Last Sunday, I asked you all to pray for clarity regarding your role in rebuilding our neighborhood. And to ask God for a sign of a next step that involves you. I also asked you to share what you discovered with others and to ask them to pray with you for clarity. Particularly, how you will respond to God’s offer.
Here at Asbury Church, we designate the first Sunday of each month as Next Step Sunday. Your assignment for last week and this Sunday’s theme are expected to converge. If you did indeed pray for clarity regarding your role in rebuilding our neighborhood, and if God did give you a sign that helped you to affirm this next step — then this Sunday can be like a commissioning — a sort of sending out.
I thought that we should begin this week’s message with the opening verses of a seldom-used book of the Bible called Lamentations. A “Lamentation” is a passionate plea of sorrow or regret — when I lament, I tend to call it whining. Lamenting is a very human thing. And there are times when we feel like whining.
In the Book of Lamentations, beginning with chapter one, verse one, we read — How lonely lies Jerusalem, once so full of people! Once honored by the world, she is now like a widow; The noblest of cities has fallen into slavery. All night long she cries; tears run down her cheeks. Of all her former friends, not one is left to comfort her. Her allies have betrayed her and are all against her now.
WOW — that’s heavy. This particular lament was written during a time when the people of Judah were in exile. Not all of the people were exiled, but enough were taken away by the Babylonians that the city seemed desolate. There were abandoned houses everywhere. Unemployment was high. The people who stayed in the neighborhoods were suffering.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? I don’t mean scripturally familiar —many of you are familiar with the story of the exile of the people of Judah. I mean sound familiar like when you walk around (or drive around) this neighborhood? I don’t know about you, but in my mind, I substitute Flint for Jerusalem when I read this.
I was never in Flint during the “glory” years when there were over 200,000 people. I’ve heard that back then, most people had jobs, and there were schools in this neighborhood that our children could walk to. I wasn’t in Flint back then, but I have heard countless stories about what it was like.
Asbury Church, at one time, would be full every Sunday. And the parking lot was added later. Jim Craig shared how he sometimes parked several blocks away and walk. The parking lot over at Browns Funeral Home, one of the many casualties of Flint’s exile, provided nearby parking as more people started attending from further away.
Would any of you who are fathers give your son a stone when he asks for bread?…As bad as you are, you know how to give good things to your children. How much more, then, will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
When we lament, we cry out to the air around us. How sad it is for anyone who is crying out and does not believe that there is a God who is listening and whose heart breaks for us when we are suffering. What a horrible sense of hopelessness they must feel.
Last year, we counted almost 30 Thousand visits to Asbury for 12 months. Each Tuesday, when our Community Help Center is open, the line of cars on Minnesota stretches for several blocks. Every Tuesday, people wait in line for hours for free bottled water and food.
But on Sundays, on the day when our community should gather to give thanks to the God who makes free bottled water and food possible, the vast majority of people are absent. On the day when we gather to worship the God who does listen to our laments and whose heart breaks when we suffer, only a few who up. When it comes to thanking and praising God, where are the long lines?
A friend told me about attending the last City Council meeting. He is dismayed by the lack of civility among our elected officials. It is understandable to see such childish behavior as a failure of government. I see too few of our residents turning to God rather than depending on their own power. We are failing. Verbal skirmishes at City Council meetings are just one consequence of a failure of our city to turn to God for the source of power.
In last week’s message at our Sunday morning worship service, I made a statement that people who are not a part of the several small communities who do gather for worship would find controversial. I said that our neighborhood has no hope of revival unless the majority of people gather for worship. If you know scripture, you know that this statement is well supported. We can try all we want to make a comeback, but this has been going on for decades with little progress. And our futile attempts will continue to be futile until we, as a community, recognize that we are not capable on our own power.
You want to help your neighborhood? Gather each week for worship.
Once we come to realize that the God who created this community, and everything else, is the only One who has the power and wisdom to rebuild our community, we will see tremendous progress. Gathering to clean up blight, meeting to talk about a neighborhood watch, and volunteering to give away bottled water and food are all good things to do. But they are insufficient.
You want to help your neighborhood? Gather each week for worship. Go to whichever gathering place you feel is most compatible with who you are at this point, and worship. Begin by thanking God that you can still do this. And thank God for what is about to come. God is always active. And once we gather regularly, in sufficient numbers, our community will return to vibrancy. Until then, it ain’t happening people.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reminds us that God listens to our whining and God’s heart breaks when we suffer. But God does more than listen. Jesus reminds us that the reason that we often use the idea of a Father when we talk about God is that God is the good Father. “Would any of you who are fathers give your son a stone when he asks for bread?” Jesus said, “As bad as you are, you know how to give good things to your children. How much more, then, will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
But are you only asking God for a list of things in the privacy of your own home? Do you believe that God is just waiting for your wishlist? And when what you need doesn’t show up, do you reckon that God just isn’t listening or doesn’t really care? Prayer without worship is empty, and worship without justice is empty. Pray at home, but worship with others in your community.
Of course, I would love for you to worship with us at Asbury Church. But Asbury is not for everybody. We accept all people, just you are. Not everyone agrees with us. Whether you are straight or queer, short or tall, skinny or overweight, bi-sexual or heterosexual, you are welcomed at Asbury Church. We don’t build walls — we build bridges. And our focus is on worshiping God, and not on tearing each other down.
I lead a short Bible study in the Asbury Café at 9:30 am. You can find more information about us on our website at FlintAsbury.org.