Returning: Thoughts on the post pandemic church.

Returning

I grew up in Pleasant Hills.

Pleasant Hills is a suburb of Pittsburgh in the norther part of the Mon Valley steel making center.

I was baptized and confirmed at Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church.

Pleasant Hills is part of the West Jefferson Hills School District that includes Pleasant Hills, West Elizabeth and recently renamed Jefferson Hills.

I attended Pleasant Hills Elementary School, Pleasant Hills Middle School and Thomas Jefferson High School, graduating in 1974.

From time to time, I drive around my old neighborhood just to reminisce and see what’s new.

Here are some things I have noticed.

The two houses I lived in look different.

They both have had substantial upgrades.

They are more modern and updated.

My elementary school was replaced by a community elementary school a few miles away.

The new school is way nicer and has a the first school swimming pool ever in the district.

TJ now has a swim team.

The old school was bought by my old church, Pleasant Hills Community Church, torn down and replaced by a gymnasium used by the church for activities and worship.

A significant benefit to the church and community.

Out at the high school they built a new stadium.

That required the construction of what folks there still refer to as “the wall”, a giant retaining wall that allowed the stadium to be expanded.

With that expansion of the stadium, new sports and recreation opportunities became available to the students and community.

And now the high school building is vacant, replaced by a brand-new facility just a mile or so down the road.

The new high school is an eye-popper with more educational amenities than I could ever have imagined.

The educational opportunities for the TJ students have substantially increased.

I could give you an endless list of other changes I notice over there.

Some make me sad.

Some make me smile.

Many are surprising.

Times have changed.

My old neighborhood has changed.

My old school has changed.

And to my view, all for the better.

And the people seem to have prospered.

Our scripture reading today has something to say about how communities adapt and thrive as times change.

Nehemiah 2: 1-6; 17-20

2In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was served to him, I carried the wine and gave it to the king. Now, I had never been sad in his presence before. 2So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.’ Then I was very much afraid. 3I said to the king, ‘May the king live for ever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’ 4Then the king said to me, ‘What do you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5Then I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favour with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.’ 6The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), ‘How long will you be gone, and when will you return?’ So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date.

17 Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burnt. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.’ 18I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, ‘Let us start building!’ So they committed themselves to the common good. 19But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, ‘What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?’ 20Then I replied to them, ‘The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building; but you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.’

A little background here.

Nehemiah was a Jew who and a member of the Judahite community that was taken into Babylonian captivity sometime between 597 BCE and 581 BCE.

His job was to be the cup bearer for Artaxerxes I, the ruler of the Persian Empire that had conquered Babylon in 539 BCE [JT1]  when Cyrus the Great was the Persian king.

Cyrus had immediately decreed that all captive peoples in Babylon were to be allowed to return to their ancestral home, rebuild their communities and worship their communal deities.

The Book or Ezra describes this early return of the Judahites in around 537 BCE.

The expectations of what the returning exiles would find on their return to Judah and Jerusalem is unknown,

Their parents had likely regaled them with what it was like in Jerusalem before the exile.

Some might have even remembered it themselves.

A great city with high walls.

A marvelous temple for the worship or the one true God.

The center of Jewish culture and identity.

But here is the problem.

When they got back, that was not what they found.

The walls were rubble.

The city was in ruins.

The temple was … well … gone.

Jerusalem was a small, insignificant and poor town with a non-descript religious shrine where the great temple had once been.

The residents were mostly pagan.

The capital of the province had been moved north many years before.

Kind of disheartening.

Ezra’s job was to rebuild the temple.

He did.

The new temple was nothing like the magnificent old one.

But it was functional.

And it began what we call the Second Temple Period that lasted 600 years.

The next problem was that Jerusalem had no walls and so was always threatened by the surrounding tribes who were irritated that Cyrus had taken what they thought was their land given it to the returning exiles.

That was reported back to the folks back in Babylon and apparently came to the attention of Nehemiah, who had the cup, and the ear, of Artaxerxes, Cyrus’ successor.

Nehemiah asked the king to let him go to Jerusalem to manage the rebuilding of the walls to protect the growing Jewish community in Jerusalem.

Having gotten permission to go, Nehemiah went and took over the project.

As the work went on the walls began, the neighboring tribes made fun of the Jews and threatened them.

