I remember it well.
It was sometime in June, 2007, and it was my first Summer mission trip
with the youth group of the last church I was serving,
Southminster Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village.
We packed up a couple of 12 passenger vans
with sleeping bags and gear and kids—including Meg Swagerty
and Hannah too, I think
and we drove from Kansas City to
John Calvin Presbyterian Church in Metarie, Louisiana,
a suburb of New Orleans
where we unloaded the sleeping bags and gear and kids
and got ready for a week of mucking out
and demolition in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
And we got there,
and we sat in a big circle for orientation
and they talked to us about the storm and its aftermath
the things we might expect to see as we drove through the city
not just the cleaned up parts prioritized for tourists
but the lower wards, where there might just be one or two
residents who had stayed on an entire city block
and the FEMA trailers and the flood lines marking how high
the waters came.
They told us how to wear the special respirators to protect us from the mold
and how to avoid stepping through a nail and how to not be under a ceiling
when swinging a sledgehammer.
You know, good things to tell 7 through 12th graders.
We did that for about an hour.
And then they stood up, and handed out our shirts:
Blue Shirts, with the words “Presbyterian Disaster Assistance” on the front
and the motto, or maybe you’d call it a tagline,
of the group on the back:
Out of Chaos: Hope.
It was my first blue PDA shirt.
Out of Chaos: Hope.
We wore it with some pride and, truth be told, with a lot of humility,
as we drove though desolate, empty city streets to our worksite
and talked to families
and destroyed the insides of their homes
so that they could be rebuilt.
This was not quite two years after the hurricane,
the start of what they had anticipated being at least a ten to fifteen year effort
that is still ongoing today.
There was a lot of worry on the streets of New Orleans in the summer of 2007
A lot of hurt.
A lot of heartache.
Many who could, left.
Many who stayed couldn’t afford to leave
or had trouble navigating the red-tape to get help.
Groups like ours and those of other relief agencies—
–churchy types and secular alike—
were among the few people on the ground
“moving the needle,” making a difference
helping to give residents maybe their first
opportunity to see what the future might look like.
It was rather awe-inducing work.
But I am so happy that we were there.
That motto, Out of Chaos, Hope,
is a pretty accurate description of what we were doing, it turns out.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance talks about the need to stand in the breach
to be there when some major problem hits
and to offer real, tangible aid
Food, water, medicine
but not just that, long term assistance
often after the first responders are gone
and so, home demo and repair
connecting people to loved ones.
And for a week, our kids got to be a part of it.
Out of Chaos: Hope.
You might use other words there:
Out of disaster
Out of despair
Out of danger
Out of fear
Out of heartache
Out of destruction
Out of desolation
Out of emptiness
Out of anger
Out of worthlessness
Out of enmity: hope!
It was, as the kids said on the way home, pretty cool.
This week the Kansas City Star profiled the newly remodeled
Linwood Area Ministry Place, something we’ve been calling the LAMP project.[i]
Its an impressive structure on the corner of 71 Highway and Linwood Boulevard.
Linwood Presbyterian Church was built in 1923 during the height of Christendom
and was, in its heyday, by all accounts, a thriving congregation.
They kept building, mainly to take care of its growing membership
but, moreso, to serve their community.
During the great depression, for example,
the three story education wing next to the sanctuary
opened as a convelescant home for poor and working women.
They served the hungry and the hurting, that church, for generations,
until the highways came and the city changed
and the congregation dwindled and eventually closed up shop in the 1970s
selling the property and heading off to other churches.
That community, the Ivanhoe neighborhood, struggled during that time as well
with higher than average rates of poverty, food insecurity,
health concerns, and crime.
It sat there, that building, rotting and boarded up, for some twenty years
until the Presbyterians in the area, with financial and practical support
from good people like you,
bought the church back in 1995.
It took some time.
People had to dream, and hold meetings, and more meetings, and still more meetings,
and stress over leaking roofs and vandalism in a dilapidated building.
The presbytery moved its offices into that education wing
and they began making relationships with people in the neighborhood
hosting support groups and offering space for community organizations.
They tried four separate times to work up a plan for that space, and failed each time.
But on Sunday, November 1st of this year,
not only did the Royals win the World Series
a feat in beyond measure, to be sure,
but also, less noticed but probably more consequential
the LAMP space was rededicated
after a 10 million dollar renovation project was completed.
The building now is home to ReDiscover,
an organization that provides mental health and substance abuse services
to area residents on an outpatient basis.
The Front Porch Alliance is there,
a non profit dedicated to building youth leadership
and connecting families to the neighborhoods they’re in.
Connecting for Good is the latest tenant,
relocating to a larger computer center space
to help bridge the digital divide in the urban core.
The Future Leaders Outreach Network, serving at-risk youths,
is in the building with the Heartland Presbytery.
And more groups are expected to follow,
making that corner of Kansas City a powerful, nonprofit center
for positive change in a long-neglected part of town.
No blue t-shirts, alas,
but so very impressive, bringing hope to a hurting people.
We did that, my friends: standing in the breach
affirming through our actions and our commitments that love will win.
I was reflecting on these this morning, getting ready for worship.
Presbyterians are people who go and serve,
who are so motivated by the crazy, wild, prodigal gifts of their God
that they are willing to endure 18 hour car rides with
a van of teen agers
or twenty years of stress and strain and doubt and uncertainty
all for the sake of trying to make a difference.
