Woke!

Preached at Newark Presbytery
Rev. Edward Clydesdale
February 10, 2018
Ezekiel 37:1-6
Hebrews 12:1-2

A few weeks ago I attended worship at Central Montclair, and on the way out I encountered an old friend and stalwart of the church, John Finney. He had a strange look in his eye and he said, “You know, I just read your name in a little book named Stuart Little, written by E.B. White. Oh, says I. Now the name Edward Clydesdale is admittedly quite unusual and if anything, the name “Clydesdale” usually brings to mind horses and Budweiser! So I decided to find out what an Edward Clydesdale had to do with Stuart Little.

Well, I discovered that Stuart is this charming little mouse in New York City who has lost track of his love interest, a free-spirited little bird name Margalo. Stuart is devastated and in desperation he turns to Dr. Paul Carey, his wise dentist. He marches into Dr. Carey’s office on the day that Edward Clydesdale is sitting in the dentist’s chair and being worked on. Clydesdale suggests where Stuart should look for Margalo; but alas, most of what Edward Clydesdale says to Stuart is barely understandable due to all the stuff the dentist has put in his mouth.

Well, this morning this Edward Clydesdale intends to be perfectly clear in what I say. Truth be told, I couldn’t understand why I was asked to bring the message this morning which is such a pivotal time in our long history as a Presbytery since we’ve just been returned to original jurisdiction by the Synod and we’re kicking off this revitalization initiative.

I am certainly not the most eloquent of preachers. I’m not the most learned of theologians. But then it dawned on me. I’ve been around perhaps the longest – and I have a Presbyterian pedigree. Born at Newark Presbyterian Hospital a little more than 80 years ago, and baptized a few months later in First Presbyterian, Arlington, in Kearny. I grew up in Sunday School, attended Westminster Fellowship, went to Presbyterian camps and conferences and then a Presbyterian College (Wooster) and Princeton Seminary, and was ordained in this Presbytery on June 6, 1962.

Then I spent 15 years ministering in the Trenton/Hamilton area and five more in a small town Ohio before returning to Newark following a divorce in 1982. Subsequently, I served as Stated Supply pastor at the old Forest Hill Church in Newark and then interim pastor at Cedar Grove, Fewsmith, First, Orange and First Congregational, Montclair, while chaplain at Mountainside Hospital from 1986 until I retired in 2014. I’ve been around a long time.

As a child, my parents dropped me off at Sunday School and I grew up with a wonderful group of children, and later with a fellowship group of 35-40 teenagers. And it was at a Newark Presbytery youth rally when I was a junior in high school that I had a remarkable experience. I don’t remember who the speaker was that evening or what hymn it was that we were singing at the conclusion of the service, but as we were singing the last verse the lights in the sanctuary were dimmed – and all was dark. Then, in the midst of the darkness the Cross, which still hangs above the pulpit at 1st Arlington, was illuminated, and within me something happened.

When I awoke the next morning I woke to a different world. I felt loved as I had never felt before. I felt a self-worth that I had never experienced in the same way. I was free to embrace life as never before. Christ had become alive within me. My grades in school went from Cs & Ds to As and Bs, and the following summer, during a synod summer conference at Blair Academy, I felt called to ministry.

Those were wonderful days in the life of the Presbyterian Church and Newark Presbytery. The Spirit was alive in our midst. Five of my friends from that youth group in Kearny also, during that time in the mid-50s, felt the call to ministry.

In 1937, the year I was born, the churches of what is now our presbytery numbered 57, with 30 churches just in Newark. Virtually every neighborhood had a Presbyterian church within walking distance. We had more than 36,000 members in our congregations and 21,000 children in our Sunday Schools. When I was ordained in 1962, 25 years later, the number of churches had increased to 65, although we had 2,000 fewer members. We still had 14,000 children in our church schools. By the time I returned in 1982, the number of churches had dropped by 13, we had 20,000 fewer members and had but 4200 children in church school, a third of what we had 20 years earlier.

As our Presbytery Executive, Chuck Leber, drove me around the Presbytery reorienting me he said, “We’ve closed too many churches. It’s time to dig in and not close any more.” Well, that wasn’t going to happen. We’ve closed 22 more since, although we’ve welcomed our Korean, Latino and Taiwanese churches since then.

But what a heritage we have, starting in 1666. While it is true that Robert Treat and the first settlers in Newark were congregationalists, they eventually came to see the light and became Presbyterian, and Old First was the mother church of so many of our congregations. The farmers and townspeople of Orange founded a congregation in 1719 and sacrificed much in the Revolutionary War. In 1803, a matron of First, Newark, Rachel Bradford Boudinot seeing the poverty around the church, founded the first social service agency in the country, The Newark Female Charitable Society to help the city’s orphans, elderly and unemployed. It continues to serve to this day as the Newark Day Center, providing important services to the underprivileged.

In the 1880s, German Presbyterian immigrants living in the Ironbound had this vision of a German Seminary to train young ministers, and that seminary eventually morphed into Bloomfield College.

In the early 1900s, the pastor of the Bethany Presbyterian Church in Newark, a man named Rev. Stubblebine, initiated a health services dispensary (a kind of immedi-center) which became Presbyterian Hospital, one of the largest and most influential medical facilities in the area before closing in 1994.

During the tumultuous events of the 1960s, through the rebellion/riots and afterwards, courageous pastors like Jack Sharp at Kilburn Memorial in the Vailsburg and Henry Cade at Central, Newark, were among others who brought the hope of the gospel to a broken community. And Newark Presbytery played a key peacemaking role by awarding seed money, a grant of $10,000 to an unknown school teacher name Steve Adabato who parleyed that money to attract other grants enabling him to purchase the Clark Mansion in the North Ward and to act a a moderating, reconciling force in a terribly divided community.

