Category Archives: Capital Campaign

Sermon, Jan. 19

I have been experimenting with preaching from an outline in this season. Apologies to those who read online – I know this is harder to read than a complete sermon text!

  1. Annual Meeting Sunday
    1. Happens every January (though some churches do it in the late fall) 
    2. Business – presenting budget, electing representatives, ministry updates
    3. I usually take invitation to do a “State of the Parish” sermon, to best of my ability
    4. Last year: Jesus at the Wedding at Cana, & anxiety about whether there will be enough. & being in the “stretch zone” as the parish changes and as my role changes too. 
      1. Helpful to me to re-read, because honestly, dealing with the renovation last year sucked up a lot of my capacity to think and pray and practice my way into those changes… if you want to re-read it too, I have some copies in the sermon basket!
    5. Year before that: Preached on an Epistle about holding the present lightly, so that we’re more able to welcome God’s future. That was an easy one!
  1. THIS YEAR… 
    1. Ask myself: What’s the word that needs speaking? Where am I catching a glimpse of God’s next work among us, that I can name and hold up? 
    2. Coming up blank.
    3. Not a bad blank. Not lost, lonely, anxious blank.
    4. Blank page in an artist’s pad, with colored pencils and markers and paints at hand…  
    5. Which makes a lot of sense, when I think about where we are in our common life at St. D’s… 
    1. I came to St. D’s in Jan 2011. First document that mentions preparing for a cap cam dates from March 2011. 
    2. Not because I came here itching to do one, but because folks here had some things they felt could be better. 
    3. Budget issues – put it off; good thing! 
    4. We began in earnest in 2015. Five years ago. 
    5. Open Door Project – make bldgs more accessible, flexible, comfortable and beautiful. 
    6. And here we are.
    7. ODP is NOT OVER. 
      1. More on that in a bit! 
      2. But: Over the hump. 
      3. Renovation was the largest part, both financially and logistically; and it’s more or less over. 
      4. Still collecting pledge payments for the next couple of years; still some interesting and important pieces to undertake.
      5. And still a lot of closets and cabinets and corners with stuff that doesn’t belong there… I’m telling myself it will be OK if some of the sorting and settling waits till the summer! 
      6. But I find there’s also starting to be room to breathe… and wonder, what now? 
      7. Back to that blank page…! 
  1. Lectionary readings for today frame this wondering space. 
    1. Sunday readings come from 3-year calendar used by many churches
    2. Epiph: dropped one lesson, extended another, but still working with assigned texts
    3. Lots of kinds of churches where preachers choose texts; I like the discipline & challenge of hearing what the Spirit is saying to the church though the texts that the lectionary places before us. 
    4. Today: Prophetic text from Isaiah; portion of early part of John’s Gospel. 
    1. Prophet. Godly Play: “a prophet is someone who comes so close to God, and God comes so close to them, that they know what is most important.”
    2. First 39 chaps attrib to OG Isaiah. Later, another prophet’s voice continues and extends Isaiah’s prophecies. Different, but also consistent – it IS one book. 
    3. This is Second Isaiah – chap 49. 
    4. People of Judea conquered, many killed, others taken away to live in exile. 
    5. Prophetic text points towards return to homeland, and restoration of what they have lost, for God’s people. 
    6. Israel not forgotten or abandoned; God remembers; God has a future for them. 
    7. BUT NOT JUST return and rebuilding: a new mission.
    8. You’ll be honored by foreign kings; you’ll set captives free; your cities will be so full you’ll be saying, “Where did all these children come from?” 
    9. MOST OF ALL: Sign of God’s power and redeeming love to the whole world. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
    10. Echoes – Song of Praise this season – Isaiah 60: “Nations will stream to your light, kings to the brightness of your dawning…” A city of peace and plenty and light for the whole world. 
    11. Import msg for people in exile: temptation to just want what they had before. God says: OK – but I have bigger plans for you. 
    1. Now, all that speaks to me pretty directly.
