If Google searches are an indication of our interests and pursuits, a recent poll of Clevelanders reveals that we prefer mustard over ketchup, Ford over Chevy, Lady Gaga over Katy Perry, and the Cleveland Browns over just about anything else! (Interestingly, citizens of Pittsburgh search “bail” and “depression” at a higher rate than Clevelanders. . .but also “fitness.”) And by a whopping 76 %, we prefer “church” over “casino.” Whew! I don’t know what you make of it, but houses of worship remain visible in our cultural landscape, and sought after—by those seeking spiritual nurture, a sense of connection and community with others, specific programs or ministries, or perhaps a combination of these. Of course, some of us are here without ever having Googled “spectacular church in Cleveland Heights.” You might enjoy asking the ten new members being welcomed into our congregation today how they got here. You might ask yourself the same question. What brought you here? Why do you stay? What does Fairmount possess or offer that engages you? Important considerations for a day when we are also dedicating our 2011 financial stewardship commitments. These gifts are given in gratitude to God, for all God has entrusted to us, but in a real way they also represent our investment in an enterprise called Fairmount Presbyterian Church.
The morning gospel reading addresses these questions by way of warning. Life is fleeting and impermanent. Violence and tragedy strike without warning. Even the most venerable institutions are not immune from the ravages of time and tide. What we invest in—and how we steward that investment—matter. The text sounds a note of urgency. It is late in Jesus’ earthly ministry. He has healed the sick and fed the hungry, and announced the inauguration of God’s Realm “on earth as it is in heaven.” He has earned both admiration and jealousy and seems headed for confrontation with religious and civil authorities. Now he and his disciples have come to the great temple in Jerusalem, jewel in King Herod’s architectural crown. To see it in our mind’s eye, we have to understand how it had been rebuilt and then renovated and enlarged to become a mighty and magnificent structure. The imported white marble made it stand out from surrounding ordinary stone buildings—it shimmered with light and the glory of the Israelites’ God. The Jerusalem Temple reigned without a rival as the heart of Judaism, the very house of God. Barely a generation later—in 70 CE– it would be utterly destroyed by the Romans. Listen for God’s Word to the Church in the reading from the gospel of Luke, in the twenty-first chapter at the fifth verse. [LUKE 21:5-19]
I can see why this text has provided grist for those who understand cataclysmic historical and natural events as omens of The End. In every era, believers of this kind have linked specific wars, earthquakes and tsunamis, and cultural phenomena to God’s judgment on a sinful world and the fulfillment of its destiny. The message is clear: get right with God NOW while you still have the chance.
While we do well to live every day aware of life’s brevity and our relationship to Transcendent Truth, Reformed theology and biblical scholarship have taken a different approach to this understanding and to this particular Scripture passage. Rather than painting a picture of The End of the World, biblical scholars believe these verses vividly and accurately describe the events leading up to the The End of the Jerusalem Temple—events which included persecution of the fledgling Christian faith coupled with civil unrest and rebellion which would be put down violently by Rome. From troubling and threatening times, the gospel writer calls for endurance and faith.
The power of this call is found in so much more than doomsday predictions! Jesus’ ministry was about investing in things that last, in creating permanent good rather than transient glory. For disciples then and now, this text begs the question: what are we building?
Well, one thing should be obvious: not a building! Bricks and mortar can all be thrown down, not to mention deteriorate, leak, cave in and wear out. The mission of Christ’s Church is a spiritual, not physical enterprise. But hold on! If that’s the case, why do we care about our church’s design and architecture? Why not go for the simplest, most energy-efficient, functional space we can find? Some churches simply rent a public hall, sports arena, or auditorium with comfortable theater seating instead of pews.
Our building witnesses to who we are and what we believe. Touching every corner of Fairmount are the fingerprints of our forebears who wanted to praise the living God through art and music and architecture. They wanted vaulted ceilings that would raise our view on high, stained glass windows, sculpture and carving and artistic elements; they wanted the reverberations of pipe organs. They wanted plenty of space for learning and for socializing. For more than 95 years, a Fairmount church building has stood on this corner of Cleveland Heights, testifying to God but also testifying to a congregation that seeks to offer its best in service to God. The perspective of 19th century poet and journalist Heinrich Heine seems even more relevant today, as he once remarked ruefully “People in those old times had convictions; we moderns only have opinions. And it takes more than mere opinion to build a Gothic cathedral.” Friends, this building is not our mission, but it points to a mission that is more than a passing trend, one that will stand longer than the fifteen minutes of fame granted to the latest fads and popular movements. Our building provides an invaluable instrument by which to carry out a dynamic ministry appropriate to this place and time, in service to a timeless mission. I’m grateful to the task force at work right now, envisioning ways our beautiful but aging building can do so more effectively.
