Nadia Bolz-Weber is a pastor. She’s also an author and a celebrity, at least the closest thing to a real celebrity we have in mainline Protestantism. Her books and writing and conference talks have made her beloved by many, and her church, the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, sounds like truly remarkable place. As you might guess from all that, they get a lot of visitors and new members. I mean, really a lot. People who think maybe this church, this spiritual leader, is finally the Right Thing for them, home after a long journey, solace after a long struggle.
So Nadia has developed a little talk she gives to those seekers, those new members. She tells them, Look, we’re not perfect. Churches are made of human beings. Someday, we will disappoint you or hurt you. Someday, I will disappoint you or hurt you. It’s a matter of when, not if. The church, this church, WILL let you down. And then she says, Please decide, right now, right up front, that you’ll stick around when that happens, and let God’s grace do its work in the cracks left by the brokenness of human communities.
I admire the honesty of that approach. And it seems to me that it neatly captures the tension between our New Testament readings this morning. In Matthew, we see the enthusiastic, ready response of the newly-called: Immediately they left their nets and followed him! And in 1 Corinthians we get a glimpse of a church community, a group of people who know each other well – maybe too well – who are in conflict. Divided. Forming factions and judging each other. Not a compelling witness to the gospel of Christ.
At first glance those readings seem to grate against each other, a mismatch; but really they’re just different moments in the lifetime of faith. There’s the moment of call, claim, curiosity or conversion, the moment when we first say, Yes. Yes to Jesus, God, and/or church. When we say, This is for me. I want to be part of this. And then there’s the ongoing life of discipleship and community, which gets messy. Even within a broadly unified and loving fellowship of faith, people have different understandings and priorities. They always have.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul is writing a letter to a community that’s struggling with conflict. Those of us who make a vocation of tending a church are often encouraged to reflect on the ways in which a church functions as a system, and we would name this as disequilibrium.
Equilibrium is a scientific term. It refers to a state in which the forces acting on something – an object or a system – are balanced. The thing isn’t static or still, there’s stuff happening inside and/or around it, but the stuff all adds up to keep the the thing pretty much the same. A push this way is balanced by another push that way, and so the thing stays in a kind of dynamic stability. Make sense? Okay.
So, disequilibrium is – not that. It’s when one of the forces in or around the thing gets stronger or weaker, or a new dynamic enters the system, and the system is no longer in equilibrium. No longer settled, balanced. That doesn’t mean that the new factor, whatever it is, is going to win – is going to shift the system in its direction. Systems are complex; the other forces acting on and in the system will respond to the change; you’d have to understand the system very thoroughly indeed to be able to accurately predict the eventual outcome. But the point is, there was equilibrium, and now there isn’t. Instead, there’s change.
Paul is addressing a situation of factionalism and conflict. But conflict is only one kind of disequilibrium. There are others. And many of them are things we think we want. Growth causes disequilibrium. Stretching ourselves to be and do more causes disequilibrium. Positive change is still disequilibrium. It unsettles our stability, our balance. Even though it’s a good thing in the abstract, it’s uncomfortable, stressful. It creates anxiety in the system. It can lead to conflict, which is often a symptom, rather than a cause, of disequilibrium.
That’s why your vestry spent several meetings last year developing our Community Covenant document, a statement of how we want to treat one another when we disagree, or when conversations get intense. We didn’t do that work because we were in conflict, or because there was conflict in the parish. We did it because when you shake up a system, anxiety can erupt in surprising ways, and it’s best to be ready for that, instead of being blindsided.
And we are shaking up our system, friends. We are talking about a capital campaign. We are choosing disequilibrium, taking it on intentionally, by asking ourselves what calls and charisms – remember, a charism is a gift given for a purpose – what calls and charisms God has bestowed upon us, and in what ways our building and our property reflect and accommodate all that, and in what ways they don’t.
I believe we are ready. I believe we can handle this. I believe that because I trust God, and I trust you. And because we have really taken our time getting here, talking and listening and noticing. Waiting for the moment to ripen, for the opportune time. I have literally been thinking about a capital campaign here for five years. Not because I came here as your new rector thinking, Boy, I can’t wait to lead a capital campaign!… Yeah, no. But because within my first year here, I already heard and felt – from you, among you – the places where the building chafed, didn’t fit who we are and what we do.
Your Vestry, your elected board, has literally been talking and thinking and praying about a capital campaign for two solid years. It took us eight months to choose a consulting firm to lead us through this work. I’m sure there are folks here who feel like this has come out of nowhere; I ask you believe me: we have really, really taken our time, letting this possibility emerge and mature. We have not taken a single step forward without a unanimous Yes among your leaders – the Vestry and Finance Committee. And we’ve floated the idea out to the congregation, and listened, as part that discernment, too. And so far, those Yeses have come, easily, and clearly. Yes, let’s take the next step down this road. Let’s keep exploring. Let’s keep wondering. Let’s see where this leads. We may still come to a No, or a Not yet. But so far, the Spirit among and within us has led us to Yes.
All those Yeses make me hopeful, and excited, for the prayerful conversations and work ahead. But I’m also bracing myself to deal with the stresses of disequilibrium. To take an example deliberately chosen for its triviality: The microwave in our church kitchen, built-in over the stove, is TERRIBLE. It’s so old it doesn’t even have a turntable; you end up with one lukewarm spot in your bowl of food…. We either use it and curse it, or avoid it. It’s easy to limp along with this inadequate piece of equipment. Replacing it is another whole story. That means assessing our needs; looking at how the whole kitchen functions; who uses it, and when, and for what; while we’re replacing the built-in, should we do something about the cabinets, which are also starting to fall apart; you get the idea.
Tolerating something less than ideal is easier than making it better. It just is.
I feel some anxiety in our parish system already. Not about the microwave, but about the possibility of a capital campaign. It’s not a lot of anxiety, it’s not intense, but it’s there. It’s there because money worries people. It’s there because we have both amazing, gifted, engaged newer members and amazing, gifted, engaged long-time members participating in this work, and not everybody knows and trusts each other yet. It’s there because the congregation’s memory of the last big building project here, in the 1990s, is that decisions were made from the top, without truly taking the parish’s needs and desires into account.
There’s anxiety about transparency – will everyone be heard? will decisions be made fairly and collaboratively? There’s anxiety about scale – are we going to set overly ambitious goals, and either end up disappointing ourselves, or overreaching our capacity? There’s anxiety about how to plan and design for the future, which is always and inevitably unknown. There’s anxiety about doing this NOW, when things seem so right in the life of our parish, but so uncertain in the life of our community, nation and world.
One of the things that happens in an anxious system is that the thing is never just the thing. Small issues take on disproportionate emotional energy. That conversation about the microwave is a conversation about how we gather; the conversation about how we gather is a conversation about who we are; the conversation about who we are is a conversation about whether we are who we’re supposed to be, and whether there’s room in that “we” for others who need to be here; the conversation about whether there’s room for others – and which others? – is a conversation about the survival of mainline Protestantism in the 21st century. So the microwave can become a big deal, fast.
How do we handle the anxiety? Well: your leaders can offer some assurances. We WILL give everyone a chance to be heard. We WILL do our utmost to make reasonable and sustainable decisions. We WILL do our best to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we discern our path forward into the unknowable future. I absolutely mean all of that. But I also know I could say those things till I’m blue in the face and folks will still be anxious, because the system will still be anxious. Unsettled, both literally and figuratively.
Then there’s prayer. You could do worse than today’s Psalm, Psalm 27, a psalm of trust and assurance. “God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” “Your face, Lord, will I seek.” “Surely I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” “Wait for the Lord. Be strong, and let your heart take courage.” I spent some time this week collecting some prayers about seeking God’s will and trusting God in a time of uncertainty. I posted a few on our parish website; take a look sometime, if that would be helpful to you.
Another way to handle the anxiety is remind ourselves and each other of the touchstone of who we are, together. That’s the approach taken by the Apostle Paul, addressing the conflicted Corinthians: Be united in the same mind and the same purpose. In a way Paul is calling the Corinthians to think back to that first Yes moment. He asks them to step back from the tangled messy present and remember the fresh joyful urgency of the initial call. To remind themselves why they became part of a community that strives to follows Jesus together.
Be united in the same mind and the same purpose. What’s the mind, the purpose, the intention, that unites us? Recently I happened to look back at a document from 2012 – five years ago! How many of you weren’t even here yet? – A document about who we are, at St. Dunstan’s, and what we’re good at, gathered from the congregation. And what astonished and honestly delighted me is how familiar it felt. The things we named back then were things that we’ve grown into even more, in the intervening five years.
We love music, and singing together. We love drama, and a good story well told. We love to make stuff, to craft, tinker, build, and fix. We love our grounds, and we’re continually working to care for them and learn from them more faithfully. We love to do things for others, together. We love to feed each other and to eat together. We love to learn and wonder and reflect together. We love our kids. In fact, that sentence doesn’t even work, because at St. Dunstan’s, kids are part of the We. Not some separate group that we do things for, but full members of this household of faith. We love the holy moments when we’re able to be companions for one another in times of pain or struggle; when we’re able to sing and pray and preach courage in the face of the world’s hurt. We love being a place of welcome, of safety, for those who’ve been bruised or battered by other churches, or by the world; and we’re committed to maintaining and broadening that welcome. We love it when people can offer the things they’re good at and the things they love to do as their ministries here, and we trust that the capacities and enthusiasms of our members are leading us somewhere together – are indeed charisms, gifts given for a purpose.
Be united in the same mind and the same purpose. Well: I’m not sure we’re ever all going to be of the same mind, here, exactly. Too many opinions! But the same purpose, the same intention, the same heart, the same sense of direction, the same love and longings for this place, this fellowship – I think we really do share a lot, there. I think there’s a core that will hold us together, and lead us forward. Help us manage the anxiety of disequilibrium, and keep loving and striving and building together, even when we don’t see eye to eye.
Remember Nadia Bolz-Weber’s speech to new members? Well, most of you aren’t brand-new here – though a few are. The newness in our midst is a project – this project of discerning possibilities, and then, perhaps, of actually following through to make it so.
But I’d like to say what Nadia says. Right now, this new thing among us is kind of exciting. So far it’s all possibility, and no reality; what’s not to like? But. But. You will be disappointed or hurt, at some point in this process. There will be moments when people’s priorities or preferences are at odds. Someone will think your pet project is unimportant, or flat-out stupid. (Though I think we’d get a LOT of use out of a climbing wall!) Cruel financial realities will kill a possibility that you’d built hopes around. This work will – at some point – piss you off.
I am asking you: Decide, now, to stick around. Decide, now, to bear with it. To bear with us. To bear with God, in what God is doing here among us. To remind yourself why you’re here to begin with, and of the common purpose and heart that unites us, even if we sometimes feel divided. To trust in God’s good and gracious intentions for this outpost of the Kingdom here at the corner of University and Allen. And to let the Holy Spirit work through the spaces left by our inadequacy, short-sightedness, and anxiety, to accomplish God’s purposes on earth.