    2. Renovation is not conquest and exile. But there was chaos and confusion and dislocation, and some struggle, and some grief. 
    3. And now we can settle in to renewed spaces & return to normal. It would be easy to let that be enough. 
      1. Since Xmas: I’ve been able to notice & enjoy. Hearing that from others, too. Things look nice and feel good! 
    4. BUT: God through Isaiah: It’s too light a thing to just move back in, tidy up, get back to how things were before all the mess. 
      1. God says to God’s people: I have work for you that extends beyond the gates of your city, the doors of your church. 
      2. Your renewal has a purpose beyond yourselves. 
    5. Return, rebuilding and restoring is not just for our comfort or convenience, but for God’s glory and God’s work in the world.
      1. I don’t know yet what that will look like. 
      2. But I believe that’s what we’ll be discerning in the months and years ahead. 
      3. What’s waiting to be drawn or painted on that blank page … or maybe several blank pages.
      4. If this makes you uncomfortable – if you were enjoying getting back to normal, and the idea that our new “normal” includes opening our hearts and minds to God’s unfolding purpose for our parish, sounds like more than you’re up for at the moment – then you are not alone. 
      5. That’s where our Gospel today comes in – and it is good news. 
    1. We are back and forth between the Gospels of Matthew and John a lot in this season, for some reason. 
    2. We’re back in John this Sunday, soon after Jesus’ baptism (which we had in Matthew last week), and John the Baptist is telling people about Jesus: “That man over there? He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God!” 
    3. John had his own disciples – followers and students – from among the many, many seekers who came to him to hear his preaching & perhaps be baptized.
    4. Here he is pointing away from himself, towards Jesus: That’s who this is all about. That’s who you really need to follow.
    5. Just a few verses before this passage, a verse I treasure:
    6. V. 19-20: “This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ John confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’”
    7. Something I read a few years ago called this the Confession of John the Baptist – as in, his confession of faith. Only half a joke. 
    8. I AM NOT THE MESSIAH. Not the One Sent by God to Save and Restore. I just point at him. Look, there he is!
  1. VIII. Putting the Confession of John in conversation with Isaiah….
    1. It is too light a thing for God’s people to simply have what they had before, restored to them; God intends them to be a light to all peoples, so that God’s saving power can reach to the ends of the earth.
    2. But – and – We are not the Messiah.
    3. Reassurance: Whatever comes next for us does not have to be Messiah-scale. 
      1. Nobody, least of all God, expects St. Dunstan’s to fix what ails the world or our nation or even just Madison or Middleton. 
    4. Offering ourselves to God’s purposes not the same as being the SAVIOR of the WORLD. That’s a relief!
    5. But just as important: We are not called to be the Savior; but we are called to point towards him. 
    6. That IS our job, individually and together – to live lives that point in word and deed towards a loving and redeeming God, made known to us in Jesus Christ. 
  1. Picture that blank page. Close your eyes if it helps. 
    1. A nice chunky notebook; good brushes; cup of clean water; the colored pencils are sharp and ready… 
    2. If art stuff makes you anxious, feel free to pick another image. Wood and tools? An empty garden plot? An image of joyous potential. 
    3. We have some praying and wondering and discerning to do, in this season. 
    4. I am looking for some prayer partners to pray with me about the next chapter in our common life here at St. Dunstan’s. I don’t know exactly what that looks like either but I know I need it. If you think that might be you, talk to me. 
    5. There’s no hurry in all this; we’re still unpacking, and still recovering, from the renovation. 
    6. But I think the time is right to begin patient, prayerful preparation for the next thing – remembering that it won’t be OUR thing, but God’s.
      1. The purpose, the plan, and the power – all God’s. 
    7. If we listen with open minds and hearts, God will show us the way. I really believe that. 
    8. Let us pray.

