On Sunday we celebrated the end of the Gathering. For me this was an emotional decision, but something that just needed to be done. Being good stewards of the gifts and resources we have made it that we really had no choice. But that still does not make it easy. And in a lot of churches many programs that have passed their vitality are continued because it is too hard to let them go.
Thankfully, we have a great Session that is approaching decisions in a very different way, their quest and call has been to look at the issues brought before them and ask how we best use our gifts to build up the body. This is not an easy task and calls us to be honest, even when it is difficult. However, with the huge amount of ministries we are involved with we have to make sure we are not putting energy into things that have no sustainability.
I know that to some it sounds like a business decision, but it is not. For a business their motivation is profit; for us our motivation is to help people connect with God. So our leaders are called to be faithful stewards. In a couple weeks you will hear that word a lot through our Stewardship campaign. This is both a blessing, but also unfortunate in that it connects Stewardship in some people’s mind with merely the financial aspects of church. But Stewardship is much more than money; actually most who participate in faithful stewardship would be quick to let you know that the money is probably the least important part of Stewardship for them.
Stewardship starts with asking the question of how your relationship is going with God. No matter how much you give, it is not going to make your relationship any better. Think of it like a parent who is never home, and to make up for it lavishes expensive gifts on their child. And if the parent does not follow these gifts with time and love, we all know what happens to the child; often the gifts are not appreciated, cared for, or even used because the child, consciously or not, knows that no gift can replace the presence of their parent. Of course God does not cast off our gifts when they come from a false piety, but they also don’t allow for the relationship to happen.
Stewardship is most of all about how we are in relationship with God. A good steward will care for the world and resources around them, not out of guilt or obligation, but out of thankfulness. I often think of the thing I have been given in my life; those that mean the most are the ones I can remember the story behind and carry the significance. But there is so much more to Stewardship than our giving; there is the question of how we use and develop the gifts that God has given to us.
This is the thing most churches have a hard time with because faithful stewardship is as much about letting go as it is about growth and moving forward. This is both simple logic and faithful stewardship because if your resources are tied up one place and the community is in another, you can never fully serve the community because you do not have the resources needed.
The Gathering was a necessary thing for us to explore. It opened up a creative and experimental space for worship that allowed us for a time to experiment and even play with what it means to worship. But the model was not sustainable and would eventually need to transform or end. In our situation, it has done both. While the service came to an end and we have said good-bye, we have also taken the learnings and understandings and applied them to the Wednesday Service and will soon use much of the data to look at how we worship on Sunday morning.
And here is another very important aspect of stewardship. A good steward is never stagnant. If you look to some of the most successful congregations they are always moving forward. One of my mentors, Bill Creavey, once said “if you want to sustain church growth, always have a building campaign going; even when you finish everything you wanted to do, find something else.” He said that for two reasons: people want to be part of something that is growing, and if the church is always working on improving the facility, they are also having to ask the question how they are staying relevant to their community, and being good stewards of the gifts God has given.
While it is sad to say good-bye to something that has taken so much passion and energy, it is also extremely exciting to see how God is working in this place and using us to both connect and grow as a community. It is also great to see the energy and passion for God that is coming from our Wednesday Night Revive!
When I started the ministry process I was introduced to a new word, Discernment. This is an interesting word because even though I had heard it before and thought I knew it, I quickly realized that it was being used a little differently than I would have thought. When in the religious community the word discernment means more than the ability to judge well; it holds the connotation of a process for judging which is not solely wisdom, but also on trying to find or understand the ways in which God is active within a particular situation. In other words, trying to come to a decision that most closely follows what God is calling us to do. This is hard! Especially since we only have glimpses of God. But we try none-the-less and it does make a big difference.
On of the passages that becomes central to discernment is the lectionary passage for this week, Mark 9:38-50. Its focus is on Stumbling Blocks. What are the things that we put in the way of others and what are the things that we put in front of others and, more importantly, it warns us about becoming our own stumbling block to faith through our egos. While the Id and Ego were later psychological discoveries, Christ knew that people had the tendency to foul up their own lives by focusing or acting on the wrong things and how often that got in the way of faith.
This passage is a great example of that. Here the Disciples were getting all hot and bothered because people were healing in Christ’s name without authority. As one reads the passage, you could see Christ almost laughing when the disciples bring this to his attention. For Jesus, this was a nonissue. In fact, not only did he not care that they were healing in his name, he embraced them. He went on to telling his disciples that whether or not they are in the fold, they are furthering the message and that is what was important. This is because the message has a power all of its own.