Up through the 60s the Presbyterian Church had such a role within the community that the Newark Evening News, the largest newspaper in the state, had a staff member, Margaret Vance, covering Presbytery meetings. What happened any Presbytery one night was published in the statewide newspaper the nest day.

But that was then. This is now. And it is true, to quote Frederick Douglas, “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” Nevertheless, we are heirs to a glorious history. The stewardship of those faithful Presbyterians of the past has been passed down to us. We walk into our old buildings and see plaques with names. Names of loved ones etched into stained glass windows. Rooms named after people we no longer remember. Ancestors in the faith who left us a proud legacy.

But that was then – this is now. We have half the number of congregations we had in 1962. 5,000 members versus 36,000 in 1937. 476 in our Sunday Schools verses 21,000 then. We are but a remnant of what once was. Presbytery meetings are no longer newsworthy except to us and, hopefully, to God. The beautiful buildings they worked so hard to build and left to us are now difficult to maintain. The little Sunday School rooms in our educational buildings gather dust or are used for storage, and sometimes we get depressed when we look around and remember what has been.

Of course we can point to the reasons. Demography for one thing. The devastation of our Church Schools by athletic programs scheduling games and practices on Sunday mornings for another. And we live in culture which has eschewed anything institutional. I mean where did all the Elks and Masons go?

But we can also point the finger at ourselves. We’ve tolerated some poor leadership at the Presbytery level. We’ve wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting among ourselves; money which could have been used for mission. Newark Presbytery is infamous within the denomination for our judicial proceedings. What a tragic waste. We have been in a survivalist mode instead of a being the missional, servant community. We are but a remnant of what once was. We’ve needed an Administrative Commission of Synod to help us out. We are but a remnant. That’s the bad news.

The good news is our God is used to working with remnants! Ezekiel looks out over the valley filled with bones, the remnant of what once was a people. And God says to the dispirited people of the covenant:

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. Instead of death there is going to be ‘life, life, and more life!”

Built into our DNA is the belief that God can call forth life out of what is dead. After all, are we not Easter people? Do we not believe that the worst thing is never the last thing? Do we not believe that God can make a way where there is no way? Do we not believe that God can put flesh on our dry bones?

Brothers and Sisters, we have been called to be the salt and light of the world – and the world have never needed to hear the Good News more than now.

There was another time in American history when the church was moribund, lifeless. It was in colonial days, before the Revolution. Sermons had become long, dry dissertations. Churches were empty. The valley was covered with dry bones. And then the Spirit began to move through the words and vision of men like Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitfield came from England, and Gilbert and William Tennant joined in near us and what happened was called The Great Awakening. Or to use the terminology of today’s Millennials, the church became “WOKE!”

Could it be that God is calling us here in Newark Presbytery to new life, to become “Woke?” Could it be that through the Revitalization effort – building upon New Beginnings – another Great Awakening can happen here? You know that the national church is looking to us, because if a reawakening can happen here, it can happen anywhere. We are being given new tools, we are being given skillful guidance, but unless we open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit working within and among us, nothing will happen.

May there be a new rush of the Spirit within each of us individually and all of us corporately. Let this Body of Christ put aside the internal bickering that has thwarted our mission. Let us have done with judicial commissions and all rancor. May we, at the very least be kind to one another, and let us celebrate the fact that among us are brothers and sisters who have come from lands where our missionaries worked so hard to spread the gospel and now they are here among us to share the joy of Jesus Christ. Presbyterian Christians from Kenya and Ghana and the Cameroons and Nigeria and Taiwan, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Korea and other lands have been sent here by God to bring new life and exuberance to the rest of us. And most of all, let us be a praying people, praying at a depth we have never attained before and let us study the Scriptures as though we were reading them for the first time.

There is that wonderful video, if I could describe it as such, that the writer to the Hebrews gives us in the 11th and 12th chapters of his letter. He talks of all the heroes of the first covenant who lived by faith; generation after generation of them. Saints – and actually some not so saintly people like Rahab the harlot. And there they are, in the stadium, cheering us on as we run our race. And look, I see David and Saul, and there’s Paul and Timothy and Lydia, and wait, isn’t that John Witherspoon and that Presbytery exec, Chuck Leber – and old Rev. Stubblebine, who founded the Presbyterian Hospital in Newark; and there’s Howard Day from Montgomery Church; and Al Stone (who loved to tell corny jokes), pastor at Fewsmith; and Lester Klee, who had hundreds of men (including my father) at Bible study at Second Pres, Newark; and Doris Houston, the matriarch of the old German Emanuel Church; and Howard McFall from First, Arlington; and Frank Benson, the motorcycle-riding Scot from Knox in Kearny; Rachel Boudinot who started the nation’s first social service center; John Wilcox from First at Caldwell; Joe Smith from PCUM; Ernie Fogg from Central, Montclair; Lincoln MaGhee from Trinity, Montclair,  – and there are all the other folks who once sat in our pews, the ones whose names adorn our buildings and stained glass windows and the ones who names aren’t etched on plaques, but who were faithful stewards and church school teachers and missionaries who served in our church over the decades, cheering us on as we run our race.

And out in front is Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith who I can imagine saying, “Come on, come on. I’m not done with Newark Presbytery yet. I’m not done with Newark Presbytery yet!” So brothers and sisters, “let us lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” It is our time. It is our time.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.