Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Philippians 2: 1-13
Thank you so much for the invitation to preach on this, your 284th anniversary! I bring greetings from our new Interim Conference Minister, Rev. Judith Youngman and from the 173 other congregations of the United Church of Christ in Southeastern Pennsylvania. We rejoice with you on this special day!
I am a happy to be here, and pleased to see many whom I remember with much fondness from the time when I served as your pastor. I am also pleased to see many new faces, people whom I do not yet know, folks who joined Old First since 2003. It is wonderful to know that Old First keeps growing and changing.
This past week your pastor and two lay leaders met with the Revitalization Team of the Conference. We reviewed what has been happening in your renewal efforts at Old First.
During the interview Pastor Michael mentioned that he and Rev. Kleis had been chatting recently, and Rev. Kleis shared his sense that there is definitely something new happening at Old First. “Old First is becoming something different.” However, neither Rev. Kleis nor Pastor Michael were able to define what the new thing is or how or why it is happening.
When I heard this comment, I thought, this is precisely how change takes place. Slowly and gradually, we get an inkling that things are different -–we’re not sure why, but we sense they are. God is at work and transformation happens. We don’t necessarily know the process, and WE certainly couldn’t make it happen, even if we tried.
In a little pamphlet titled, “Do We Need the Church?” written by one of the brothers of the Taize Community in France, Br. John writes: “Rather than transforming the world and eliminating evil by awe-inspiring deeds of power, the God of the Bible follows a road which is much more humble and discreet. [God] joins the human condition from below, so to speak, [God] enters into creation discreetly, not making too much noise and without violating the freedom of the actors, counting upon a slow transformation from within rather than precipitating a spectacular reversal of the situation.”
God enters from below…in a humble and discreet way. The comment of Rev. Kleis and the quote from Br. John seem to correspond with today’s Epistle reading. The Apostle Paul, writes from prison to his favorite church in the Greek city of Philippi. Paul wants to encourage this church. They are facing challenges from within and without -– internal dissent and external threat.
So, Paul, hoping to promote unity, gives the Philippians some advice: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…”.
There we have it! God’s way of working is to enter from below, humbly and discreetly. God is so good at doing this, that we do not know how it takes place.
My friends, how might a church today cooperate with God’s way of doing business? How might this church have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus? These are Paul’s instructions to the Philippians and to us. He encourages us to take on a servant ministry, to approach ministry the way Jesus did -– with a humble attitude.
Paul says that Christ willingly took the form of a slave. He could have grasped for equality with God, but Christ voluntarily emptied himself of his own ambition and became a slave. That doesn’t sound too appealing in today’s world where the rush is on to get ahead. What could Paul have meant?
Certainly the word “servant” makes this passage a little easier to digest. But whether we use servant or slave, both involve obedience. Both servant and slave are compelled to saying “yes” when asked to do something. “Yes” can be a very oppressive word when it is forced. But when it is said voluntarily, as Jesus did, “yes” can be a very powerful word.
I remember Ruth Painter, who years ago was very active in the Sunday School and Women in Mission. On many a Sunday, Ruth would look for people to help her. She would go around asking people to volunteer for many small jobs. Ruth once confided in me that people seemed surprised to be asked to help. Sometimes they even said “no.” But Ruth’s opinion was that’s what we are here for. As Christians we are obliged to say, “I’d be glad to!” even on Sunday morning.
I believe that “yes” is a word which defines Old First’s history especially during the last 50 years. I think I can go back that far. Over these years, Old First has been asked to do some pretty amazing things. Over and over again, people and groups from outside the church came with challenging requests. Because Old First’s leaders and congregation were willing to take risks and try new things, God worked with and through this congregation to do pretty remarkable things.
I did not intend to recount old stories today, but I changed my mind last week. That’s when I read in the UCC Still-Speaking on-line devotions, the words of Native American author Leslie Silko, who writes: “I will tell you something about stories….They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death. You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories.”
That’s when I thought, I do know a lot of stories about Old First. Some of them might be helpful to those of you who have come in more recent years, and maybe those who been around for a while might benefit from remembering too.
So here are some stories…stories of a servant church that has attempted to be obedient to the mind of Christ, stories of a church that said “yes” time and time again, stories of the remarkable difference that “yes” can make in the lives of people.
The story I know best, because I heard it often from senior members of this congregation, was the request that came from the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Philadelphia. The Redevelopment Authority wanted to know if Old First was interested in doing something with their old building that had been the Lucas Paint Company for about 80 years. The Redevelopment Authority had plans for this Old City neighborhood, and they needed help.
What a daunting task to uproot the church from its West Philadelphia neighborhood and come back to this part of the City which was pretty run-down at the time. That was before all the apartments and condos of today. For several years, this corner was a construction zone, and I am told that the congregation in those early years had to climb though a window to attend worship which was held in the Social Hall.
I also learned that some people voted “no.” They did not want to come downtown to 4th and Race Sts. Though the majority voted “yes,” some people were opposed to the idea. Yet, when it came time to move, the “no” people came along, and in the end turned their “no” into a “yes.”