It isn’t easy! Though we do not face persecution, imprisonment, or capital punishment for being Christian as the early Church did, challenges abound in this postmodern, post-denominational, post-institutional era. “Pity the Poor Mainline” was the headline of an article I saw recently describing the declines in membership and influence. The death-knell may be a little premature. While it’s true the times in which we live and minister call us to be smarter, more technologically savvy, more economical than ever before, it’s also true that the needs of people for connection with God and community with one another have never been greater. The frantic pace of our lives, the exponential explosion of knowledge, the insecurity ignited by terrorism, the global reach of economic and environmental issues—all these and more affect the ways the Church carries out its mission.
Just don’t write it off as irrelevant. Now more than ever, the world needs the Church as a light by which to navigate a rugged way, a witness to enduring foundations in a sea of change, and an authentic community in the face of too much virtual reality. I was struck recently by an example of the evolving way we provide that. For many years, Fairmount hosted a bazaar to raise money for missions. Women’s Guild members worked for months doing fine needlework and handcrafts and selling their famous peanut brittle. One whole room was dedicated to see gently used housewares, artwork and jewelry. Gradually over time, the bazaar lost energy. There weren’t as many Guild members interested in the effort, at least as it had always been done. But by then, Fairmount had begun learning about Fair Trade products and how they benefited the people who produced them. We started using Fair Trade coffee at coffee hours and making it available for sale. One member got the idea of connecting us with the growing fair trade market, and the Fair Trade Festival was born. On Friday night, members and community folk gathered in Andersen Hall to shop from eight Fair Trade vendors and enjoy fellowship together over a delicious home-cooked meal. Children purchased special gifts for parents in the “Shepherd Shop.” In one fell swoop, our community supported economic development benefiting people in Cleveland and the world, had fun together —- and stocked up on the Guild’s peanut brittle, which was also available!
More and more we’re working in partnership to accomplish Christ’s mission, collaborating with our presbytery and the broader interfaith community, non-profits and business groups to do ministry in the City. In the course of any given week, you will find our building open and teeming with activity, as we share our space with Meals-on-Wheels, four different 12-step groups, Case Western Reserve University’s community learning classes, as well as weekly yoga and our own small group ministries. CityMusic Cleveland rehearses here for its concerts aimed at taking superior classical music into underserved areas. At an interfaith gathering not long ago, Cleveland Heights Mayor Ed Kelley gave a shout out to Fairmount for its vision and perseverance in creating Heights Youth Club, now serving over 500 school-aged children and youth.
Ministry like this requires commitment, an investment of time and money and a whole lot of love. In all those enterprises we are seeking to build by the grace of God a community of faith, worshiping and serving and touching lives. Evidence of what we are building can be found in the simple exclamation of a five-year-old child who along with his parents served at North Church last Sunday. Was it the meal shared with people, many of whom are homeless? Was it the hour-and-a-half worship service, punctuated by exuberant singing, clapping, and testifying? Was it the smiles of gratitude and welcome enveloping everyone that prompted Sam to say: “I feel Jesus in my heart.” You know that statement on charitable giving forms required by the IRS—the one that says “No tangible goods or services were received for this contribution”? It’s true. The Church uses tangible resources to produce intangible good.
Jesus’ words so long ago may have referred to a particular crisis, but they resonate in every time, including ours. In contrast to the news, despite change and chance, amid woes and wonders, one truth remains. The future is in God’s hands. And God holds us in that future. That sure reality makes it possible to hang in with our times, to hang in with each other. Our reformed theological tradition calls it “the perseverance of the saints”—a strength born of hope, not in ourselves but in the One who will keep us from falling. The One who will help us stand and withstand. The One who calls us toward a flourishing future.
What are we building? Maybe nothing more—but nothing less—than a place for endurance training. A place to practice faith, a place to grow as followers of Jesus, a place and a people where hope thrives. You know, you gotta love Clevelanders. LeBron left, the Indians tanked, but you know what the fastest spike in local Google searches is? Can you text “Super Bowl”???!!!
With all God has entrusted to us, let us invest in a winning future yet unseen. By our endurance we will gain our souls. Amen.