Central at 160: The Debt We Owe
by Louise Westfall
I think my favorite meme during the pandemic shows the number 13 with a speech bubble saying “I’m the worst.” Below that is the number 666 saying “No, I’m the worst.” Scrolling further down is the number 2020 simply erupting in maniacal laughter: Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha. We can laugh or cry or both but as a year, 2020 should be returned as defective. It’s been catastrophic to near-biblical proportions–a global pandemic of death and universal loss; economic devastation accentuating inequities baked into the system; a year, as NY Times writers put it…that has filled the morgues, emptied the schools, shuttered the workplaces, swelled the unemployment lines and polarized the electorate. It is a year in which one Black American after another fell victim to the police and one city after another erupted in flames. Add to the mess some of the largest wildfires in recorded history, and one beast of a hurricane along the Gulf Coast (so far). Looming large is a national election sure to highlight bitter divisions and hostilities. In a poll taken after both parties’ nominating conventions, only 13% of Americans described themselves as “satisfied with the way things are going.” [NY Times August 30, 2020]
It is in this most unpromising of years that Central celebrates an auspicious anniversary of its founding. One hundred sixty years since the Rev. Rankin was sent by the Presbyterian board of homeland missions to the wild, wild west to establish a new church in the just-born city of Denver. One hundred sixty years of ministry in a changing downtown neighborhood, with miners and migrants, Chinese railroad workers and freed slaves, captains of industry and people experiencing homelessness, legislators and small business owners, families and individuals drawn to Denver by employment and golden opportunity and the weather. One hundred sixty years of worship and Sunday school, Bible study and women’s groups, Supper Club for singles (from which developed many happy marriages), confirmation and youth fellowship, and always, always, a passion for service and witness locally and throughout the world.
We stand today on the shoulders of those who came before us. Ordinary men and women determined to live by faith, loving God and serving neighbor. And though the stories now have been burnished with time, we must never imagine they had it easy. Our earliest roots were born of theological controversy and division, when the so-called “Old School” pioneers split off from Denver’s first Presbyterian Church (over–among other things–the doctrine of predestination). The more inclusive “New Schoolers” remained with the original congregation, which later changed its name to Central. A rapid-fire succession of ministers followed, and the congregation was frequently without pastoral leadership. The Civil War was heating up when Rev. Rankin made his way by stagecoach across Kansas. Others would follow: the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq…9/11 and its violent consequences–all would leave their mark. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic shut Central down completely. No services were held for nearly a year, and the history books are silent about whatever other ministries took shape during that terrible time. Drought, fire, the Great Depression, three building campaigns, suburban flight in the 1970s, economic downtown in the 1980s…our forebears navigated every turn, through rocky patches and seeming dead-ends. Compelled by a sense of
Divine calling, they kept the lights on (literally and figuratively!) in this downtown location. For one hundred sixty years.
What a debt we owe them!
Love is generative; the more you expend it, the more you have.
The Scripture text for today is a story Jesus told about indebtedness –in this case, financial indebtedness and the problem of repayment. It’s a text often used to exhort us to forgive one another for the wrongs done to us, in gratitude for the great forgiveness we’ve received by the hand of God, and the glorious potential of “do overs.” And that’s great and important. Today, however, I invite us to hear it in reference to the debt we owe to our spiritual forebears for all they gave, invested, and sacrificed. We are recipients of a breathtaking legacy. How can we possibly repay it? A reading from the good news according to Matthew, in the 18th chapter, verses 23 to 35. Listen for God’s Word to the Church, and to each of us touched by the church known as Central Presbyterian. [Matthew 18:23-35]
The severity of the parable’s conclusion always ruins it for me. Angered by the unforgiving servant’s violent demand for repayment, the master rescinds his mercy and throws the debtor to the dogs until he can pay back the full amount. Kind of balances the scales, I guess, but it doesn’t change anything. There’s nothing ultimately redemptive about the parable read just this way. It certainly contradicts the gospel of grace and the Kingdom of God where it is poured out in an ever flowing stream to do its life-saving work. So I wonder if Jesus is being descriptive here rather than prescriptive; observing that if the experience of generosity doesn’t produce generosity, the world becomes a kind of torture chamber, where you get pretty much what you deserve. You pay what you owe…or else.
And there’s nothing generative about that. Life becomes a huge transaction. You pay out. You take in. The measure you give will be the measure you receive. Balanced. Even. I’ll grant you, there’s a certain fairness, tidiness, in this view. But it also reduces the wonder and creative power of Spirit to numbers on a symbolic spreadsheet that have to be reconciled at the end of the day.
To do that, friends, is to settle for so much less than God intends for us and for Christ’s church. Starting today, and continuing throughout the fall, we will hear pre-recorded greetings and remembrances from some of our most long-standing members. Now, none of them go back 160 years (!), but they have been around Central for more than a few and have agreed to share some insights about the way it was. Stories of risk-taking and success, and resilience when things didn’t go as planned. Like the new pastor who urged Central to move out into the burgeoning suburbs…who had the shortest tenure of any minister to date. As we listen over the next couple of months, we’ll hear from a former youth pastor who delivered a stem-winder of a sermon in the early 1960s, decrying racism and advocating for integration. The hospitality and acceptance that is part of Central’s DNA will be expressed by the woman we consider our matriarch, Sue Wilcox, wife of the late Pastor John Wilcox (though to reduce her to “the pastor’s wife” would be a great disservice to this dynamic woman who has led illuminating Bible studies, traveled to Guatemala for mission trips, not to mention downhill skiing into her 80s!). Others will speak of the fellowship and caring community they experienced, the joy of singing in choir, the role this church has had in helping raise children. We’ll hear origin stories about Central Visitation and New Genesis.
How do you put a price tag on that?
The fact is, friends, we cannot pay the debt we owe: to our Central forebears, much less to our Divine Founder. It’s simply too much, so much more than we can even imagine.
And that’s okay.
Because the fact is, it’s not about paying it back. There is no expectation in God’s economy of payment for services rendered. They come to us as gifts. We who are the recipients of those blessings–spiritual and tangible–let our first word be of gratitude. Thank you God. Thank you Rev. Rankin and Dr. Elsea and Rev. Ernie and Agnes Andersen. Thank you Ralph Sturgeon and Drs. Doug and Mary Collier. Thank you. Thank you. And thank you. Every one of you, from every decade, every era, in times both fat and lean.
The funny thing is, out of great gratitude grows deep, trusting love. The awareness that God is here and God is the source of all blessings. We can breathe and release anxiety. Let go of fears of scarcity and a sense that if we don’t get in there, we won’t get our fair share. The servant in Jesus’ parable must have been relieved that his debt was freely forgiven but didn’t experience it as characteristic of the master’s compassion toward him. He just felt damn lucky–luck that did not extend to the neighbor who owed him. And luck cannot be depended upon to build a meaningful life. So that servant remained stuck in a universe without grace, without delight, without joy.
God calls the Church instead to a life built on love, received and shared. Love is generative; the more you expend it, the more you have. What we can never repay, we can pay forward. We tell the old old stories not to glorify the past, but to allow that river of love to keep flowing forward, nourishing and sustaining life in us. Today–in this terrible year. Today, as we seek to “be church” the way our forebears were church: serving the needs of others, proclaiming God’s love for all people, and creating with them a Beloved Community. Today, as we hear the call of God to “be church” in new, unknown ways towards a future yet unfolding.
May it be so.
Let’s join in singing a hymn in celebration of Central’s 160th anniversary. Today, and on successive Sundays, we’ll sing just one verse, and then on October 18 we’ll sing them all, in praise and thanksgiving.