These pioneers worked to restore this building, even providing personal loans to finance the re-construction and sweat equity to finish the restoration. The church was very important to those who made the move back to 4th and Race. They were invested in this place. By and large, they felt their lives had meaning, not through what they did as individuals, but through what they were able to do collectively through this church.
During my first year as pastor of Old First, Sr. Mary Scullion and Sr. Claire Scrant, both Sisters of Mercy, asked if the church would open its doors to homeless people living in Center City. You see, Old First did not come up with the idea of starting a shelter. The idea came to us.
The “yes” response of the leaders was pretty impressive. Remember, the leaders at the time were the same people who had invested themselves in restoring the church. I thought they would want to close it up and keep it for themselves. But they said “yes” because they believed that they were here, not for themselves, but to serve the community. That decision proved pivotal for Old First’s future.
In the mid 1980s Old First was a place where activists gathered to express their concern about what was happening in Central America, especially in El Salvador and Nicaragua. We hosted many meetings, some of them, we later learned, had been infiltrated by undercover detectives who provoked civil disobedience in unsuspecting protestors. There was a famous court case, exposing this action and exonerating the people who had been arrested because of their illegal action.
One of the speakers I especially remember from those years was Henri Nouwen, who had just returned from living in Central America. This sanctuary was packed the night he spoke. He was the first one to arrive and the last one to leave that evening. He remarked what a friendly feeling he felt here.
Other Catholic activists met in the church. In the early 1990s, Daniel and Phillip Berrigan stayed for several days to attend a trial for a Plowshares group at the Federal Building. Because several diocesan priests had been arrested in this Plowshare action and nuclear weapons had been destroyed, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia would not allow these priests to enter any Roman Catholic church in the City. So the group came here.
Then there were funerals–for homeless women, often referred by Women of Hope, and for gay men who had died of AIDS, referred by Pennsylvania Hospital. Those were the days when people were afraid to talk about AIDS. It was even difficult to find funeral directors who embalm the body of a person who had died with AIDS. One of these funerals was for our own organist, John Bertolette. I remember how choir members carried him up the stairs to the balcony so he could play the organ during worship those final weeks before he died. It wasn’t easy to be in the choir and watch John deteriorate.
At that time we had four paid soloists in the choir. One of them came to me to asking that John be let go. I consulted with a few choir members and discovered that they were committed to sing with John over the long haul. So I told this soloist “no.” This was an example of a little “no” serving a bigger “yes.” Instead, we embraced John’s family who had learned just a few weeks earlier that their son had AIDS. We had the funeral here. The Bertolette Music Fund was created in memory of him.
I haven’t shared any stories from the shelter. They are too numerous to mention. There was always one drama or another going on. The one which sticks out most in my memory was the time when two of the residents tried to burn down the church. These two had been thrown out of the shelter because they had been fighting, so in retaliation, they returned to damage the church building.
I was sure that the trustees would close the shelter, but they repaired the side of the church where the fire had started…and the shelter kept going. Actually out of that incident, regular prayer meetings with the men of the shelter began. They knocked on my door and asked me to pray with them.
Another exciting story happened in 2002 when the Republican National Convention was held in Philadelphia. There was an alternative convention in West Philadelphia and various gatherings around the City. A Press Conference on the Death Penalty (isn’t that timely topic?) was scheduled, but at the last minute the church where it was to be held got nervous and cancelled.
So the day of the event, we were asked to host the controversial gathering. The Conference, held in the Social Hall, was limited to the press, but a whole crowd of people wanted to enter the building. High profile people such as Jesse Jackson and the sons of the Rosenbergs, were on the panel. I assigned Julie Steiner, to stand at the front door allowing only folk with press passes to enter. There was a pro-death penalty demonstration going on outside in the courtyard. The whole area was on high alert that afternoon.
The ONA vote in 1994 was a uncertain moment for this church. We were not sure how the vote would turn out. Though we had had several educational seminars and even home meetings, we felt that people who were opposed had not attended. We could not sense the underlying feelings of many members of the congregation. We had several “out” gay men and lesbian women who had been leaders of the congregation for years, and even a transgendered woman who headed up Women in Mission for a time. But we were not sure how the secret ballot vote would turn out. As you know the ONA vote was a “yes.”
Last Sunday you also had a vote. I was not surprised to learn that it was a unanimous “yes” to become a founding congregation of POWER, the faith-base community organizing group kicking off its founding convention this afternoon. This is the Old First!
God continues to work with this congregation, by sending new people and ideas, and sometime even outrageous requests and needs. Starting from almost nothing in human terms, God works from within by a hidden power, and slowly things begin to change, we know not how.
You cannot possibly know the life-changing impact this church has made on thousands of people who have been touched because you said “yes” to God’s call. Many times when I am with gatherings of church folk, invariably someone comes up and recalls a time when they brought a group to Old First. They always add what a lasting impact that experience was for their youth.
What more can I say? Happy Anniversary, Old First. May you have many more years of saying “yes,” and being led into new ventures for the sake of the Gospel.
Preached by the Rev. Geneva M. Butz, Old First’s former pastor.