(aka, LNPC State of the Union)
Nine years ago on Pentecost Sunday, we pulled out a big piece of chart paper in worship, and we asked ourselves a question together, that it was a new one for us. The question led to a kind of a counting exercise.
In a world of measuring and comparing, churches have felt compelled to calculate how successful they are by what some call, “butts and bucks,” that is, they count butts in the pews and bucks in the bank. If their attendance is climbing and their financials look good, then they must be doing well.
But Church isn’t a business we are building and it isn’t somewhere we go. It’s who we are. So on that day nine years ago we asked ourselves a different question, How are we being church? and we started counting people.
We began by counting the obvious – butts in the pews. Then we thought of some of the groups that used our space and counted them. We branched out and counted the Meals on Wheels volunteers and the people they delivered food to. We counted the place we volunteered to serve meals and the people we serve them to. Then we hit a kind of lull, and there was a pause.
And then someone said, “Dee has keys to all her neighbor’s houses, she lets their dogs out and maintenance people in.” Aaah. So we counted Dee, and her neighbors, and the kids she watched over on the bus stop corner every morning, and then the floodgates opened. Meals for a neighbor who was sick with cancer. Rides to treatment. Tea with a lonely neighbor. A congregation on the other side of the country using a prayer practice we’d developed, we were on a roll. It was a lucky month to do this in, because General Assembly was in town with a couple thousand Presbyterians in attendance, and our PW had sewn waterfall banners to be hung around a labyrinth there, and our worship team had set up a prayer chapel for the delegates to find respite in the midst of their work. So when all was said and done, we had, in one month, well over three thousand people that we counted as “being church.”
It was an eye-opening, life-changing moment for our congregation, because it helped us to see that God was doing something here, right now, and we were already participating.
Comparing ourselves to bigger, more “successful” churches with extensive children’s programs and way more butts and bucks, or looking back longingly at the days we more closely resembled those churches, was missing where Jesus was: Here. Now. Instead, we suddenly discovered the gratitude, energy and calling of paying attention to who we already are, where God is already ministering in and through us, and joining in on that ministry on purpose.
It’s nine years later, and I want to bring you back to that focus today.
You all are followers of Jesus, trusters of God, participants in Love. You know that about yourselves, we remind each other of that, we look for ways to join in. That is Church. You are Church. It’s who you are. Today is for celebrating that.
In our scripture today, Jesus had recently called the disciples to follow him. The time is right now, he says, the kingdom of God is here, wrap your mind around this and trust in it. Join me and be part of it with me.
But if you were one the disciples that had walked away from your father and fishing business and thought you were going to go adventuring far away, you would be mistaken. Because almost the very next stop on this journey was back home to Peter’s house.
His mother-in-law was very sick. As soon as Jesus got there they told him about her and he went and took her by the hand and she stood up and was healed.
Where Jesus goes, healing happens. And he begins in our ordinary lives and our own vulnerability. It starts with sharing our own needs and worries and joys, with seeing people and being willing to be seen.
And then the whole town arrives on the doorstep. With Jesus, the sick and demon-possessed are not hidden away somewhere else. When Jesus shows up, the most vulnerable are brought out of hiding to the center of the community.
And the vulnerable become ministers. When Peter’s mother in law was healed she got up from bed and reached out to serve them. They didn’t ask her to, she just did it; because in the Kingdom of God we all have a part to play in both receiving and in giving.
You, Lake Nokomis, disciples of Jesus, welcome the vulnerable to the center of the community, and you invite everyone to both receive and give.
The disciples are about to discover, when Jesus hustles them right out of town and onto the next place, that they are not about to build a career right here at home dispensing Christ’s ministry to others, just like pastors are not actually the main ministers, and church buildings are not the main place ministry happens. The disciples are called to invite and empower others to do it, because everyone is a minister, and our whole lives are for ministry. We are all meant to receive and to give ministry.