      O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world
      see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by the One through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon, Nov. 10

The Jerusalem Temple was the center of the universe. The place where heaven and earth met. Built by the great King Solomon, son of the greatest King, David, to be the very home of God on earth. The place where the holiest object of God’s people, the tablets of the Law, were kept. The place where a person might come to give thanks; to make petition; to seek purification and absolution. 

The Jerusalem Temple was the center of the universe, for the people Israel. And it had been destroyed. Judea, the territory around Jerusalem, had become part of the Assyrian empire in the year 700 before Jesus’ birth – still nominally their own country, but forced to pay tribute and obey the Assyrian rulers. When Babylon arose as the new regional power, Judea got tangled up in a war between Babylon and Egypt, and then became part of Babylon’s growing empire. Judah revolted against Babylon, first in 598 and then again ten years later. Both times, Babylon won; and after the second revolt, in the year 587, they made sure there wouldn’t be a third one. 

The city walls were torn down. The great Temple was shattered and burned, not one stone left upon another. The holy vessels were carried away as spoils of war. Most of the people of Jerusalem and Judea were killed or taken into exile in Babylon.

Then – nearly 70 years later – the exiles are allowed to go home. King Cyrus, the ruler of the NEW regional power, Persia, gives them permission to return and rebuild – even gives them money. Not everyone goes back, of course. The few who still remember Jerusalem in its glory are old now. Mostly it’s the young, the hopeful, the ambitious who return. Drawn by their parents’ and grandparents’ stories of how things used to be, in their own land, with their own great city. They set out, full of energy and purpose.

But when they get there – it’s not what they expected. For one thing, it’s not empty, a blank canvas for their dreams. There are people living in ruined Jerusalem – a mix of their own kin, mostly poor and rural Judeans who moved into what was left of the city after the exiles were taken away, and of other peoples who had moved into the region from elsewhere in the Babylonian empire. And the great Temple, the center of the universe, the place where heaven and earth meet, is … charred rubble. 

The prophet Haggai is among the returnees. His book is short, only two chapters. In the first chapter, God speaks through Haggai to tell the returnees to get busy rebuilding the Temple. In the second chapter, God speaks through Haggai to address the people’s concern and dismay that the new Temple is not as fine and glorious as the old Temple. 

Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? Look at it, elders: How does it look to you now? It looks like nothing, right? Yet take courage, Governor Zerubbabel; take courage, High Priest Joshua; take courage, all you people!  Work, for I am with you; my spirit abides among you; fear not.The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former. 

The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former. The returnees build, and the Second Temple arises from the ashes. Is it better, holier, more splendid than the first? It’s hard to say. But it becomes once again the center of Jewish religious life, the heart of a nation and a faith. The place people come to give thanks; to make petition; to seek purification and absolution. For nearly six hundred years. 

Until it’s destroyed. Again. Second verse same as the first. Empire – Rome, this time; occupation; rebellion; crackdown. Fire and death and desecration. There are Roman carvings that show the holy vessels of the Second Temple being carried off as booty by the Romans, just as the vessels of the First Temple were carried off by Babylon. 

About forty years before the Second Temple is destroyed, with the marks of Rome’s cultural, economic, and military domination everywhere you look, and the people resentful and restless, Jesus of Nazareth visits the Great Temple. He spends some time there, teaching and debating with other religious groups. One of those groups is the Sadducees. 

We don’t actually know a lot about the Sadducees. Most of the surviving texts about them were written by their enemies. We know they had close ties to the Temple and its religious practices. We know they were Torah literalists: they didn’t hold with interpretation or tradition, but only followed what is clearly laid out in the Five Books of Moses. Among other things, that meant they didn’t believe in any kind of life after death, since nothing of the sort is mentioned in the Torah. This puts them at odds with both Jesus and with the Pharisees – with whom Jesus actually has a lot in common. 

A few Sadducees approach Jesus with a question. They say: According to the Law of Moses, if a married man dies without having children, it is his brother’s responsibility to marry the widow and have children with her, as a way to give his dead brother a heritage that will live on. They’re not making this up: it’s called levirate marriage.It’s laid out in Deuteronomy, and there’s a memorable story in Genesis about a man who is struck down by God for refusing to impregnate his dead brother’s wife. It’s a central principal of marriage law in Old Testament Judaism, and it’s found in many other cultures around the world. It seems weird to us, but this practice in itself would have been normal for the crowd gathered around Jesus here. 

The Sadducees have an elaborate what-if about levirate marriage and resurrection – which, remember, they think is bunk:  This unfortunate woman is married to seven brothers in a row, and they ALL die without having children with her. Then she dies. In the afterlife, whose wife is she? 

This isn’t a good-faith question – they are trying to trip Jesus up. But it’s also not entirely a bad-faith question. This IS actually how Jews seek out the meaning of Scripture. The Talmud is a body of law, interpretation, commentary and debate that’s core to Jewish teaching, built up over many generations both before and after the time of Jesus. And the Talmud has lots of stuff like this in it: posing hypothetical questions, debating how the Law applies. It’s rich and contentious and wonderful. So, yeah, the Sadducees are poking at Jesus here; but this is also a game which everyone basically enjoys. 

Jesus, as usual in these situations, sidesteps the trap. I think his answer is important in a couple of ways. For one thing, he liberates this poor hypothetical woman. Please note that marriage is fundamentally asymmetrical, in this context: the men marry, the woman is given in marriage. And for the most part, women had to be married to have any social standing or security. What a relief for this woman, to be able to just be herself in the afterlife, rather than having seven immortal husbands, only one of whom actually chose to marry her! 

