On January 13th, Jennifer Jepsen, Pastor of Reconciling Ministries, preached the following sermon at Left Hand Community Church's first preview service.
Growing up, one of my brothers said, “The church is our family business.” It is a curious thing to be standing here today, after years of vowing I would never go into the family business. It was my express goal to remain on the outsides of church. To never see, as my friend Christy Estoll so aptly puts it, how the sausage is made. I was born into ministry, specifically the Nazarene denomination, a small, evangelical tight knit denomination from the Wesleyan tradition where everyone knows your name and your business. I was the product of a young youth pastor and a devoted young mother. Apparently my crib was in the dining room and I slept soundly while youth events were hosted in the small apartment. This may have contributed to my ability to fall asleep anywhere at random times (especially movies, don’t get my kids started) and to have, according to Strengths Finder my greatest strength as adaptability. Not only was my father a pastor and my mother a devoted pastor’s wife, but in both of their branches rest also a handful of pastors. I guess I was destined from the beginning to be standing here before you today.
My DNA is church. I love the church. I tried to get away from her but she kept calling me back. My love for God and family was proved on the floors of our church buildings. I ran the halls and knew all the nooks and crannies, particularly where the candy was kept. Our lives revolved around the life of the church and since our homes were all parsonages, we conveniently lived next door for most of my years. My childhood was spent lying on cold floors of sanctuaries, picking gum off the undersides of wooden pews, careening down handrails, and doing laps on my bike in parking lots. I had a low time around the age of six where I needed to go potty on the grounds of the church next door, and I have a brief recollection of collecting dying flies in offering envelopes during choir practice. I completed the Caravans curriculum, a scouting program where I earned the coveted Esther B. Winans award through hours of scripture memorization and learning how to do all the things good Christian girls do. I played offertories and sang specials. I loved the sound of my voice in a microphone. My sister and I swam the baptistry one cold winter day in Spokane Washington, straining the detritus before a baptism that Sunday night. My best friends were in church, and if they weren’t we tried to get them there. Our lives revolved around Wednesday nights, Sunday morning and nights, and oftentimes Saturdays. And when your dad works there and you live next door, it’s your second home. The smells and sounds are embedded, as well as the wide variety of church people who loved us well.
And after the sudden death of my mother, at the age of twelve, as she experienced a brain aneurysm in a room not unlike this one, sitting in a chair on the stage not unlike this one, I once again experienced the love of God through the love of our church. I was held and known, given room to grieve and experience tenderness and care. People were good and kind and offered love to a goofy preteen.
My dad remarried shortly after my mother’s death, and once again we were loved and fed well by the church.
The church was my greatest teacher, a place for early exploration. A place to practice acceptance and boundaries from wonderful and not-so-wonderful people. I was safe and known. The rules were clear and I followed them well. Church and God were synonymous. The proving ground of church was the proving ground of my love for God.
I attended a Nazarene college and married my high school sweetheart. We moved to Colorado for graduate school and promptly found a church in the Boulder area to continue our devotion and dedication, relishing the fellowship and friendship of Christians, while seeking to do our Christian duty bringing others who didn’t know Jesus into the fold. We had a great time, yet things began to shift.
Around the 2008 election I found myself asking different questions. My youngest brother came out as gay about four years prior and I had some big things to figure out. All of the things I had assumed or been taught couldn’t hold water anymore when it came to not just loving my brother, but having a true and authentic relationship with him where I could love him as he was, is. Nothing in my past or my present at the time gave me the framework to process his “coming out as gay” as acceptable.
The questions kept coming and we kept attending church. We were the best attenders and did some significant volunteer work, but I also had three little kids and I was tired and worn out. It seemed that no matter how much I fed the religious engine it still asked more and more and more of me, to the point where I was exhausted and cranky.
I felt guilty for all the times I chose myself and my family over the work in the church. And it finally got to a point where something had to change. So we switched churches.
And here my deconstruction began. My exhaustion and discouragement caught up with me. While I continued on the path of church attendance, I knew something needed to change. I knew I needed to reframe my faith and what it means to experience a life of faith. This church was safe. The pastor preached what I needed to hear, a word of grace and acceptance, while also stimulating my intellectual needs. I experienced healing and rest. And practiced the word “No”.
The process took a number of years. There was a lot to undo. And we began to feel called to the previous congregation. I’m not sure why. I don’t have a reason necessarily, but hindsight has proven true. I can see it now. But I couldn’t then.
We settled in and really tried to make it work. But once you see something, you can’t stop seeing it. My desire to love my gay brother had now expanded to loving the entire LGBTQ community. My heart broke for the pain and rejection experienced by this population. That church, which should be the safest place for everyone, was the worst place. I couldn’t sit in the seat weekend after weekend without listening for what could never be said, “We love you, as you are. Come. We affirm you. We celebrate you.” Instead I heard loud and clear the conditions placed upon our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I wondered how it might feel to sit in the pew and to believe I couldn’t be loved. To believe I had to change. To believe I was wrong or sinful or an abomination for how I was designed.
And then, Ferguson happened. Michael Brown’s death was an awakening for me. I had no idea what people of color experienced in this country. I had no idea how my white privilege contributed to the grave problem of our white supremacist systems.
If we were in church and these were fundamental concerns to millions of people in our country and in our churches, why were we not having the conversations? Why were we not offering relief? Why were we ignoring the plight of so many and continuing in our conversations that never changed?
I’d like to say I handled my frustrations constructively and with great care, inviting leaders to conversation and seeking solutions. Nah, I got angry. Really angry. I became toxic. I regret the things I said in those months. I was not safe. And we made the hardest decision of all - to leave church.
It doesn’t seem like a big deal but it really was. As a mother, raised in the church, I had expectations of who we were as a family and those were dashed. And I have to say I experienced a sense of failure. Why couldn’t I just sit and keep my mouth shut? Why does all this stuff have to matter?
And yet it did because there are human lives attached to all of these hot button issues. There are lives at stake, children dying because their parents can’t love them for who they are. Neighborhoods in poverty because of policies that prevent abundant life from being had. Women who cannot serve in specific leadership roles because of their gender and some outdated cultural belief in scripture.
I couldn’t find the love. I couldn’t see the love for everyone that churches, if they are doing the work of Jesus Christ, should be exhibiting. There was love for certain groups that fell within certain political lines, but not for everyone.
And so we left. I left. I was lost. I missed having a community. But my faith grew and God demonstrated Her faithfulness beautifully to us. Consistently I was reassured through meditation of our course and invited into further rest and renewal, seeking, asking, knowing I was in good hands.
After searching the county for potential congregations I became discouraged. There were a few churches of interest that we visited but none felt right. I uttered the words with a group of girlfriends one weekend in Steamboat three and a half years ago that I guess I needed to start a church. They offered kind words and when I shared the vision of the church I wanted their responses were enthusiastic and excited.
I had no idea how to start a church. I thought maybe it would be a handful of people in my living room. Somehow I would learn how to play a banjo and we’d sing Beatles’ songs or something. I had no idea what this meant.
And then the following week I learned of the transition of our favorite preacher at the local megachurch, of his transition from Paul to Paula. I was ecstatic for in the megachurch world if you’re a woman, you don’t really have access to the preaching staff who are men. I wanted to know where she went to church, for that’s where we could attend in good conscience. I read her blog through the weekend and contacted her a couple days later. She answered promptly with a bit of her story and mentioned she had not found a church.
We gathered together for coffee a week later and I asked her if she could help me start a church (aside - Paul was a leading church planter in the nation). She said “NO, it will suck your soul.” I stared back, shrugged my shoulders and said, “Okay, but let’s be friends.” Our friendship grew and over time we both realized how important church is. Both of us separately tried to stay away but church kept calling, whispering and asking for us to continue on the path.
Through a local pastor Paula learned of Highlands Church in Denver, an open and affirming fellowship in the evangelical tradition. My family and I made the drive a few times a month and have been attending there since spring of 2015. Paula joined us shortly after and was preaching within a handful of months.
We expressed our interest to the leadership of Highlands that we wanted to plant a similar church with similar DNA in Boulder County and a few wonderful people who also experienced the call, including your pastor Aaron Bailey joined us in the efforts.
The process has been long and a little bit frustrating, but mostly it has been life-giving and exciting to see the Holy Spirit open and close certain doors to bring us here today.
My parents attend church here at Central Longmont. After retiring from the ministry they settled in Longmont and became involved in this congregation. The church’s intensive focus on the community and on matters of justice appealed to them and in turn, to me. When we learned of their openness to hosting Left Hand, they accepted us with wide open arms and generosity that we did not anticipate.
I have attended a few services here for varying reasons and I love this place. I love the corner of Kimbark and 4th upon which it sits. And I love the people and the heart of those who worship and lead here. I like to look up. I like to take in the beautiful contrasting colors of the windows. I love to study the lines and the arcs. But my favorite part of this room is the cracks. I’m sure not everyone feels this way, for as a pastor and a board these can be a bit of an eyesore if not a greater structural problem pointing to an expensive need for a solution.
But I still love them.
As a nation, as Christianity has taken a hit in recent months, it’s a temptation to want to bail on the whole thing. We, the three of us, have struggled with what we call ourselves. WE love the energy of the evangelical tradition. We love the focus on Jesus and his life, birth, resurrection and the suffering he endured so that we could understand his love for us through our suffering. The good news offered through Jesus is at the heart of evangelicalism’s beginnings. Yet, what has become of such a beautiful expression is ugly at best and desperately harmful at worst.
And so, we are fumbling too, trying to be the church this community needs. We want to be a church that can offer relief to fellow travelers and also work together to dismantle and challenge the systems that keep certain people in positions of greater power than others. We need help. We need a body.
And so I stare at the cracks during the services and I don’t find them an eyesore. I find them beautiful. I find the juxtaposed old and new - the speakers and the screens with the windows and cracks. The cracks are a firm reminder to me of the cracks in our American Christianity. We have come so far off course and it is time to repair the damage that has been done in the name of Jesus. But I need to be reminded because I want to remain humble. None of this work is done without the rigorous and life-giving work of seeking God. We have to have a container that can carry this new life. That can welcome and celebrate and offer relief for every single person we come in contact with. There is no need to fix anyone. There is no need to change anyone. This is the work of God alone. We can support, encourage, love and that is what we will do. And we will make mistakes too.
In the book of Matthew, chapter 9 verse 14 it says:
“Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
We have to keep in mind that the Pharisees were the teachers, they were the ones who kept the rules and held the power. And John is referring to John the Baptist who was the cousin of Jesus, the one who went before Jesus in Jesus’s ministry. He was a unique sort who preferred to follow the rules and be a bit more dogmatic and rigid in his approach.
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is still with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. No-one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
What we are doing here. This is the new wine, but we can’t keep the same containers. By containers, I don’t mean buildings or programs, I mean our old ways of what it means to do Christianity, who’s in and who’s out. It doesn’t work. There must be room for everyone here. As Paul states in Ephesians 3:17-20: “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge - that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Our container for this new wine has to be held and rooted and established in love, a love that is wide and long and high and deep. Limitless, surpassing knowledge.
I am thrilled to see what we will become as a new church for Boulder County. Thank you for taking a chance, for being here. If you have joined us for a dinner, thank you. The good work of gathering together and eating delicious food has been nourishing and hopeful to my soul in these dark times. I have found comfort in preparing my home for you. For those of you who have not joined us, I hope you’ll come. Some weeks are really crowded, so if you are an introvert at heart it can be a little tricky. There will be other opportunities to connect and find people.
This work brings relief. The three of us say it all the time - thank goodness for this opportunity to work together, to bring this life to our community. It feels right and we can each conclude we have been led well by God’s hand and by God’s timing.
Thank you Heatherlyn for your heartfelt music and leadership, for guiding us in this. Thank you Paula for saying yes, even though it took awhile, and thank you Aaron for answering the call to partner in this great work. We are humbled and grateful for your trust in us. I pray we can grow together in the community I dreamed of some three years ago. And here we are. Ready, willing, humble.