That would be a great lesson in itself, but he does not leave it there. He then gives a strong rebuke and warning. The rebuke is that the disciples are not to create stumbling blocks for those speaking in Christ’s name. He is pointing to rules, laws, and expectations, but it could be nearly anything! The warning is much more important and that is the warning about the stumbling blocks we put before ourselves. I bet anyone reading this can think of a dozen offhand!
For Christ, the concern of his message is that we are building up the body, building up the faith, and building up better life for every individual and the community! So for me it was moved this morning as I sat down and studied this passage. As some of you know, we are ending the Gathering this Sunday. As I think about the final service, I cannot help but struggle with my own desire not to let it go, and the reality that it is becoming a stumbling block to building the community of Faith at Westminster.
While my heart wants to keep it going, the discernment process says that we need to let it go. And with insight from the passage, I felt much better about the decision. You see in a church we are limited in what we can do, and when we overextend ourselves we are often not able to be faithful to our call because we are not able to give the effort we need and this begins to get in the way of ministries that are vital for the life of the congregation and individuals’ relationships with God.
I am thankful that we have a Session which places discernment at the forefront of its decision-making process. We try to look at how what we do builds up the body of Christ, but also does not distract us from what we are called to be: A Christian Community of Welcoming and Nurturing Faith.
Maybe because my mother was a biologist by training and a Jr. High science teacher and curriculum writer by vocation, that I was brought up to be far more excited by the odd than the “normal.” There is a simple reason for that; when things go as expected you only confirm what you already know, but when things go unexpectedly, a whole new world of discovery opens up to you. Though it often means a lot more work, that new discovery can be life-changing.
Because my college, Millikin University, was located in the same town as ADM’s (Archer Daniels Midland) headquarters are, we would often have interaction with their researchers; in fact, they subsidized a good portion of Millikin’s new, well, I guess not-so-new now, sciences building. I remember in one of my classes a researcher showed us the magical soybean, as he put it, and started to explain how researchers have studied and continued to find new possibilities for it from food to fuel and even building materials. Most of us already knew that, but what he said next was really the interesting thing, “While the Soybean can be made into all of these things and now many are researching more, it took someone with the vision and humility to try it, fail, but continue to explore.”
I always thought this was interesting; the progression of science was in the humility of discovery. If you think about it, most of the learning in life does not happen when we are fighting for the top, but when we are humbled in our situation.
The story this week is a wonderful story of humiliation! Most of us can picture the situation: a group of guys walking down the road arguing over who is the best. Hit any bar in America this weekend and you’ll probably see that played out in some fashion. But here is the humiliation; Jesus reaches for the child. Even in society today, if adults are speaking and the leader reaches for a child there is a moment of “why even?” humiliation. At that time in history it was even more so as children really were not valued highly.
Moreover, the point had to be made on terms of vulnerability. A child is highly vulnerable. No matter what time in history, a child has to rely on others for survival, which makes them vulnerable. But in their vulnerability they have the opportunity to learn and grow. Because they do not have the background or the skills, they are often forced into a situation that they know nothing about and have to tinker around to figure out how it works.
Just think, everyone knows a story of a child who decided they needed to know how something worked so they dismantled that expensive electrical device. They are not being naughty, they are exploring, and in that exploration they are able to learn and grow. It is not easy being a kid, nor is it supposed to be, but it is a time where we are encouraged to explore, grow, and learn.
Unfortunately, as adults, that often stops. Instead of being open to what the world has before us, we are often closed to the wonders and challenges. As we fight to prove who is best, we often are not aware of everything around us. When it comes to faith, so many are sure their answer is the best they can’t see where God is calling them to be and they are not willing to be humble in order to let God in.
So when we think of faith we need to do so like a child. If that is too hard, maybe we need to approach faith like a good scientist with an open mind and willingness to explore. Mostly we need to be able to humble ourselves, recognizing that what we think we know, we may not, but we can learn and grow!
After a particularly long day of classes about half way through my first semester of seminary, a group of us went to the bar down the road from the school to do “theology.” It was something recommended to us by a professor who always said: “the worst place for learning theology is in a classroom!” As true as that statement was, it held spades that day!
The year I entered seminary, SFTS was going through one of its many transitions. We were the largest class the school had in many years, as well as the youngest with nearly half of the class under 30. And for the younger crowd, we found something that we were not expecting, fights! You name it, from feminism to literalism, we were not expecting that, especially on a seminary campus. Naïve, most of us thought we were going to learn theology, gain tools for ministry, but not be embroiled in controversies. Like I said, we were young!
