.
If this has been a holy place for us, how do we know that that will continue at a different location, with a merged congregation? What will we really find when we walk in over there: a house of prayer, or something less? These are just some questions that come to me as we face this decision.

Well, if we go, I guess we will find out something about ourselves. We will find out about our faith. We will be tested to see whether we are really about creating a place of prayer, and not just another religious group. We will see that when others who are strangers come among us, will we open our arms and hearts to them or do we just think we are that way. What we will find out is whether these pilgrimages we have been making to this holy place have been reliant on the living God who is not bound to place or whether these pilgrimages have been a little too reliant on lesser gods of place and institution and familiar surroundings. And, we will find out how dedicated we are to the way of Jesus who brings mercy into houses of worship, and who will not stand for keeping out those who need it so badly.

For, he walked in that day, seeking a place of prayer and renewal, and he found human competition, conflict, self-interest. He found a lot of self, and no soul. But, he opened that place to God’s Spirit, and the Spirit came and brought freedom and healing and hope. And, O, yes, some real anger from those who wanted to rule over what only God can rule over – the holy place of prayer.

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