The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE GROWN-UP CHURCH

Delivered 2/1/98
Text: I Corinthians 13 (Jeremiah 1:4-10)
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Happy birthday to us, Happy birthday to us, Happy birthday, St. Paul... Oh, I know it is a bit early, but you know me and that song. [Dr. Leininger's practice is to call church members on their birthday and sing to them.] This is Birthday month at St. Paul - we turn the big FOUR-OH. I am not sure what that signifies, but something, no doubt.

Of course, the idea of a Presbyterian church in this neighborhood is MORE than 40 years old. Sometime in 1956, a local milk man, Murdock Brown, took note of the explosive growth in the area - new homes going up everywhere on land that was formerly farmed.(1) He took the idea to his pastor and session at Glenwood Presbyterian Church, and the wheels were set in motion. The following year a Sunday School was established at Murphey School. Worship services began that summer with the leadership of a seminary intern. By February of the following year, the new work was ready to be organized as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (US), and the service making everything official was held at Glenwood church on the afternoon of October 23, 1958.

The next step was the calling of a pastor. A pulpit Committee was formed - seven men (including Herb Reese and John Perkins [two members still active]). Apparently, some sesquicentennial celebration was in progress at the time, so all the men sported beards. These hirsute wonders made their way down to Wrightsville Beach and talked with Jerry McCann about becoming the organizing pastor of this new work. What does one say to a strange collection of hairy men? Well, the rest, as they say, is history.

Presbyterians do not believe in accidents. We do not believe it was an "accident" that Murdock Brown came up with the idea of a new church here. We do not believe it was an accident that Glenwood church took on the challenge. We do not believe it was an accident that Jerry and Nan found their way to Greensboro. We do not believe it is an accident that we are here together, some 40 years later. We read the passage in that first chapter of Jeremiah and hear God say, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you." Presbyterians believe that God's call to Jeremiah, God's affirmation that the call is more than human wish or whim, is repeated over and over and over again - to individuals, in calls to specific ministries; to groups in the establishment of new works. We are here - you and I together - 40 years after the fact, because God chose us to be here. God still has work for us to do.

The work is somewhat different now. The community has changed. Instead of young families moving in day by day, we have stable neighborhoods without the joyous explosion of growth. Homes that once teemed with children are now left to grandparents and their memories, or more transient families without local ties. A church to which everyone flocked because it was the center of community activity, now finds itself one of a half dozen churches within a stone's throw of each other, all competing to attract the same folks. Instead of an era in which attendance at church and Sunday School was the highest in American history, we live in a time when church participation is on the decline and the hemorrhage of members from mainline churches has been attracting national attention for more than a generation. In 1958, Hillsborough Park was a "field of dreams" for a new church - "If you build it, they will come." In 1998, things have changed.

How do we deal with the changes? To be truthful some would rather not. The old joke about how many Presbyterians it takes to change a lightbulb..."CHANGE??? We can't change that; my grandmother gave it!"...is apt. Change is uncomfortable.

I was talking with my son the other night about all the decisions that are facing him as a High School Senior. He has major choices facing him that will effect the rest of his life. Where to go to school? What major? What scholarship opportunities? What commitments? It is almost unfair to ask someone so young and with so little real experience in life to choose between options that will largely determine his future. He wisely said, "I wish I could stay a kid for just a little while longer." I know. But...

By the same token, we might wish that things were the same around St. Paul as they were during the days of the congregation's youth. But they are not. And if we wonder about the implications of that, we are blessed by an intriguing juxtaposition in our lectionary readings - Jeremiah, chapter 1 and 1st Corinthians, chapter 13 appear together. The Jeremiah passage is the account of the prophet's call to preach - the young lad protests that he is too young for the task (and, no doubt, expresses the unspoken wish that he could stay a kid for just a bit longer), God's promise of divine protection, and, not only that, God's promise of a message: "I have put my words in your mouth." We hear that and warmly hark back to our own call as a congregational "youngster" in 1958. But it is now 1998. We wonder about our call today. What words is God putting in our collective mouth? Suddenly, we hear the second lesson:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

"The tongues of mortals and angels"...yes, there has been 40 years of preaching from this pulpit. "Prophetic powers, mystery, knowledge"...yes, there has been 40 years of Bible study, of digging into the mysteries of the faith. "Give away all my possessions"...yes, there is a 40-year tradition of generosity and sharing at St. Paul that certainly continues today that would be the envy of any congregation. But we hear the emphasis of the lesson: all that is worthless without a spirit of love behind it. Please be clear here - I am NOT saying that all these good things have happened in our history, and they will be even better in the future if we add LOVE into the mix. NO! These things HAVE been accompanied with love, but the reminder of St. Paul, the Apostle, TO St. Paul, the Presbyterians, is make sure that love is at the forefront of our ministry.

