On May 30 and 31, more than 50 leaders from eight churches in Pittsburgh Presbytery, together with Ayana Teter (Associate Pastor of Pittsburgh Presbytery), Philip Lotspeich (Coordinator for Church Growth, Presbyterian Mission Agency), Jim Kitchens and Deborah Wright (Adaptive Change Consultants, Pneumatrix) as well as eight Adaptive Change apprentices (Sarah Robbins, Tom Moore, Jake Clawson, Brenda Barnes, Larry Ruby, Linda Ruby, Ayana Teter, Susan Rothenberg) gathered to launch the “Unglued Church” pilot project. Funded by a grant from the PCUSA, this two-year project will not only seek to help churches redefine their mission as they face the tsunami of change in our culture, but also train a cohort of teaching elders in our presbytery to work with churches into the future and help them use adaptive change and positive deviance to effectively live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their communities.
Rev. Wright and Rev. Kitchens of Pneumatrix
The first phase of the project was for each church to participate in a “New Beginnings” assessment http://whatisourfuturestory.com/beta/the-process/. The New Beginnings assessors visited with each church in April and created a comprehensive report detailing each church’s assets, challenges and ministry opportunities. This weekend, Rev. Lotspeich instructed the church leadership and apprentices how to read the reports, and outlined the next steps in the New Beginnings process.
Each church — including Emsworth U.P. — will now hold a series of “house meetings” — and that’s where the fun really begins! We are praying that the Spirit will bubble up in these holy conversations over the next few months as churches begin to dream and talk and listen to one another as they seek to become what God would desire them to be.
We pray that their conversations will be fueled by their love for Jesus Christ and not fear of the unknown. We pray that each church will discover new things about the communities around them and the people they serve. We pray that each church will open themselves up to a new beginning and a new future, whatever that may look like for each of their congregations.
My colleague, Rev. Sarah Robbins and I were privileged to lead worship this weekend, and we drew our inspiration from a sermon preached by Walter Brueggemann at The Festival of Homiletics last week. In the sermon, he reminded us that our churches are fragile clay jars, and that we are privileged to carry the treasure of the Gospel within us. The treasure cannot be destroyed. The clay jar, however, needs to be smashed from time to time. The good news is that the Potter can put us back together, but we will not be the same clay pot we once were. We will be reworked into another vessel, as seems good to God.
Please pray for this effort — for the churches, the apprentices, and all of us who dare to imagine that God has not stopped dreaming of a new thing for a bunch of old clay jars.
Here is the liturgy we used in our opening worship on Friday night:
Call To Worship
Gift us, O God, with divine imagination.
Mold us with holy intention.
Change us with your compassion.
Release us from our fears.
Break our stubborn habits.
Pry our idols out of our anxious hands.
Destroy all within us that is not your will.
Live through us, today, always.
Merciful God, weary from efforts to change our own lives, we hand ourselves over to you.You are the only One who can center us firmly, rooting us in this moment, mindful of our potential.Your hands hold us with warmth and you eyes see us with imagination.We can feel ourselves beginning to turn with the energy of your purpose.Weighty is your love for us, yet with lightness of heart we feel ourselves transforming, rising, and opening up to your grace.Let us become vessels of your own design.In Christ, we pray.Amen.
Reading From Scripture
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.
2 Corinthians 4:7-12
Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. 3And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Reflection: Smashing Our Clay Pots,Ungluing The Treasure
We have this treasure in clay jars.
That’s what Paul says.That’s what he tells the church in Corinth.We have this treasure in clay jars.
The people in Corinth were in quandary.They were stuck, endlessly obsessing about the small stuff: class distinctions, differences between Jew and Gentile, questions about circumcision and proper foods, who could be an insiders and who were the outsiders.What kind of hymnal, what color flowers, proper doctrine, polity and policy – you know, all the nit-picky stuff that can quickly sink a church.
Paul believes that the church in Corinth has forgotten that our stuff and our rules and our doctrines and our traditions are not the point. They have forgotten that the church is notthe treasure, but a clay jar that holds the treasure.And it’s a good thing because a clay jar is…what?(HIT THE POT WITH A HAMMER) Vulnerable.Fragile.A clay jar does not last forever.The treasure inside the jar – the Gospel of Jesus Christ – is the thing that cannot be broken.
The clay jar exists for one purpose and one purpose only– to carry the richness and fullness of the Gospel.And, as the text from Jeremiah tells us, the clay jar sometimes has to be broken and reshaped.Again and again.Breaking and reshaping the clay jar is the work of the potter.That is God’s transforming work in us and with us.
Congregations can get caught up in thinking our job is to take care of the clay jar instead of the treasure.Sometimes we think that the extraordinary power of the gospel begins with us.But Paul reminds us that the extraordinary power comes only from God.
Tonight, it seems to me that the church’s best hope for the future is to be broken open and made new if we want to be suitable vessels for the treasure.We need the potter — who created these clay jars to begin with — to reshape us and reclaim us. It is only in smashing our clay jars for the sake of Jesus that the power of the treasure can break loose in the world. Because that is the only treasure the world really needs – the power of Jesus in his generosity, forgiveness, hospitality and justice.
To borrow a brilliant phrase from Walter Bruggemann, — it is time for us to get smashed for Jesus.And tonight and tomorrow marks the beginning of our becoming unglued for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, remembering Paul’s words:
8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.
I invite your group to place the clay jar in the bag provided for you, and take turns striking the jar with the hammer.You can hit hard or softly.You may end up with only a few large pieces, or many shards.When everyone has had a turn, take out the fragments and lay them on the table.Then we will pray together.
Let us begin this task of breaking open our lives in the service of our God.
Let us build something new from the fragments of these broken times in our church and our world;
Let us cry out for those who have no voice;
Let us work with what we have,
to help bring healing, justice and mercy
to those whose lives are filled with fear and suffering;
and know that God is with us, even in the dark of doubt.
Here are the broken pieces, God.
We trust that you will use them to renew in us a right spirit.
And now, give us peace for the evening and good rest through the night.
May the peace of Christ comfort you.
May the love of God sustain you.
May the energy and orneriness of the Holy Spirit embolden you in all you do in the service of our Lord, Jesus Christ.