This kind of receiving and giving, this life of ministry, requires courage and vulnerability, which always go hand in hand. Brene Brown found in her research with over 2,000 people, that no experience of courage ever comes without vulnerability.
One of the most powerful moments of courage and vulnerability I have ever witnessed happened this year through you. Marty had been ordained the year before to a Ministry of Dying – and in his vulnerability became a minister to the rest of us.
The moment I am thinking of happened at his Goodbye Service in March. Just before the service began, Marty told me to please announce that he had been having stomach troubles during the day, and he may need to get up and go to the bathroom during the service, so that if that happened people could just sit tight and pause the service until he returned.
The courageous and deeply vulnerable act of admitting this and not hiding his weakness, and then asking me to tell everyone, and then when I did, feeling the whole room immediately move into that space on the other side of courage where things that scare us become no big deal, was astounding to me.
And then, we all got vulnerable and brave together. We said outloud that Marty was dying, and it felt so awful and helpless, all of us crying through “what a wonderful world,” that I thought I might not make it, to be honest.
We tell ourselves that being vulnerable can kill us. But we stuck it out. And when the song ended, we were all still sitting there, perfectly alive, with our wadded-up tissues in our hands. We had made it to that space on the other side of courage, and there fearlessness, humor, joy, and even peace, filled us and held us as we shared stories of Marty’s life.
Through courage and vulnerability, we entered into the Kingdom of God, where love is the biggest and truest thing, and all of the demons and ailments that keep us from real life are rendered powerless. And his friends came there with us! Like the whole village gathered in the doorway that night at Peter’s house to watch what Jesus can do.
In this community the vulnerable are ministers.
Children are ministers. Shy people are ministers. Artists are ministers, and people with dementia are ministers. In this community the grieving are ministers and the rejoicing are ministers, those who feel settled and sure, and those in upheaval and transition are ministers. Those of us with extra time on our hands, and those without a second to spare are all ministers. Those in the prime of their lives and those who know their deaths are near are ministers. Because we are all vulnerable, and we can be brave together, to bear each other’s burdens and share each other’s joys, and go out from here into our lives to do the same in the world. That is ministry. And we are all ministers.
On the disciples’ first big gig, things went late into the night, with everyone gathered around watching Jesus do his thing. But when the disciples woke up the next morning, Jesus was gone. They hunted for him everywhere – is he in the bathroom? Did he go for a coffee?
No - went away to rest and pray alone.
This is the inhale to ministry’s exhale. And we are learning it too – we call it Sabbath. When we practice stepping away to rest and refill, to reconnect with God so we can reconnect with each other, we’re learning how to inhale so we can exhale.
This makes no sense in a world, or a church, that wants to keep exhaling all the time, do more, help more, save more, say more.
But Jesus never hesitated to step away.
This is God’s show, God’s world, God’s ministry we are sharing in. Keeping it all going is not our job. The main thing here is love, and God is moving everything in that direction. Our job is to stay human, to come back to whose we are and who we are. And then our job is to seek Jesus and join him in that love.
On Saturday Evenings you come in here with your babies and your worries and you set them down and let the music and the candlelight hold you. You let yourself pray in whatever ways you feel led. You inhale. Meals to new parents, Prayer for the Nation, two Sundays a month to stop and be, we have woven it into our life together – watching for ways to inhale, and helping each other inhale too.
But the disciples don’t quite get it yet, so they hunt him down and throw a fit at him for disappearing right when things were going gangbusters. Everyone is looking for you! Because, of course, Jesus should stay put and set up shop, right? Build some pews and put butts to count in them? Establish a successful healing and demon-casting out business that grows bigger every year? People will come from miles around!
But this isn’t about something you can build, compare and measure; this is about participating in the Kingdom of God. The whole village is now filled with ministers. So it’s time to go invite others into this reality too.
Here’s the thing, it simply will not work to try to make Jesus stay in the last place he brought healing and hope to continue doing the same thing in the same way.
So often the church looks back and says, That was amazing! That is who we will be from now on! And then we try to recapture the magic, and bottle the formula, and sell enough of that idea or program to at least break even. Everyone is looking for you, Jesus, where did you go? Come back to where we are!