But this isn’t really a conversation about marriage. That’s missing the point. It’s a conversation about resurrection. It’s a conversation about the scope of reality: Is this IT, or is there More? Is there After? Jesus says: There’s More. There’s After. Because our God is God of the living. 

We don’t know much about the Sadducees because they disappeared from history. Right around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. While the Pharisees, and the Christians, and others, developed new forms of Jewish life and practice and identity, the Sadducees just faded away. It makes sense. If your core identity and practice centers on the Temple and the Temple is gone, what else is there to do? Why go on? Judaism, the faith of Moses, might as well be dead. And they didn’t believe in resurrection. 

But Jesus says: Our God is a God of the living. 

Beloved friends, it would have made all the sense in the world for me to use that Haggai text to preach about our church renovation. To promise renewal and prosperity stretching unbroken into the future, now that the kitchen has decent lighting and we have more than one meeting room. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former. 

But I can’t not know the next chapters of that story… the ones where the latter splendor ends up as rubble, too. And I won’t lie to you.  

The second Temple lasted over 500 years, which is a pretty good run. St. Dunstan’s is only 61 years old – and counting. Like those returning to Jerusalem from exile, we, too, have elders among us who remember the glory days – of this church or other churches. St. Dunstan’s is one of many churches planted in the heady ecclesial optimism of the late 1950s, when a population boom combined with a spike in religious engagement, and churches and Sunday school classrooms across America were bursting at the seams.  When people would be turned away from church committees because they were FULL. 

The former splendor of this house – like all those hopeful midcentury church plants – was pretty splendid. Will the latter be even greater? Hard to say. As I often remind you, the landscape of 21st century faith is complex – though not all bad, by any means. Let me be clear: I think we have some splendor ahead of us. God has some next things in mind for St. Dunstan’s. I don’t know what they are yet; but I can feel the space beginning to open. 

It’s easy, in the dust and muddle of the final phases of a major renovation, to be pretty focused on the building – like our faith ancestor Haggai. Some days the best thing I can imagine is for all the mess and chaos to be finished, and for us to settle in to a newer, nicer version of what we already had. But fortunately God’s imagination is bigger than mine. 

Parts of this place really are looking comparatively splendid. But we don’t come to church – we don’t come to Jesus – for splendor. We come to church – we come to Jesus – for life. If the goal were, Make the old thing into a nicer, newer thing, then yay! We did it! (Mostly. And we’ll still be paying for it for a while.) But all that is just the container for what God is doing among us. It’s a safer, cleaner, more comfortable and accessible container now, but it’s still just a container.  

I’d like to stand here and promise you that the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former. But I believe a truer and stronger and more hopeful promise is Jesus’ promise is that our God is the God of the living. A promise we live into not only by sharing worship with our beloved dead – but by trusting in the possibility of a future better and bolder and more beautiful than a freshly re-painted version of the past. 

Take courage, leaders! says the prophet Haggai.Take courage, priests!  Take courage, all you people! Work, for I am with you; my spirit abides among you. Fear not.

Sermon, Jan. 20

Every year, in preparation for Annual Meeting Sunday, I undertake the daring feat of trying to write something that is both a sermon AND a “state of the parish” address, of sorts. It works better some years than others. Last year the Lectionary handed me a terrific Epistle about holding the present lightly, so that we’re more able to welcome the future. That was easy to preach. 

This year… we have these beautiful texts of reassurance. A prophet tells God’s people in exile, You shall no more be called Forsaken or Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your God shall rejoice over you. The Psalmist sings, How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. Paul writes to the church in Corinth to say: God has gifts for each of you, by the power of the Holy Spirit; and those gifts all work together to help the fellowship of the faithful fulfill God’s intentions. And this Gospel – a story about God’s unlimited bounty. 

These are all wonderful words… But I could not find traction to preach about them. Yes, God loves us, and everything will ultimately be fine. I know all that. Most of the time. But, y’all, those words weren’t meeting me where I was. And I try really hard to start my sermons from the place where the texts are speaking truth to me, so that I can speak to you with authenticity. 

