It’s probably no wonder that these words from Jeremiah spoke to me this week. It is good to be back here in worship with you all after being on a blessed maternity leave for the last 12 weeks. While I was away, in addition to introducing Margaret to life on earth and doing my best to simply keep her alive, I took the opportunity to worship at a number of different churches. It was a blessing in many ways, being able to worship God from the pews instead of from the pulpit, but at the same time it also left me longing to come back here to our worship, our community. It was an interesting feeling being away from the place to which I have been called, and while I was able to learn a lot of new things to bring back to us, it feels good to be home.
Margaret’s only been in our house for about 12 ½ weeks, but it’s already hard to remember what it was like before she was born. It’s been almost a year since we knew she was coming, but in a sense she’s been a part of us since even before that. Before she was forming in my womb, well before she was born, we knew we would want a third child to complete our family. She was a part of us before she was here; she was being planned for before she ever existed. We didn’t know who she would look like. We didn’t know what her personality would be. We didn’t know she would have Karoline’s reddish newborn hair or William’s huge, huge eyes. We didn’t know she would THANKFULLY sleep through the night as hard as her mom and dad, but before she was born, before she was formed in my womb, we knew she would be in our family.
“Before I formed you in your mother’s womb…” “Before you were born…” Yahweh, our God, spoke to Jeremiah. Before he was a presence on this earth, Jeremiah was already in God’s mind and heart. God was working together a particular set of gifts for a particular kind of ministry and, I like to imagine, just waiting for the right time and place to set them down in creation put together in just the right person. God claimed Jeremiah for ministry to the nations; it was a part of his life even before his beginning.
Christians point to this particular passage and this claim in some of our deepest deliberations and debates. God’s call to Jeremiah is cited in relation to issues as varied as abortion, predestination, human sexuality, and whether or not God has “a plan (including a particular vocation) for my life.” We regularly accept that the promise and claim of this call isn’t just for Jeremiah, but that it applies to any of us in our walk with Christ. What if, though, these words aren’t just for Jeremiah, and they aren’t just for each of us, but what if they are for ALL of us? Together. The church. This church.
Now the word of the LORD came to First Presbyterian Church in Hudson, Wisconsin saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Before you were a thought in the mind of the new founders of Hudson I knew you existed. Before you were born I consecrated you. Before you built even the old building downtown on 3rd Street I blessed you. I appointed you a prophet to the town, to the state, to the nations!" What does it mean for who we are and what we do that God has been here before us hoping for us to be here, too? And what is it we have been appointed to do?
Another thing I did this summer while on maternity leave is attend a large portion of the Presbyterian Church General Assembly. This is the biennial meeting of our largest Presbyterian governing body with voting delegates from all over the county, including Barb Van Loenen from this church. During the Assembly meetings they would periodically show videos that are shared on a website developed in response to an item of business at the last GA in 2008. The website is called “Deep and Wide” since the initiative is a commitment on the part of the entire denomination to help grow Christ’s church deep and wide through evangelism, discipleship, servanthood, and diversity. These were essentially some of the same goals we discerned as a congregation last spring in our visioning process together. Over and over again we talked about wanting to “go deeper” together in faith and knowledge of God. We talked about wanting to expand our congregation’s impact wider into our community and throughout the world, as well as expand the reach of our membership. Videos shared at GA and on the Deep and Wide website show the specific efforts of churches across our country to grow in these ways. I’d like to share two of these videos with you this week and next.
Find more videos like this on Deep and Wide
I believe the story of this first church sounds somewhat familiar to our own story from the recent past, but still has something to say to us as we move forward. I heard in the telling of their story two of the important steps they took as they discerned their way forward.
The first is one you will hear in every video on that website of churches in transformation. They prayed. The conversations that led them to new life weren’t just the conversations that happen around committee and session meeting tables. They were conversations with God. In order to find new life in their church, in order to offer life to others in their community and claim resurrection life for themselves, they had to deeper than a connection to the ones with whom they share life on earth. They had to strenghten their connection to the One from whom all life comes. They had to get in touch with God who formed them each in their mother’s wombs, the Spirit who sustained the congregation for well over a century, Christ who redeemed its life when the doors were about to close.
The second thing they did was pointed out by the narrator. Knowingly or unknowingly, they rediscovered their roots as a congregation. When they started in Oklahoma City in the 1800s, we were told, they were a church on the outskirts of town. They were a church ministering on the edge, where newcomers were arriving. They weren’t necessarily downtown in the hustle and bustle of city life, but instead were located where new growth was happening, helping to develop a spiritual community where a new community was being built.
Greystone Presbyterian Church found its life renewed when it got in touch with God AND God’s purpose and call to them. Before they were formed God knew they could address a particular need. Really God created them to do just that. Before Greystone was born or reborn, God blessed them with a purpose. They have found new life by doing what God has created them to do.
In the 9th grade I played in the Florida All-State Orchestra under the direction of a brilliant conductor and inspiring leader. On our last day of rehearsal, right before we began the last run through we would play of the William Tell Overture before our final concert, our conductor spoke to us about this experience. "Never again," he said, "will this moment exist. Never again will this orchestra play. Even if we had a reunion 10 years from now, some of you wouldn't come, and even those of you who did wouldn't be the same people. Never again will this exact orchestra be assembled to play this piece, so play it like you were made to play it."
The First Presbyterian Church of Hudson has been here for over 150 years. In looking back over our history, even to the earliest days of this city and this church, we might be able to discover some part of our purpose for today.
One piece of our history that is alive and well today is our commitment to working with other churches and traditions. In our earliest days we partnered with what is now the United Church of Christ congregation in Roberts, WI. Currently we have ecumenical partnerships with many congregations - First Baptist Church, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, and as of last Sunday Mt. Zion Lutheran Church in our NETworks youth ministry and many other churches in our participation in the Backpack Program, the SOURCE, and the Ecumenical Men's Breakfast.
Secondly, churches begin for a number of different reasons. Greystone, we heard, began as a Sunday Schook, a mission to the unchurched children on the outskirts of town. They church that grew into the Cathedral in St. Paul, MN, I understand, began as a Catholic mission to the Native Americans, not necessarily as a congregation of settlers in the area.
Our church, however, did begin as a church of newcomers to the area, although we were not the first church in Hudson. We formed when a group of people were looking for a different way of worshping, serving, and thinking about God's relationship with people - - not a better way or more correct way, but a different way. our church offered people a different way to think about and live their faith in Christ in a tradition that values personal discovery, discernment, and pondering of God's grace that takes place in community. Maybe that Spirit of question and journeying toward God in a supportive community is a purpose we need to reclaim as we move forward.
The faces in this congregation have changed year to year, and will continue to change as some saints pass into God's glory and new saints are born into our family or join us along the journey. But before we were formed in the womb God knew us. Before we were born into this time God consecrated us. We have been assembled in this way for God’s purpose. We have been appointed as a garden of welcome, to shelter, heal, nurture, and grow together toward God. No other church can fulfill the call God has given to us. Before our beginning this is what we were made to do. In Christ's name, let's serve like we were made to serve.