But Jesus doesn’t play that game – he’s on the move! And so we have to keep asking – Where are you now, Lord? What are you doing in our lives right now, God? What are you doing in and through this community right now? Where are we being called to join you in the world right now?
Already in this new year, your session has spent upwards of 15 hours in discernment together, asking those questions, seeking God’s will, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. And on the other side of this process came the gratitude, energy and confidence that God is calling us this year to deeper caring, sharing and community, in three ways:
The first is in our area of WORSHIP:
Worship returns us to trust in God, and reconnects us in belonging to others. It turns out that this practice we’ve been doing of giving 10% of our income to other expressions of God’s ministry in the world is significant and transformative, and can be an act of true worship. We believe God is calling us to deepen our tithing practice - there is much more potential there than we have realized, acknowledged, or tapped into. How can we connect more with the communities we are giving to? How can the tithe money be merely the “practice run” that opens us to deeper ministry with and alongside others in the world? How can we share more widely as a congregation the joy of choosing recipients and giving? How might God use this act of tithing to continue to change us and call us to generosity in our own lives, opening our hearts more widely to trusting God and belonging to others?
The second calling is in our HOSPITALITY:
Providing a place of hospitality and a community of welcome is central to our calling right now. Session believes God is calling us to invest in this building as an important resource for ministry. Our building has more groups meeting in it than ever, but the roof will need to be replaced soon, and for decades we’ve lamented inaccessible bathrooms, and gathering room doorways too narrow to fit a wheelchair through. More than a decade ago, the lack of an elevator is all that kept us from housing after school tutoring program, and without one now our space is a barrier to people and groups fully participating in activities here. Session determined that it is time to begin dreaming and planning for the future ministry in this place, by beginning a capital campaign to upgrade and improve the building. How can we prepare for who God wants to bring to this place and be ready for the ministry God will do here?
The third calling is, of course, our SABBATH calling:
God is calling us to deeper connection through Sabbath, and particularly this year, through Sabbatical – it’s the inhale that fuels the exhale of ministry. It’s meant to reground us and reconnect us to God and to each other. As we ponder the three months we have set aside for this, the question to you all is, What would make your hearts sing?
While my family and I are off inhaling and heartsinging, you will be here with each other doing the same. Today in our annual meeting, you will get to do some initial brainstorming about that. What would feed this community with play, fun rest? What might deepen your relationships with each other and grow your trust in God’s care? How can you use those three months for renewal and joy? Really taking this time to inhale as a congregation makes us ready for all that God wants to do in and through us as ministers!
We are not going to do a counting exercise today, because it turns out ministry is not an addition problem that originates with us, it’s multiplication that begins in God, and spreads infinitely through our lives, always inviting us to join Jesus where he is right here and now. It can only be measured in, of all things, fruit – like joy and peace and patience, generosity and kindness. And it is encountered in the intangible but most real things, like vulnerability and courage, inhaling and exhaling, trust, and love. The disciples in our story today are just are beginning to learn that, and we are learning it to.
So let’s celebrate today, Church! Let’s share the stories of where God is already ministering in and through us, and let’s join in the Kingdom of God on purpose once again!
(PS - Perhaps many of you might not think of annual reports as particularly interesting, let alone utterly delightful documents. But I will tell you, this year, our annual report is utterly delightful. Because in addition to sharing some of the ways we are joining Jesus in ministry, it has messages from some of the people who have gathered in the doorway.
There is a message from a pastor in New Zealand who came to learn from us, an author who wrote about Sabbath and included our story, and a few of the folks who use this building for ministry we might never see. There are stories about our “Pentecost Practice-run” inspiring the same in Central, and maybe even another one in England! Prayers we’ve written spread far and wide, and thank you notes came back to us from people in the places we’ve tithed. When you live in the way of love and trust, it draws others to be part of the Kingdom of God too. Read the report. You'll love it.).