Here Paul explains what he means. Love is not some warm-fuzzy feeling. Love means some very practical things:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

No sentimental journey there. This is where the rubber meets the road. Yes, this passage is read over and over again at weddings, but not because it's subject is related to romance. "Love is patient," even when he leaves his dirty socks in the middle of the floor after you have asked him gently to pick them up ten previous times. "Love is kind" even when the dinner she cooks for you would be top-rated in the annals of heartburn history. "Love is not envious" when she gets a raise and you don't. This list goes on and on. Practical stuff. And if husbands and wives routinely treated each other like this, we would not see one out of two marriages ending in divorce.

Do you want a good gauge of how YOU measure up to this high standard? Substitute your own name at the appropriate places in the list, then listen carefully to see if the passage rings true.

"David is patient; David is kind; David is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. David does not insist on his own way; David is not irritable or resentful..." Get the idea? Does that sound like you? Is there some work to do? Probably.

Now Paul explains the importance of what this emphasis is. And remember he is writing to a church that has had its ups and downs. These folks in Corinth had more problems as a congregation than any you or I have ever encountered. To be honest, if it were not for the fact that the church belonged to the Lord and NOT those people, it would have folded long before Paul ever wrote. Here he makes an intriguing statement: "Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end." Do you hear what he is saying? He is pooh-poohing religion! That's right. Religion...or at least our human expressions thereof. Good for him. Some of the meanest behaviors the world has ever seen are over religion: the crusades, the inquisition, Northern Ireland, the Middle East. Congregations are torn apart because people want to fight about theological details. We still do it. Mark Twain said we have "made a graveyard of the globe in trying to ease our brother's way to happiness and heaven." Paul says STOP IT! Please! GROW UP!!!

"When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways." What the Apostle is offering is no less than a religion for a "grown-up" church. Even a church that does not see as clearly as it once did (give me those bifocals): "Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." Mature. Seasoned. Grown-up. The Corinthian congregation does not qualify as of this writing. Perhaps St. Paul Presbyterian does.

Would you like to grow again as you did 40 years ago? It will not happen by simply opening the doors. It WILL happen when people see a warm and winsome fellowship of people who understand Christian love, and treat one another according to that standard. When folks see that, and find that they are welcome to join in and experience that love for themselves, the growth begins.

Let me tell you a story.(2) A family is out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon, and they relax at a leisurely pace down the highway. Suddenly, the two children begin to beat their father in the back: "Daddy, Daddy, stop the car! Stop the car! There's a kitten back there on the side of the road!"

The father says, "So, there's a kitten on the side of the road. We're having a drive."

"But, Daddy, we've got to stop and pick it up."

"No, we don't."

"But, Daddy, if we don't, it will die!"

"Well, then, it will just have to die. We don't have room for another animal. Our house is a zoo already. No more animals."

"But Daddy, are you just going to let it die?"

"Be quiet, Kids, let's just have a pleasant drive."

"We never thought our father would be so mean and cruel as to let a helpless little kitty die."

Finally, the mother turns to her husband and says, "Dear, we are going to have to stop."

So, reluctantly, Dad turns the car around, returns to the spot and pulls the car off the road. "You kids stay in the car. I'll see about it." He gets out to pick up the little kitten.

The poor creature is just skin and bones, sore-eyed and full of fleas; but when Dad reaches down to pick it up, with its last bit of energy, the little kitten bristles, baring tooth and claw. Ssst! He picks the kitten up by the loose skin of the neck, brings it over to the car and says, "Don't touch it; it's probably got leprosy." Back home they go.

When they get to the house, the children give the kitten several baths, about a gallon of warm milk, and intercede, "Can we let it stay in the house just tonight, please, please, please? Tomorrow we'll fix a place in the garage."

The father says, "Sure, take my bedroom; the whole house is already a menagerie." They fix a comfortable bed, fit for a pharoah.

Several weeks pass. One day the father walks in, feels something rub against his leg, looks down, and there is the cat. He reaches down toward it. When the cat sees his hand, it doesn't bare its claws and hiss; instead it arches its back to receive a caress. Is that the same cat? Is it? No, it is NOT the same as that frightened, hurt, hissing kitten on the side of the road. Of course not. And you know as well as I what has made the difference.

"And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love." Let us remember that for the NEXT 40 years. Then we will truly be a GROWN-UP CHURCH.

Amen!


1. Historical information comes from Louise Tuttle Roberts, A 30 Year History of the St. Paul Presbyterian Church, unpublished.

2. Fred Craddock, "Praying Through Clenched Teeth," in The Twentieth Century Pulpit, Vol. II, James Cox, Ed., (Nashville, Abingdon, 1981), pp. 51-52

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