Surely, it would be easier staying home playing video games
or watching Seinfeld reruns, wouldn’t it?
It would be a lot less worrisome, so much less exhausting
sleeping in on Sunday morning, not fighting with the kids to get here.
But this is what Presbyterians do.
We pray. We study.
We share coffee and cookies and laughter and stories.
We worship so we can orient ourselves to God.
And we go serve. We go out into the world
bearing the gifts God has given us
so that others might live stronger, safer
more just, more whole lives.
And, trust me, I had a pile of stories I thought about bringing out.
You’ll probably thank me later for not having a two hour sermon:
Historical Stories: of hospitals and schools built by faithful Presbyterians
National Stories: of multi-ethnic worshiping communities
that I got to meet last year among immigrants in Atlanta
or of really exciting summer programs I saw this year
helping inner-city Philadelphia kids
get a leg up.
Or, better, our stories:
like Friday, when Cathy and Elizabeth and Nora and Tessa and I
took some desert you all made
to the teachers at Center Elementary School
for teacher appreciation day
part of our all-year-long effort
to support that school
and its kids and their families.
This is what we do. This is what we are all about.
And as I was thinking this morning
about horrible things happening in Paris and Beirut and Baghdad
and this stressful, anguished, messed up world of ours
I’ve never been more convinced of our importance as a church.
As a congregation.
People like you and me, standing in the breach, sharing a word of Hope out of Chaos.
Offering an example of a religious faith that isn’t hateful or judgmental or harmful,
but one that inspires people to their best, to be their best, to love their best,
because God gave us God’s best in Jesus.
If we don’t do it, who is going to do it?
So today is pledge dedication Sunday at the Kirk
a day where we look to the future
celebrating our community and the opportunity God gives us
to be a family together in this space.
A group mindful of the ties that bind us together
but, always, always seeking to invite, to welcome, to open our arms
so that others can not just feel invited or welcomed
but might also feel like they belong too.
This passage from Jeremiah is impressive in a number of ways,
and we’ve had a chance to go through some of it
but today I want to note, in particular,
how Jeremiah is inviting the exiled community
to love the city where they are.
That’s a rather bold and hard saying.
To this people who have been wronged,
hurt, beaten, persecuted
dragged away from all their memories and their synagogues
to this people, God says: love the city where you are in exile.
Not just that: but build houses, plant gardens, let your children fall in love with them
and build families of their own.
In its welfare, you will find your welfare.
In giving of yourself, you will find me.
By refusing to close your heart and your mind to these….other people
you will find me, and you will be brought back to me.
If God didn’t tell us to do it, I’m not sure we would even consider it.
It really is an amazing passage.
Bold. Almost audacious.
But in such an orientation, such a posture of the heart: there is life.
There is love.
There is hope.
And throughout it all, God promises a future, a hopeful future, a Godly future…
Today, we claim that future as our own.
We do this every year on Stewardship Dedication Sunday:
a time of thanksgiving for God’s amazing promises
a time of commitment for our life together as God’s people
a time of focus for what we are all about.
We are dedicating ourselves to be God’s people,
community minded, loving and serving,
for at least another year
but really for however long God has use for us.
We are committing ourselves to love the people God gives us to love,
right here, right now,
to make this community a better place.
Maybe its fitting to end our Stewardship Season with these beloved words of Paul.
Paul, maybe better than any of the other biblical writers
knew that Love and Hope are intimately connected.
Love that cares deeply about the well being of the other person.
A future with hope is good, Paul would say,
but any endeavor, ANY endeavor
for it to be of God
has to be rooted in love:
I can be right: but if I have love, it doesn’t matter.
I can be the most faithful, so as to move mountains, but without love: I’m nothing.
I can be the most dedicated to serving others,
can give away all my stuff, my things, my money
but if I don’t do it out of love: I gain nothing.
Bearing, believing, enduring, HOPEFUL love.
It says it right there: “It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.”
That love never ends, says Paul.
That love NEVER ends.
I get almost tingly thinking about it.
And lest you think that we’re talking about some utopic, pie-in-the-sky
unrealistic gobblygook that only little kids think is possible:
just look at what we do when we’re motivated by that love!
Just look at the people, standing in the breach of hurricane, flood, or mass shooting.
Just look at the good that’s done, when a people refuse to leave
a blighted neighborhood
Just experience a hug at Center Elementary school
or a handshake at Grace Community Ministries
or a smile at Cherith Brook
Just see what warm hearted people do
when they stand up for the rights and the humanity of others
who have it denied them day after day.
Talk about a future with hope.
Talk about something pretty amazing to be a part of.
Talk about what our future Kirk can look forward to:
a place where faith, hope, and love can abide together
in all we say, and do, and become.
Our future, as a Kirk, will depend on our joining in with others to make this a reality
because this is Kingdom of God work
and that is the only work that matters, the only work that will last.
May we, my friends,
hear God’s welcome
respond to Christ’s calling
and go and serve with the Holy Spirit’s energy
as we walk this wonderful, challenging, meaningful walk with Jesus
today, tomorrow, and forever.
May it be so.
Image from a later Southminster Youth Group work trip, also with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance