Sunday, November 11, 2012

A sinking ship or the missio dei?

I think maybe I am the last person who should be giving a sermon on Stewardship Sunday.   I’m the kid who has spent her entire life going to school - spending, rather than making - money. And I’m sure my in-laws are really looking forward to the day that ends. I’m the kid who thinks the best way to spend money is on comfortable shoes and good beer.  I’m the kid who is notorious at the seminary for arguing that most churches should blow their endowments. 
Seriously.  That’s what I think.  Of course, I don’t have a fiscally sound bone in my body, nor do I understand the complexities of dividends, trust funds, or annuities.  I don’t even know the differences between all those.  But I do know a little bit about church, and I know that the Presbyterian Church and the Christian Church as a whole, to quote my friend Pastor Jim Walker, is “the Titanic.”  It’s a sinking ship.  We are losing members at an astounding rate; some estimates claim that we have lost more than 50% of our population since the fifties.  Buildings are crumbling.  Congregations are shrinking, and in some places, pastors are stretched thin to meet the needs of up to five different congregations at once.

Just travel over to Hazelwood and you’ll see four different churches all within a block of each other, and all either dying or dead, boarded up, crumbling, abandoned. This ship is sinking. And we really should just grab the good silverware and jump into the lifeboats. The church - as we know it - as we are comfortable thinking of it - is dying.  And here we are treading water, trying to keep our doors open, trying to stay relevant.  
But of course, I’m also the kid who has spent countless hours parsing Greek verbs, reading Calvin, and arguing the benefits of infant baptism and weekly communion. I’m the one who is banking on the hope that there is something still living in this whole Christian Church thing. I’ve put my entire hope for my future, heck, for my son’s future, in this one crazy, dying, church basket.  From the outside, statistically, financially, and maybe in every other way, this is a very bad investment.  

Unless of course, you were to sit down with me over a cup of coffee, or a really dark stout, and chat with me about how much life I have received from doing what I’m doing.  I’d tell you about the people who come to the Table on Tuesday and Thursday nights at Hot Metal, about how they call me “Reverend” even though they know I’m not officially one yet. About Gail who drives thirty miles just for a meal, some friendship and to give me a huge hug and a smile as she says, “oooooh dear.”  I’d tell you about the women in the H.O.P.E. Pod at the jail, how they give me so much hope just by their stubborn tenacity and their willingness to share a little bit of their stories with me. I’d tell you about what it’s like to hang out with a group of young people, arguing over the superiority of different brands of ketchup, or eating Swedish Fish and cheese pizzas until we get sick, or that amazing moment when one of them opens up enough to talk about the pressures he or she feels from school and family and friends and society.  I’d tell you about the exhilaration and excitement I feel when a see a tiny chink of new life come through the words of tired Scripture.  
These are the investments that give me life. So, I guess my currency is just different. 
And maybe that’s why the traditional perspective of the story of the Widow’s Mite is so crazy-making for me.  We quickly rush to the assumption that Jesus is praising the widow for giving up everything she has - presumably, even the chance for her next meal - for the sake of the Church.  Look how much devotion and trust she has!  Look how committed!  Look how loyal!  We should all be like her!  We should all give up everything we have, to the point of absolute destitution, so that we can have the faith that she has.  But then we realize that we can’t, or we won’t, and then we give up on the giving and the vulnerability and the trust, and we blame practicality and go back to living our isolated, guaranteed, fiscally sound lives. If we look at the story this way, we’re still thinking with the currency of this world.
I don’t think Jesus wants us to be living on the brink of abject poverty any more than he wanted this widow to.  Just a few chapters earlier he criticizes the scribes and the Pharisees for putting their “Corban,” or their offering to God, above their parents’ physical needs.  In chapter 7, Jesus basically claims that our bodily needs are more important than our “offerings to God.” And I don’t think this is because Jesus thinks we shouldn’t offer anything to God.  I think it is because we are so very insistent upon differentiating and dividing our worlds.  We have separated our experiences into line items in order for them to fit in our budgeted lives: this much time goes to work, this much to family, this much to church, this much money goes to our cell phone bill, this much for our electric, this much for insurance, this much for NPR, this much for goats in Rwanda, this much to the church.  Everything has its perfect column, its perfect delineation - Its perfect allotment - it’s perfect limit.  Our lives are so subdivided that they have become pieces that we try to fit together to form into some kind of whole.  And heaven forbid we “go over budget.”
But I think Jesus wants us to understand that the currency of the Kingdom of God is completely different.  God’s currency is measured in wholeness.  And the only way to do that is to become a part of the missio dei - the Mission of God; and that probably means we’ll always be over budget. And I’m convinced it looks just like that picture on the communion table. And it’s just like that millisecond of joy I receive when a woman in my class at the jail “gets” that she doesn’t have to be a slave to her addiction, or her occupation, or the traumatic thing that has happened to her.  It looks like that messy moment when everyone is scrambling for their loaf of bread at the end of the meal at The Table. Or when our blind buddy, Brian, comes up for communion and ends up dipping half his fingers along with his entire piece bread into the cup. Or when I’m entirely exhausted and spent from the day of teaching and ministering and meeting and stretching out of my comfort zone that all I can do is watch reruns of the Gilmore Girls.  
A pastor friend of mine got an email last week from another pastor who was asking for help with a “membership” campaign.  Asking for clarification, my friend asked, “do you mean a stewardship, or a discipleship campaign?”  And the pastor said, “no, a “membership” campaign.  We just want more people to come to church.”
It sounds like he just wants better drive-thru statistics: “Welcome to Generic Christian Church USA, billions and billions served!”  The poor guy’s campaign is doomed from the start.  People don’t want “church.” We want community.  We want discipleship. We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.  We want to be participants in the Mission of God. 
This was clear to us when we had a community meeting in Stanton Heights to talk about the future of an abandoned church building.  Last April, the congregation just folded up and left, leaving its silk flowers and communion trays and donation envelopes behind.  But at this meeting, a cookout, more than eighty people showed up - and they all brought potato salad and haluski.  They voiced their opinions on what they wanted to do with this building.  Some wanted a “silver sneakers” program, others wanted an after school tutoring program, others wanted community meals, and still others wanted some space for yoga.
They were very clear, unanimous even, about what they didn’t want.  They did not want a church.  And yet. They want community.  They want discipleship. They want to be stewards of their community.  They want to be a part of a mission that is greater than themselves. What they really church - to be a part of the missio dei, to be the Body of Christ in the world.

Being a part of the Mission of God really does mean giving money, or time, or our skills and talents. All that stuff is required. But it’s not the end in itself. Jesus’ disciples were told to give away their very coats if asked.  “Certain women” practically bank-rolled Jesus’ entire ministry operation.  Others offered their homes, shared meals, visited the sick and the dying, or went to distant lands on journeys of their own to spread the Good News.  So it’s not that God doesn’t want us to give; it is, in fact, that God wants more from us than our gifts or offerings.  God wants our very selves. God wants us “over budget.”  Can I be so bold as to say that God needs our very selves?  We are what God is doing in the world. And that’s how we’ve been created to be. 
We are invited to stop compartmentalizing, to stop differentiating what parts of our lives go where, and to see ourselves wholly - and holy - as children of God who are a part of the mission of God.  Are you getting it?  It’s a vitally important paradigm shift in our worldview.  It’s a shift away from budgets and line-items, to fullness, completeness, “over-budgeted-ness,” and ridiculous abundance.
Jesus tells the scribes, and tells us: “Beware of those people who are so devoted to one way of doing church that they start worshipping the institution and the traditions and the bricks and mortar instead of worshipping God. Beware the people who “give” only to improve and solidify their social and economic status. Beware of those people who just want warm pews and full collection baskets.  Beware of the people who claim there is just one way to participate in the Mission of God.  Beware of those people who make a poor widow feel so little of herself that she gives everything she has, even her very last meal, in order to support an institution that abuses and condemns her. 
Beware of ourselves, who, so often, define our worth, our identities, and even our faith on the currency of this world.  Don’t you see?” He says. “This woman here, with the two pennies we don’t even bother to pick up in the parking lot - she has given more than any of us.”
What if we lived our lives with the trust of this poor widow, but not a trust in buildings and furnaces and institutions or traditions but a trust in the Kingdom of God? - with a trust that we are invited to be a part of that Kingdom; we are invited into a grand community that explodes the boundaries of our carefully carved out and budgeted lives. What if?  
That is what stewardship is: participation in the Mission of God. It’s discipleship and communion. It’s active and it’s messy and complicated, and from the outside looking in, a really bad investment.  But for us, stewardship might mean keeping a roof over our heads and paying for staff to keep this community going.  It might mean prayerfully considering how we can use the resources we have - maybe even some of our endowment - to keep this community thriving and flourishing and participating in the Mission of God.  We have a lot of good silverware here; maybe it means gathering it up, jumping ship and building something new?  Maybe it means doing church differently?  Above all, it means listening deeply to the heart of God, listening deeply for the call of God to direct us and invite us to our part of God’s mission.  It means participating in, going “over budget” in our community - letting ourselves make mistakes, letting ourselves try new things, maybe even letting ourselves do something that to the outside world seems like a ridiculous idea, a poor investment, maybe even a “waste” of money.

May our stewardship escape the bounds of budgets and numbers and isolated line items.  May our stewardship permeate every aspect of our lives, so that we are all bringing all that we have to the Mission of God.  What an amazing gift that can be. What an amazing gift that is.  Thanks be to God.