And then I read a sermon on this Gospel – by the Rev. Anne Sutherland Howard – that honed in on one of the emotional notes of this Gospel story: Anxiety. Howard begins, “’They have no wine.’ I hear a question in Mary’s voice as she points out to her son Jesus that the wedding guests have run out of wine. I hear a question that I carry deep within myself, a question familiar to many of us:  Will I have enough? Are we running out? Are we rich enough? Safe enough? Good enough? Will we go over the budget?  Can we put dinner on the table and keep the wolf from the door?” (

Think about the steward – the headwaiter – at the beginning of this story. It’s his job to keep food on the trays and wine in the cups. He’s been watching helplessly as the wine supply gets lower and lower. You can’t just TELL people to go home. Maybe they’re running short because Mary’s oldest brought all his weird scruffy friends with him, and boy, can they put it away. 

Regardless: This is a terrible situation for the steward. Any time you’re offering hospitality, you want there to be enough. More than enough: PLENTY. Both so that the guests feel welcomed and enjoy themselves – and so you come off looking good. There’s honor at stake. You don’t want to come up short. People might talk about what lousy hosts you are. People might not come, next time you invite them. People might even go online and write you a bad review. Worst of all, people who need what you offer might look around and think, There’s nothing for me here – and walk back out the door. 

Anxiety: Is there ENOUGH? In that question, this Gospel finally met me where I am. But before I talk about that, let me lay a little church growth theory on you. If you have ever read a book written by a church growth consultant, you’ll find lots of diagrams and charts and magic numbers. I take all that with a substantial grain of salt. But there is something to the notion that a church with fifty regularly-participating households, functions differently from a church with a hundred regularly-participating households. 

The church growth literature has names for churches of different sizes, based on the ways they tend to function. Churches of about our size or somewhat smaller are called pastoral-sized churches. They are fundamentally pastor-centered. People belong because they like the pastor, and they may leave because they don’t like the pastor. People expect to have a direct relationship with the pastor – and the pastor expects that too, expects to know everybody and more or less know what’s going on with everybody.  The pastor is also the information hub: if you want to know what’s going on or who’s doing what, you ask the pastor. Everybody doesn’t know everybody – that would be a family-sized church, the smallest size category – but everybody knows somebody who knows somebody. 

Churches of about our size or somewhat bigger, on the other hand, are called program-sized churches. They have a diversity of church programs, run by staff or volunteers so committed that they function like staff. Program-sized churches are big enough to have multiple social networks within the church. Alice Mann writes, “[The] larger and more diverse membership will contain a ‘critical mass’ of people from several different age and interest groups… This substantial presence of varied populations stimulates creative ministry.” (The In-Between Church, p. 5) And in a program-sized church, people’s primary connection to the church may be through a program or peer groups – rather than the pastor. The pastor is less central to parish activities, and might not know everybody. 

I don’t know about you, but I see elements of each of those categories in our current common life at St. Dunstan’s. The book I just quoted is called “The In-Between Church,” and I think we’re in an in-between zone. I think we have been for several years. In my annual meeting address for January 2013, when I’d been rector here almost exactly two years, I said that St. Dunstan’s was a pastoral-sized parish. Period. I think that was true at the time. I don’t think it’s true anymore. 

Church growth in the 21st century is tricky because the way we used to measure it doesn’t work very well anymore. The standard metric used to be Average Sunday Attendance – ASA.You knew you were growing because your ASA went up by 10, or 50. ASA still tells us something, but it’s less useful as a core metric, because the ways people participate in churches have changed. This is large-scale stuff, not specific to St. Dunstan’s. For many people, regular attendance now means 2 – 3 times a month, which can tilt ASA downward even as new members tilt it upwards, because math. And people are more likely to connect and participate in non-Sunday morning ways, which ASA does not capture. 

Our ASA has gone up somewhat since 2011. But that number doesn’t really reflect how many new people and households have become part of St. Dunstan’s in the past few years. My first year here, one member told me that she’d been here ten years and was still seen as “new.” That same person definitely counts as a long-time member, now. 

Our capital campaign last year, and the resulting renovation that’s going to dominate our life this year, are symptoms of that growth. We might not have ten kids in a Sunday school class EVERY Sunday, but we have ten kids in a Sunday school class SOME Sundays, and we need space – in our classrooms, our gathering area, our kitchen, all over! 

So here’s the thing: This in-between zone is hard. The consultants say so, and I think they’re spot on, because I’ve lived it, both here and elsewhere. I mentioned that St. Dunstan’s was a pastoral-sized parish in my first years here, but five years earlier, parish leaders were preparing for a possible transition to program size. It’s quite common for congregations to plateau, or go up and down in this in-between zone, for a number of years. Because it’s demanding to break through and develop the necessary new patterns and new culture to become stable at a new size.