“You will fail,” they said.

“Your community is weak.”

“Your people are no more.”

Nehemiah was undeterred and simply said:

‘The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building …’

Not only did they start building, but they finished.

People returned.

The Jerusalem population grew.

Judah, while still a province of Persia, was self-governing, following its own laws and somewhat independent.

It prospered.

And, while there were many Jews still in exile, Jerusalem was again the center of the Judaism.

Even those who did not or could not return, would look in the direction of Jerusalem in prayer.

What does this have to do with us at JMPC?

While the pandemic has only been with us for 13 months, not the 60 or so years the Judahites were gone, doesn’t it feel like we have been exiled from our community for a very long time?

And, like the Judahites, while we have done our best to maintain our faith and identity as part of the Body of Christ, our inability to gather as a church community has been difficult.

Don’t we feel a bit disconnected?

A bit lost?

Spiritually distant?

We want to return to our building.

And now we will.

We are returning.

June 1.

Our first worship service in the sanctuary will be June 6.

That is good news, no doubt, but what will we find on our returning?

Some interior clean-up will be required but the building is basically the same, though.

But we cannot just walk in and go back the pre-pandemic routine.

We will be returning Judahites, and like them, there will be challenges for us to face.

And opportunities, too.

I read a book that was recommended to me called The Post Quarantine Church, by Thom Ranier.

I recommend it for the entire congregation.

The book lays out 6 challenges and opportunities when we return.

  1. We must gather differently and better.
  2. We must seize the opportunity to reach the digital world.
  3. We must reconnect with the community near JMPC.
  4. We need to take prayer to a new and powerful level.
  5. We need to rethink our facilities for emerging opportunities.
  6. We need to make lasting changes that will make a difference.

Some of these things we are already doing.

  1. We have been and will worship a bit differently.

We will have screens in the sanctuary that will enhance our worship with visuals, announcements, hymn lyrics and visible presentations of our mission and ministry activities.

  • We have been and will be reaching out into the digital community.

Like the exiles of Nehemiah’s time, many will not be returning to Sunday morning worship.

They work or have activities that prevent that.

Distance prevents some, too.

But these people will still be able to look to JMPC as their spiritual home and faith community by streaming our services online, seeing and hearing everything we offer in the sanctuary.

And they can join us in person when they can.

We also have two new staff members whose responsibility is to increase our social media footprint, manage our website and enhance our online worship.

  • Our prayer team has been and will be strong for us.

And we can take that to a new level as well.

When we read the book of Acts, we learn that the early church spent its time doing two things more than anything else.

They listened to the apostles teach and they prayed.

What did they pray for?

That God’s will be done.

Look at how they thrived.

We can do that, too.

  • We have been and will continue to have community connections.

We do that with our SHIM garden and sometime in the future with the orchard.

We have our wildly successful pre-school.

We have all the missions and ministries we have developed over the years.

And we need to reach out into the community more.

What else does the community need?

How can we help provide it?

But what else can we do here in Bethel, Peters, South Park and McMurray?

  • We need to rethink the use of our facilities.

We sure do have a lot of people who use our church for their meetings and activities.

We will invite them back and offer our building for anyone else who needs a space for their groups.

We want our church to be full of people, a community center, not just empty for the majority of the week.

  • Lastly, we will make lasting changes that make a difference for the future.

We need to do what is necessary for us to have a faith community we can pass on to our next generation just like the Judahites did with their rebuilt Jerusalem and temple.

This will be no different than what the returning Judahite exiles experienced.

What did they have to do?

They rebuilt the Temple.

They rebuilt the walls.

They rededicated themselves to their faith.

And that allowed them to prosper for the next 600 years.

We can do all those things, too.

To do that we need people.

People willing to rededicate themselves to our community of faith.

New people willing to join us in our work.

All the while listening to God and praying.

Together, whatever that means in 2021.

When we do these things, we will succeed.

And while some might scoff and say that our efforts won’t work, we will respond the way Nehemiah did.

‘The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building …’

We really don’t need to do much rebuilding.

We will build on the foundation we already have.

And like my old stomping grounds in Pleasant Hills, what we build will be new, and it will be better.

Because the God of heaven will give us success.


 [JT1]

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