July 2, 2017

Proper 8

Jeremiah 28: 5-9; Psalm 13; Romans 6: 12-23; Matthew 10: 40-42

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

            The other day I went to the Department of Public Safety, or DPS, off 290 and Dacoma Boulevard, to get a new picture taken for my driver’s license, since my current one is now twelve years old, and as much as I don’t want to admit it, I also look twelve years older. 

            I was issue my number, and I waited.  While waiting, I used the men’s room, and couldn’t help notice that while in the men’s room washing my hands, a man that was in a stall in the restroom, opened the stall door, and walked out, without washing his hands.  Same thing happened yesterday – I was at the movie theater with my family, in the restroom, some other guy walks out the stall and out the door – no washing of hands.  Gross, right?   

            It is this mild lack of consideration for everyone else in the DPS or the movie theater that was a little offensive to me.  Same thing if you are a patient at a hospital, and you’re in the bed, and a doctor comes in, and they try to talk to you without washing their hands first, you say, “hey, doc – I don’t know where those hands have been, wash them!”

            Whatever you want to call this: lack of concern for others, laziness, indifference, or disregard -  it not only occurs at the DPS, movie theaters, or hospital, it also happens in churches.  Here’s an example: about a year ago I was upstairs in our Parish Hall on a Sunday morning, and while looking out a window to the outside of our church, I saw attending service that day extinguish their cigarette on the brick exterior wall of the church. Is a church building any different from a DPS?  That’s another sermon, but the act nevertheless struck me in a similar vein of disregard. 

            Having worked in churches for twelve years, this laziness, this indifference, this desire to settle for second best, is something I have experienced again and again in multiple congregations.  Most churches, like any other human organization, prefer not to be pushed, or stretched, because it’s uncomfortable.  It takes work, and I get it.  If I am supposed to run five miles, and at mile four, my body hurts and I get a cramp, and my mind says “stop it!”  But Iknow if I stop, I will be disappointed in myself.

            I recently came across a cartoon of a church committee that was searching for their new priest.  One of the people in the cartoon summarized their conversation with these words: “Basically, what we’re looking for is an innovative pastor with a fresh vision who will inspire our church to remain exactly the same.”  Churches don’t like change!  No church does.

            This is nothing new, by the way.  We have a glimpse of this in our reading from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah this morning.  Today we hear the prophet Jeremiah speaking an unpopular truth to the people of Israel – a truth no one wanted hear.  Jeremiah was stretching the community, and it was a community that wasn’t interested in being stretched.  A bit of context here.  In Jeremiah chapter 28 we hear from two prophets, Hananiah and Jeremiah. One is a true prophet, the other, not so much.  Both Jeremiah and Hananiah claim to be God’s spokesperson, but their messages today could not be any more different. 

            Let’s begin with Hananiah – Hananiah brings good news: the people of Israel, many of whom lived in exile in Babylon, would return to Jerusalem.  The king of Israel, the sacred vessels plundered from the temple by Babylonian hands – all would return to Jerusalem and things would be great.  Tthings were going to work out.

            Those of you familiar with Jeremiah might not be surprised to hear that he has a different take on things.  Countering Hananiah, Jeremiah says “actually the king of Babylon is the Lord’s servant and we need to follow him, because Israel is being punished for its waywardness.”  In other words, Jeremiah is saying that because of their lack of discipline, because of their disregard for the needs of the community and their relationship to God, Israel was being punished. 

            Imagine you were alive 2,500 years ago, listening to Jeremiah and Hananiah. Which message would you want to hear?  Hananiah with his upbeat message, or Jeremiah, who proclaimed a courageous, but hard to stomach, truth?  Turns out Jeremiah was the real prophet, and Hananiah, though we don’t hear it today, is later punished for uttering a false promise, the promise people wanted to hear.  Jeremiah spoke the truth.

        Speaking the truth, especially when unpopular, is not easy, and does not always come naturally to me.  But I am going to try to do so anyway.  I have a truth to share that might be uncomfortable for some of you, and for others you know this already.  The truth I wish to convey is simply this: as a whole, the Episcopal Church not growing, in fact it is shrinking.  Data recently released from the national church office indicates that in the last decade, average attendance has decreased by twenty-five percent.  That’s a big number.  But what is the reason?  There are many.  A very good read on the topic is the book Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass, which we studied last year in our Faith Matters Class.  In her book, she suugests  that the main reason the Episcopal Church is shrinking (and other denominations as well) is because of an overall loss of the integrity of the church.  An ecclesiastical disregard, a laziness.

        Multiple incidents of clergy misconduct, financial mismanagement, lawsuits, property disputes - all of that has brought decreased attendance, reduced budgets, and missional scarcity.  I kind of feel like Jeremiah right now, bringing you all an uncomfortable truth.  Who wants to go to seminary?!

        While this is the reality of the national landscape of the Episcopal Church, it is not the story of this parish.  This church is not shrinking, it is growing.  It is growing not because of any one person’s efforts, but because we collectively are looking outside ourselves to serve our community.

            Two hundred years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote these words: “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.”  It is my intention that as this church grows, we preserve our intimacy, but that we also grow courageously, because the world needs us.  One of the ways we grow courageously, and not indifferently, is by having honest conversations around traditionally taboo topics.  One of the topics your may not be accustomed to hearing about from this pulpit is money. 

            Money might seem an offensive topic coming from the pulpit, but it is helpful for us to remember that half of Jesus’ parables were on the topic of money.  One out of every seven verses in the Gospel of Luke is also about money.  And the news I have to share with you is good news!  Our church budget over the last four years has not decreased, but has increased thirty-eight percent.

            Midway through this year, our treasurer, Chris Barker told me that St. Andrew’s has received approximately $192,000, or forty-eight percent of the money pledged for this year.  For every one of you who filled out a pledge card last year, and have been paying your pledge – thank you.   If you haven’t filled out a pledge card and you want “in” on the action, I am sure you can find a pledge card somewhere in pew close to you.  Fill it out and place in the collection plate. 

            Midwaythrough this year, St. Andrew’s has received $27,000, or approximately sixty-seven percent of our budgeted non-pledged income.  We are fortunate as a parish to not only be debt-free, but to also have a strong financial position, because of your generosity. 
            About three months from now, we will once again have a stewardship campaign for 2018, and I will share with you all now what I have already shared with our finance committee and our Vestry, which is that as great as we are doing right now, our budget needs to grow next year.  Our budget needs to grow because our mission to bring the gospel to all people is also growing.  Our mission is growing because we are choosing discomfort over status quo, which is exactly what Jesus did.  
            St. Andrew’s is bucking the trend.  We are not shriveling, we are growing.  We are not indifferent, but are purposeful.  We are reaching out to know and to be known.  AMEN.