The in-between zone is also called the stretch zone, because, well, it’s a stretch. In lots of ways. It demands both rethinking and restructuring. It’s the reason a smart pastor – smarter than me, probably – will be cautious about holding up church growth as an unambiguous good, because growth does not feel good to everybody, or all the time. Growth means real changes, both subtle and obvious, and change is demanding. 

In the stretch zone, some things tend to be stretched thin. Gary McIntosh, who’s written about this, says leadership, facilities, and finances can all be stretched.  We’ve got a plan to address the stretch in our facilities – we start knocking holes in the walls right after Easter! – but those other stretches are real, and we’re feeling them. 

Stretches in congregational and ministry leadership happen because there’s more going on, and more people to engage and incorporate. But newer members may not yet feel read to step into ministry or leadership roles, OR may be looking for something else from church than the opportunity to serve on a committee! We end up with a choice between asking the people in leadership already to serve longer and do more; or letting there be vacancies sometimes and seeing what happens. Here’s what that looks like right now: We have a couple of empty slots for our Vestry, our church board. Thing is, we’ve actually had a great Vestry recruitment season. We’ve had terrific conversations with a bunch of people about what it means to serve on vestry, and what we think they’d bring to that work, and a bunch of people said, That sounds great; ask me next year! So rather than twist arms, we’re sitting with some empty spots. And we are not going to try to fill them today.  Our vestry is an amazing body; it does important work and it does it well; and it’s too important for people to make snap decisions about joining it. I hope that a couple of you out there are thinking, Hey, maybe I should give Vestry a try. We want to hear from you! We do need to fill those slots! But we want that to be a process of conversation and discernment, not just a raised hand and a quick vote. We’re in the stretch zone, and we’re feeling it – but we’ll come through it better if we breathe, and trust. God’s right here with us. 

By the same token, stretches in our finances happen because we’re doing more, with more people. We see that in the parts of our budget that increase as we increase: things like kitchen supplies, youth group budget, and photocopying. This year, we’ll be adding some new expenses as we bring our second building back into use, because we need the space. And our diocesan assessment, the portion we give to the larger church, goes up as our budget goes up, just like income taxes. The upshot of all that is that our 2019 budget shows a small deficit – our first deficit budget since 2013. The deficit is around $6000, less than 2% of our total budget. Now, I hasten to say that the vast majority of our regular pledgers and givers have continued to be incredibly generous and faithful in your financial support. Many of you increased your pledges this year, even as you also made commitments to our capital campaign. Your Vestry and your Finance Committee see this small deficit not as a red flag, but as perhaps a symptom of some factors far outside our control, like new tax laws and stock market instability; and we also see it as a – very predictable! – symptom of being in the stretch zone. 

The good news is that our parish financial situation is not dire; we don’t need to panic or make sharp cuts that might starve growing ministries. We often get pledges during the course of the year, as new members decide they want to commit to helping sustain our common life. We commit to be watchful and transparent about our finances this year – as we always are! – and see how things go. We’re in the stretch zone, and we’re feeling it – but we’ll come through it better if we breathe, and trust. God’s right here with us. 

Anxiety – will there be ENOUGH? Stretched leadership and stretched finances demand my attentiveness and my prayers. But I’m not actually anxious about those things. I’ve seen God, and this church, do much bigger miracles before. Where anxiety gets traction for me is whether there’s enough me. While refreshing my memory of the church growth literature, I opened a blog post that began like this: 

“If you are sole pastor and your congregation [is moving towards program size], you probably already feel pretty stretched by:

  • Keeping up with non-crisis visitation and counseling
  • Tracking visitors and incorporating new members
  • Providing leadership for adult classes, groups, and committees
  • Managing clashing expectations [among members]
  • Stepping up to more complex processes for planning and communication.”

And I thought, Yeah. Pastoring a pastoral-size church is different from pastoring a program-sized church. We’re a little of both right now, and it’s stretching me. I have some learning and growing to do. And some letting go. Y’all did a terrific job caring for each other and making church and deepening relationships during my sabbatical last fall, a wonderful opportunity to discover that St. Dunstan’s is not as pastor-centered as we thought. It gives me so much joy when someone brings me an idea and says, We’d like to do this. OK? Unless there’s serious clash of calendar or theology, I’m going to say, GREAT! What do you need? 

