Monday, September 23, 2013

What the heck do you do with Luke on an Anniversary Sunday?

Today during the children’s message we talked about what an anniversary was. There were lots of guesses. An anniversary was a day when the guy surprises the girl and the girl surprises the guy. It means cake, and it’s about something people did. It’s something people who are married do. Then we talked about how anniversaries are about a big event- it could be getting married. Or for our church it’s kind of like a birthday. But anniversaries are about doing something together. I had the kids hold hands and asked what would happen if the person at each end decided to run toward the wall closest to them. Well, there would be fighting or the chain would break. And we learned that to stay together takes work. And then I asked them to turn around. And at first one person in the middle just twisted around and everyone else got jumbled. I encouraged the person on the end to lead them to turn the whole chain around. And we learned about working together. And then we looked at the cross. Because the big event that brings us together is about Jesus. Jesus’ love is why we are here, and it’s what helps us work together. And Jesus is why we get to celebrate.

Here at Holy Spirit, a long time ago, people gathered responding to a need for a Sunday School chapel in this part of the city. But they quickly realized they really wanted a church. It was kind of radical asking to be freed from the church that started us. But it seemed critical. In critical moments we get clarity. 102 years ago, there was that clarity. At other times however, we can deceive ourselves into thinking things happening elsewhere don’t matter or have nothing to do with us. This congregation had a long tradition of strong dynamic leaders who grew an off shoot Sunday School chapel into a vibrant congregation in this city. It took a lot of labor and saving and having some of the right people at the right time. But basically like all of the other congregations of the city, we kind of functioned unto ourselves. One way I know this is that none of our fellow churches knew a lot about us really. When I first came and would ask beyond these doors about Holy Spirit, most people here in the city would say they really didn’t know. Not bad, just unknown. Collectively we were complacent as churches. Today we hear about a manager who has gotten complacent. Used to doing things his way.  

In the parable, it’s only when the kind of complacency the manager had fallen into is disturbed that he gets an eye opener. Until now he’s probably been really focused on his own needs to the exclusion of the needs of his neighbors. But then he realizes he actually really needs other people. And even then he still comes off as a little suspicious. I suspect changes of heart often come across that way. He spends a phenomenal amount of energy in a new direction. But others aren’t really totally sure what to make of it. Yet while his motives may be mixed, there is blessing in what he does. People who owe a lot of money are given breathing room, and the boss who was feeling a money crunch gets some relief and people are connected in ways they had not really been relating before.

What does that have to do with our anniversary?  Anniversaries are about a past, and a present and hope for the future.

As we’ve gotten to know each other, and I’ve heard your rich history, I’ve learned of the quilts that were sent, and the pretzels for the military, and caring for neighborhood orphans. When I asked you to replenish the benevolence fund recently, there was $1800 in two weeks! All ways of caring, past and present.

At the same time, there were wise people who wanted to make sure that this parish was always cared for-always had a pastor. And a seminary education fund was born, and funded. A fund whose original intent I suspect was somewhat self serving- wanting to guarantee this place always had a pastor, we prepared to fund his education. And later wanting to know our own were cared for if they went to seminary. We took care of our own. An amazing amount of forethought, and may I dare say, at the same time, a fund that was really about serving ourselves. Holy Spirit has been blessed to not only have pastors but to fund education for two Lutheran pastors.

But I said we get clarity when there is a critical moment. What is the critical moment?

Well, last year our bishop brought to all of us the fact not enough is being given to  fund the ministry we’ve been called to share- asking us to see more than our own congregations, and to stop doing things complacently. And it would be easy to say that’s not about us. But our leaders gathered to think about how to do more. Out of that conversation and looking at all of our assets closely, we began talking about the seminary education fund. Sitting there with $90,000 in it. And truth be told the first thing people wanted to know was whether we really needed to keep it for its intended purpose. Couldn’t we use it for our other needs? Because here we are and there it sits. Just growing and being unused. How should it be managed?

But, there’s another critical moment. The fact that in the next 10 years 50% of the ELCA pastors will retire. Half. Take the number of leaders and make it half. And unlike being forgiven half a debt, creating a deficit by 50%- only half the number of churches with pastors is a loss. And dare I say it, God could ask what the heck we’ve all been doing. Going around without ever thinking about the future and even what it takes to be a pastor. Used to be congregations and synods paid for the dormitory and tuition, and future pastors would pay a few hundred dollars a semester to live in a dorm, have their meals and laundry taken care of and be sent out to churches to learn. Somehow we never saw that that changed. Except here where we did our part for our own. And one could say let those other parishes pay for their own. It’s not our debt. But that’s not really the truth. We are church together.

Today it costs no less than $100,000 to cover books, tuition, fees, meals, transportation and supplies. And at the Philadelphia Seminary you can’t even get a meal on campus anymore. How do future pastors, young or old, pay for all of that? If you go full time you can’t work. Students with families end up with kids on food stamps. Seminaries have branches of the local food bank feeding future pastors. I think God wonders what the heck is going on.

So here we are. We realized that if we had a fund that could pay for educating pastors, it could pay for educating other pastors studying who were from this synod- about 18 right now. Maybe even cut their debt in half. We had a transformation and did an unexpected thing. $25,000 to endow a fund in our synod. And suddenly a whole bunch of people knew who we were. At synod assembly this year we offered another $25,000 as a matching grant.

 And the money keeps coming, and with it, those relationships. The ones we weren’t tending.

This is the kind of shrewd Jesus is talking about. Being shrewd with what you’ve been given in a way that furthers the relationships and care of the kingdom. Clarity and new direction. Deeper relationships and a future.

It started with us wanting to know if we could use that money for ourselves. But being transformed by God. And inviting others to share in a new totally radical thing.  That is worth celebrating!

But I want to invite you one step farther- God wants you in this story. Today. You see, it’s one thing to be gracious with money of another day. It is something else to let God speak about our money today. Between now and the end of November, I want each of you- yes, each of you, to join this work. In addition to whatever else you give, give something. Yes, something more. Sacrificial giving. Put it in an envelope and mark it Seminary. Think of all the saints and leaders who have gone before here, and let’s surprise ourselves by celebrating and honoring God’s work past and present in all of us and giving for God’s future.   
And may God the giver of all good things continue to bless the world in and through us as we journey into the future together. AMEN

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