Genesis 1:1–2a and Matthew 28:11–20
Something you don’t know about Molly Williams and her family is that they helped to form a new faith community in their old hometown of Warner Robins, GA. First Presbyterian Church in Warner Robins is set in middle Georgia. Most of its members are up in age. It’s a dwindling congregation by now, but in 2008, they identified that there was a growing population of young adults in Warner Robins who were not participating in the life of organized churches in town. They determined to do some outreach and see what a difference they could make. The Session approved for their part-time youth and young adult pastor to spend time in coffee shops as a way to meet the young people in the community. After a while, the pastor decided that she preferred the coffee shop to her church office. She thought to herself, “This is a good place for me to be a pastor — wouldn’t it be cool if the church were more like this?”
The good folks of First Presbyterian Church agreed. Following a two year period of discernment and planning, they divided their $400,000 endowment in half, and in 2010 they launched Bare Bulb Coffee Shop. Their act of sacrificial giving was grounded in their confidence that the Holy Spirit has some work to do in Warner Robins. The youth and young adult pastor became Head Percolator of the coffee shop, a handful of First Presbyterian Church members followed – including Steph and Brett Williams and their girls. A new community of faith was formed.
Bare Bulb Coffee Shop is a community of faith that seeks the light of Jesus Christ, striving to know and to follow Jesus. They welcome questions and interfaith dialogue, and extend open hospitality. They do their best to shed a little light of Christ by serving others, being good neighbors, and simply trying to be decent and compassionate human beings. Results follow: a goal to collect 50 blankets in 50 days was met within a week; determination to help economically disadvantaged children in an area school led the group to stuff 24 backpacks.
From a quick conversation outside, you might think Bare Bulb is like any other progressive Christian church. Here’s a twist. Worship is integrated into the coffee shop environment on Sunday evenings. You will see elements of liturgy, but not an order of worship one associates with a mainstream protestant church. There’s this thing called Open Table, where everyone from all points along her faith journey, the young to oldest, has a voice. This is where 7-year old Molly Williams was heard most boldly, with the oldest participants of Bare Bulb recalling her keen insights and uncanny wisdom to this day.
So, here’s the good news: When Jesus gives us the Great Commission to go into the world, baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, he just might be telling us to stop for a cup of coffee. Because you never know where God is trying to bring order out of chaos to strengthen and grow the church.
Now, one active worshiper at Bare Bulb Coffee Shop is named Maria. She says that if you want to know the creator, you get to know creation. One point that we need to remember from the story of creation in the context of Bare Bulb is that sometimes God brings something new out of what might already be – even if what might be appear to be formless or feels a lot like chaos. You see, the writer doesn’t indicate that creation is formed out of nothing. Rather, he tells us that creation is as much the about God’s process for existence as it is the inevitable matter of existence as the story informs us that creation is God’s ongoing action that organizes all of life – however or whether it previously existed – and assigns each element in it a role through which we can experience goodness.
As with our church today, sometimes, this process is unwieldy and disconcerting. Sometimes, it’s painful and hard. Sometimes, this process seems so circuitous that we determine that it will fail – or maybe seem to kill us. Then sometimes, God’s creative process stops us in our tracks and we stand in awe of the majesty of God’s work, humbled to the truth that while we are mere agents of God’s creation, entrusted with dominion over all.
But because the creative and re-creating process can be unsettling, we focus on the results. What if only three new members were gained by a new employee? How would it be if no one weeds the Miriam’s Kitchen herb and tomato garden (thanks, by the way, to whoever planted the tomatoes)? Where do we turn if our results aren’t what we anticipated from the start, or don’t come as quickly as we’d hoped, or don’t yield the fruit we think we need? These are times when we begin to question our process and spin stories around what might have otherwise been. Were we careful to evaluate the current situation before setting course? Were we objective and rational? Did we work diligently along the way?
I think one reason why our bible gives us three stories of creation – the first one, we heard today; the second of Adam and Eve and their fall from grace in the garden; and the third with Noah and the arc, is because we need to hear encouragement from God and be flexible in our life and processes of discovery. A physicist named Uri Alon gave a surprisingly interesting TED Talk on the importance of being flexible in our life of creation, reminding us of the many, many marks of creation that God put forward before God ultimately called it good. Alon says that truly innovative science demands a leap into the unknown. Truly novel marks of humanity evolve from an openness to what is possible, even when the stars don’t seem to align. He says that he waded through many miserable research failures before he finally identified how important it is to be able to walk away from particular goals. He’s learned to linger in the morass – remain in a cloud, he calls it, that gives him a fertile atmosphere for trial and error and doubt until ultimately a new idea comes forward that is almost always more profound than the one he had initially attempted to validate. He said that his discoveries from within the cloud have been greatest when he’s been willing to question and prod and look sideways. Maybe he’s even wondered how a little girl might start from scratch.
And like the Spirit of God hovering over the works of God in creation, Professor Alon spoke of the importance of connecting with someone else who’s willing to support our creative pursuits to the end. – Someone who will walk with us through the formless void, cautioning that it’s when we see our failures mount that we are most likely to stop our creative process and revert to narrow ways of thinking. He says that without a mentor and guide to remind us that we do not have to follow a particular path or reach a certain end, our creative energy can begin to degenerate and we undermine our own ability to make the most surprising discoveries of all.
Creation is risky and hard. Yet God continues to show us the flexibility required in creation, just as God gives us the matter of creation to enjoy. But too often we reject the notion that creation in the world or in the church might evolve from a strangely winding process. We think that we know best, and goodness is tossed aside along the way. That’s how it’s been for humankind and our triune God throughout history: we have had a resistant, recalcitrant relationship with God. We have disobeyed like Adam and Eve and tried to know the mind of God. We have turned back like Lot’s wife and pushed back like Job’s friends. We have questioned like Jeremiah and doubted like Thomas. We have stumbled like Peter and fallen like Saul. Yet, God is calling us, still.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I have been given the ability to bring something new and wonderful out of what might otherwise be a formless void. God knows what that is. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I have the energy, intelligence, imagination and love to create and re-create what our Lord, Jesus Christ, needs in the church today. We have the ability to create new classes for our young adults and older ones, too. We have the ability to elevate our personal worship just as we have the ability to strengthen and expand our social justice ministries. We have the ability to reimagine our generosity to create a whole new way of stewardship to further Western’s mission. As much as all of this, we have the ability to create a loving environment in the midst of tension.
How have you used your creative energy to serve the purpose of God? Do you allow yourself to be outrageously creative, following foreign paths of discovery to help the church continue to strengthen and grow? As we continue toward the great commission, it might not be easy for us.
Matters of great debate and consequence threaten to bring division to our particular congregations, within our denomination and between faith traditions who ultimately honor the same Creator God. As the General Assembly moves into full swing, there are many issues that threaten to tear the PCUSA apart. For this congregation, the conversation that has been most prominent has been marriage equality. The word on the street is that after decades of advocacy, we’ve got that locked up. Now the question on the table is whether divestment will further divide the church. This is a conversation Western has not fully engaged in the last 18 months, but it’s been hotly debated across the church. In the end, we may whole heartedly disagree with a position that the denomination is taking on marriage equality or divestment, immigration reform or the mandatory registration of guns or any of the key issues of the day. But the process that we follow in reaching our decision will ultimately reveal what kinds of disciples we are in creating an environment for all people to feel welcomed into Christ’s church.
And this is why we need Jesus. We need Jesus to be our mentor and our guide, our constant companion as we help people to know the love of Christ. We need Jesus to stick with us in the cloud as we noodle over which creative paths will lead to the most compelling results for the church. We need Jesus to prod us to do courageous acts of witness, like the folks at First Presbyterian Church in Warner Robins put half of their endowment toward the creation of a new faith community that serves the growing, younger population of their small town. We need Jesus to extend us grace in those moments when we fail to live faithfully in his light, or when we interrupt the movement of the Spirit that draws us together, or when we insist upon following a linear progression of information to reach a foregone conclusion someone among us has set. Jesus is depending upon each of us to put ourselves out there to help bring about the next new creation.
They say that the character of God is endlessly urgent in the church. And the church bears witness to this truth today. May we be emboldened by our occasionally circuitous paths as we engage in discernment and good work toward justice for all people knowing that Jesus is with us, always to the end.
Thanks be to God. Amen.