I’ll probably always do a lot because, guys, I like my job, but over the years I’ve been able to move more and more towards doing stuff that’s exciting and rewarding for me, instead of stuff that has to happen because That’s What Churches Do. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for our staff and for the volunteers that function like staff, whose skill and commitment mean we can offer ministries and opportunities far beyond the limits of our budget or your pastor’s time. But it’s true that my role in the parish has changed, and is changing. It’s good. But it’s a stretch, and sometimes I feel it. 

It’s hard for me to release the idea that I’m going to know everybody. What’s going on with your job and your family and your spiritual life. I never really did, but I thought maybe I could; and these days when I look out at all of your faces, I know we’re not that kind of church anymore. I’m not going to be able to have a meaningful coffee date with everyone in the directory on a regular basis. I’m going to have to trust y’all to have meaningful coffee dates with each other. And you do, and I love that so much! 

If you’ve ever seen my desk, you know I’ve got a lot of quotations and prayers posted around it so that when my eyes wander from my computer screen, they land on something helpful. One of them has these words from a mentor, Dwight Zscheile – “Clergypersons must ask themselves, What am I doing that someone else can do, so that I can be freed up to do what God needs me particularly to do in this place?” (People of the Way, p. 124) It’s a heck of a good question, and one that’s particularly important for me to sit with, in this in-between season, this stretch zone. 

Being in-between is uncomfortable for churches. We have two choices, friends: we can lean into the stretch – trust God, trust each other, and see what happens – OR we could stop growing. Show enough inhospitality that new people stop showing up, and ideally start a big fight about something, so that some folks leave and the church can be a more comfortable size again. That’s actually a pretty common path churches take, friends.But it’s not the one I hope we’ll chose together. I hope that when we’re tempted to ask ourselves or one another that anxious question, “Will there be enough?”, we’ll be able to trust in God’s power and God’s abundance. 180 gallons is a LOT of wine, y’all.

In our Gospel story, the steward’s anxiety is relieved; the party is a resounding success. There is enough. Why? Because somebody shared their gifts. Somebody at the party had a skill that could fix the problem. It’s miraculous, because it’s Jesus – but it also happens all the time. Just like in today’s Epistle – Now, there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of activities, but one God who activates them in everyone, as manifestations of the Spirit for the common good. I love the awkward syntax there – the Greek word is energeo, energy! There are many energies among us, all energized by the Spirit of God.

Paul lists some possibilities – miracles, prophesies, wisdom, healing – but I’ve seen some others: To one is given the ability to build a whale out of PVC pipe; to another the willingness to bake cookies for the youth group; to another the skill to keep the white robes white; to yet another the capacity to sort the markers – a Herculean task. 

My trust in our future together is founded on God’s faithfulness and your giftedness.You have all kinds of things you’re good at, or enjoy doing – charisms, gifts given for a purpose, with God as the energizing power. Maybe you can’t name yours yet, and need friends to help. Maybe you know your gifts, but haven’t spotted where they could be useful here – or, like Jesus, you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with me?” In the weeks ahead, as part of our lean into what’s already happening among us, I’m inviting us to reflect on our gifts and skills. This box will be in the Gathering Area – it’s empty, so far! 

Next to it will be these slips. One is for sharing something YOU’RE good at or enjoy doing, that you’d be interested in bringing to our common life here. And one is for naming a gift or skill you see in somebody else here, adults or kids.  Because it’s really important to call forth each other’s gifts. I encourage everyone to take at least one of each, and do some thinking and some noticing in the weeks ahead. When you’ve got something to say, fill them out and put them in the box! I PROMISE you that I am not going to go through this box and assign people to ministries. Pinky swear. But these little slips of paper, taken all together, might point us in some new directions in our common life. Some new ways to use the gifts you bring, for the common good. 

For the common good: Symphero, in Greek – a word that can mean, To carry each other; to endure hard things together; to move forward as one. May it be so. 

Let us pray.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look
favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred
mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry
out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world
see and know that things which were being cast down are being
raised up, and things which had grown old are being made
new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by the One through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity
of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 291)

Homily, June 17

My daughter and I have a little early-summer routine, a special mother-daughter ritual. We watch for our gooseberry and currant bushes to leaf out and begin to set fruit. We look for signs that the plants are being attacked by the larva of the gooseberry sawfly – tiny green caterpillars that will devour the leaves, laying a whole plant bare, if they get the chance. We find a time and go outside together, pluck the larva off the bushes, and murder them by drowning them in a container of soapy water. I treasure these shared moments. 