That day it had been an incredibly intense class and we were processing. As we were making understanding of the class, we began to recognize something that we could not put our finger on while the debates were flying. We saw that much of the anger and vitriol that was being spouted had very little to do with faith and even less with God, but had everything to do with power, positioning, and “the win!”
The interesting thing, as we sat and analyzed what was going on, was that we realized one of the most important lessons in all of seminary. We learned that theology is not about positions or even being right, let alone winning a position, it is how we speak about God. We talked about how ignorant both sides of the issue sounded in class and, more importantly, we realized that neither side ever actually painted a picture of God.
In essence, theology is the words we use to describe God, or as the famous seminary textbook coined “Faith seeking understanding.” But the problem with words and understanding is that it is easily corrupted, not only from outside but also inside. When positions are mixed with theology, something corrosive always seems to come out. In the case of the class, the desire to be right made the debate not about God, but about proving the other wrong. The problem was that by the end of the debate each side might have easily won, but we still did not know much more about God than when it all began.
This week as we encounter the text from James, we are reminded of our humanity and imperfection and that can impact our speech. When we are not thinking and paying attention we can often say and do things that are far from Godly. Often when we get caught up “in the fight” we lose sight of the reason behind it all. That is a huge problem, as it must have been for the community that James was addressing. As we see, the words people used did more destruction than they did building and left the people without a clear understanding of God, only a desire to fight. And what good comes from that?
I am glad to say that the seminary really changed while I was there. Though just under half of the group I came in with transferred or left after the first year, there was a recognition that while the issues were important, talking and learning were far more important. I know I often say that wisdom comes when you step back, and that is what I saw there. When we took the collective breath and looked at the issues we were able to see God clearly and had an easier path negotiating through all of the difficult, heated debates of the last 20 years.
I am always taken by the healing stories of Christ. I find them fascinating. Having grown up very close to doctors and nurses in those key childhood years of 9 to 16, I had a great respect and admiration for them. I knew their frustration, especially in a case like mine that all the solutions seemed to eventually fail. But even with the continued trials, I marveled at the way they fought and struggled to find the right answer and to follow their call to heal above everything else.
To be a healer, in most societies, is to be close to God. In almost every type of community from the earliest evidence of human kind, the Spiritual leaders were also the “doctors” of the community. In fact, many will say Leviticus is more of a medical textbook than a book of laws. That can be debated, but what can’t is the example it gives to the comingling of personal, community, and spiritual health, all of which were overseen by the priestly class. They controlled the writings and their interpretation. This was can be tracked in the later writings where we see how people come to the judges or kings, prophets or other religious leaders to find healing. So it would not be a big surprise that a key component to Christ’s ministry would be healing.
The healing that Christ did served two purposes. First, it aligned him with the tradition of those who healed being “closer” to God. We still do this, though most doctors are not paid like they once were, there is a high respect and moral understanding a doctor speaks to. My colleages and I often remark at the number of times people come to a pastor to seek medical advice. By the way, most of the time we answer, “go see your doctor!” (There is a class on that in seminary!) The importance of the link between healer and spiritual leader is crucial. It points to the role of Christ within the community as well as the relationship he had to the establishment which he was not part of because he was not born of that class.
The second purpose is like the first, but has to do with how his healing was different than the healings of other religious leaders. While the Bible makes a point of the ease at which he heals, it also expresses that he is able to heal things others could not. We know he was able to do this through his divinity, but it became obvious to the other leaders that he was healing people differently than what had been prescribed. Even in the difference, he was still not only able to find success, but was able to succeed where other healers had failed.
This success was also threatening, not only because he was of a different class, but also because of the success and real power that came from that success. Talk to any oncologist and they will let you know how frustrating it can be not to be able to heal and how many would like to be able to have the power of Christ. In talking to one of my friends in that field they tell me stories of frustration at how quickly some patients change doctors because they think they have found God, a doctor that seems to have unusual success, only to come back in worse shape than before. The truth that they know is that as doctors they have skills and knowledge that can get them so far, but the rest, that depends on their faith and the faith of the one they are healing.
But there is even more! When you get to the stories of healing that Christ does during his teaching years, the healings all have a temporary nature to them. Even the stories of bringing people back to life, that person will still die one day. But often his words, your faith has made you well, has more to do not with the overcoming of the impediment or illness in this world, but the connection and wholeness that comes from God in the next.
As a healer, there was no denying his role as a faith leader, something both the Bible and parallel Jewish writings recognize. It establishes Christ’s role in the community but also points to something more. He is not like the doctors or spiritual leaders of this world. He is more and can help us to recognize that there is more to this life than what we have right now. Most of all, he shows that we can be made whole through faith!
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen