Saturday, I jumped on a plane for a quick visit to Charlotte, organized by the Rev. Dr. Jerry Cannon of the CN Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church. Since almost immediately after Vilmarie and I were elected in June 2018, every time Jerry saw me, he’s ask, “When are you coming to preach at CN Jenkins?” Every time he asked, I said, “When are you going to send an invitation?” When he asked again at Big Tent, I changed my answer. “I have my calendar; let’s find a date.” This trip was the result of that conversation.
Jerry picked me up at the airport in the early afternoon on Saturday, and took me on the scenic route to the hotel, passing by Covenant Presbyterian Church. We stopped for a picture there, and I heard about how the church had included in its most recent capital campaign several million dollars to build affordable housing. Charlotte, like many large cities, is struggling with issues of gentrification and lower-income people being pushed further and further away from the center. This church invested a significant amount of its capital, both financial and social, to help provide a solution.
We had an early dinner on Saturday, with the Rev. Lorenzo Small, pastor of First United, Jerry and his wife the Rev. Veronica Cannon, at a restaurant literally around the corner from the hotel where I was staying. When I offered to walk to meet everyone, though, I got a “look.” Southern hospitality is real, and walking the 500 feet to dinner was not going to happen. I smiled, and accepted the ride, but couldn’t resist doing a little teasing too.
Sunday started bright and early and was a marathon event. Wanting to make full use of my presence, Jerry reached out to colleagues in the Presbytery, and managed to schedule me in two other churches in addition to CN Jenkins! Looking back, I’m glad he did, because it was a rich and wonderful experience.
CN Jenkins was first, and I was picked up at 7:00 am by brother Jay, one of the leaders in the congregation. We were the first to the church, so I had an opportunity to look around and take some pictures before people started arriving. The first service started at 8:00 am and by the time I stood up to preach, the sanctuary was full.
I used the lectionary texts of Isaiah 35 and Matthew 11, contrasting the future language in Isaiah 35 (the deaf shall hear, the blind shall see) with the past language of Matthew 11 (the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed). I asked the question, if God intends for the full restoration of God’s creation, and Jesus did that work when he was on the earth, then why is it not yet complete? Why are we still in this in-between time, this now and not yet time, this anticipatory Advent time? If God is faithful, and Jesus accomplished what he intended to do, and the Spirit has been poured out, then why is the kingdom not yet fully established here on earth as it is in heaven?
Well. The answer, I proposed, is that scripture shows us from the call to Abram through the call to the disciples to the establishment of the early church that God has always intended to be in relationship and partnership with God’s people. So if God is faithful and doing God’s work, that raises the question about the second party of the partnership. Are we doing our part to establish God’s kingdom/kindom here on earth?
This is part of the PC(USA) embracing the invitation to be a Matthew 25 church, claiming God’s vision for all of creation to be cared for and made whole, and our role as stewards, disciples, and children of God in seeing that through. If we don’t do the work of changing our society and communities to better reflect God’s vision of abundance and joy, then who do you think is going to? This is our work as the church, our work as followers of Jesus, our work as the PC(USA).
The message clearly resonated at CN Jenkins, because at one point most of the congregation was on their feet shouting, and I found myself shouting into the microphone in a loop of encouragement and response. It was a powerful experience for me as a preacher; the Spirit was moving like a whirlwind in that sanctuary!
From CN Jenkins, brother Ray hustled me over to Avondale Presbyterian Church, a mostly caucasian congregation with a very different worship style but a heart for their neighbors. I lifted up their participation in the Room in the Inn ministry to provide shelter for displaced neighbors and the work their youth group was doing to collect items for newly settled asylum seekers in the area. These are marks of a congregation seeking to love their neighbor, seeking to be a neighbor. Pastor Jim welcomed me warmly there, and while I didn’t have any time to visit with the congregation, I was glad to be in their midst for a little while.
My last stop for the morning was First United Presbyterian Church, the result of a merger of Seventh Street and Brooklyn churches in downtown Charlotte. Also a historically black congregation, the congregation responded enthusiastically to the challenge to be the hands and feet of Christ doing the work of bringing God’s kingdom closer for all people.
Pastor Lorenzo took me to lunch at a local soul food restaurant before the clerk of session bundled me into her car for the trip back to the airport. I barely had time to catch my breath, much less take many pictures of my morning tour, but I was glad for every moment of it. Thank you, Pastor Jerry, Pastor Jim, and Pastor Lorenzo, for welcoming me into the pulpit on the third Sunday of Advent. Thank you for a wonderful visit to Charlotte, and a Sunday full of music, joy, fellowship, and the love shared when the body of Christ gathers together.