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.

If you’ve ever soaked a bean and tucked it in to sleep in a Dixie cup of potting soil, you have seen the mystery of growth. How does a plant that spreads and climbs as tall as me emerge from a bean the size of the tip of my pinky finger? How does something little get big? How does something simple and unformed become complex and complete? The seed sprouts and grows, he does not know how. 

Growth is a mystery and a wonder. Even if you understand the processes at work, it’s still amazing that it works. That’s what Jesus wants us to notice, with this parable. But if you plant something hoping for a particular outcome, you don’t just sit on your hands.You don’t just sleep and rise night and day, and look out your window at the garden now and then. 

You pick off the sawfly caterpillars. You mend your irrigation system that some creature has nibbled over the winter. You break off some of the green fruit so the young tree won’t fruit too heavily and break itself. Maybe you even take a Q-tip and patiently pollinate the flowers, as I did with our church kumquat tree last week. You help and direct the growth; you give the growing plant what it needs, and protect it from pests and other threats. 

With the best care in the world, there are no guarantees. A late frost, an early blight, a bad batch of seed, a hungry and ambitious rabbit – anything can happen. But sometimes it all comes together –  our care and efforts, and the living force of growth – that dearest freshness that lives deep down things, in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. It all comes together, and something flourishes. Something matures.  Something bears fruit. 

Of course, we are not simply talking about plants. Human processes are similar – both within us and among us. Fulfillment is slow and uncertain. In today’s text from First Samuel, young David is anointed king. He doesn’t actually become king for another fifteen years – after serving in King Saul’s court, having to flee and hide from Saul and his armies, and leading a rebellion against Saul. Sometimes it takes a while for something to come to fruition. 

Tomorrow we will declare the fundraising phase of our capital campaign complete. This is a fulfillment that has been a long time coming. People were talking about the need for a capital campaign when I came here, at the beginning of 2011. The idea lay fallow for a long time – because renewing a sense of hope and direction in the congregation, and getting our finances stabilized, were the immediate priorities. We started to explore the process more seriously in 2015. We took our time, even when that was hard – even when it was tempting to rush, to cut short a conversation, to jump to a conclusion. We let things emerge. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.

And here we are. You – we – have pledged over a million dollars to the Open Door Project, our capital campaign to renovate and improve our church buildings and grounds. Early on our consultant thought we should aim for $600,000, maybe $700,000, based on their experience and expectations. We said, “That’s not enough to do what we feel called to do. Let’s follow this vision a little further, and see what happens.” 

The seed sprouts and grows, I don’t know how. 

Well: I know some of how. We’ve worked and prayed hard to do this well. So many of you have participated, in so many different ways. We’ve picked off the sawfly larva and fixed the irrigation system and shooed away the rabbits. We’ve nurtured the growth of this project and everything it means for our church. 

But even at our busiest, we’ve stayed mindful that we are not the only ones at work in the garden. That in and with and under and behind us and our efforts is the living force of growth, that freshness deep down things, the buoyant fidelity of the Holy One, whose purposes we strive to serve. We are, of course, not done yet. In a certain sense we’re just getting started. We’ll gather in the final pledges – reconcile our pledged total with our project list, and set priorities – talk to architects and contractors – collect bids, develop timelines – get rid of unnecessary stuff so we have room to put away the necessary stuff while renovation is taking place… Things will be busy, and inconvenient, and exciting, for many months ahead. 

And even when the final truck drives away and we vacuum up the last plaster dust – we’ll still just be getting started. We said we wanted to do all these things so we’d have capacity to grow our ministries; accessibility and welcome for all; more engagement with our grounds; more space and resources to share with our community.  When the dust settles, it’ll be time to follow through on those hopes and intentions. We’ll be busy with the Open Door Project and where it leads us for years come. 

It takes time for things to mature and bear fruit. But I’m not worried, friends. The soil is good; there’s water and sun aplenty; there are many faithful hands at work; and the One who gives growth is blessing us and urging us on. 

Let’s listen to the Gospel again, and let it sink into our hearts. I’m using a different translation this time – The Gospel according to Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson. 

Read The Carrot Seed, a story about a little boy who plants a carrot seed and takes care of it though nobody around him believes it will ever come up, and at the end, a HUGE carrot grows. 

Sermon, Nov. 12

Note: This sermon is based on Joshua 3:7-17, the Old Testament text for November 5 (Proper 26A), which we did not use last week because we celebrated the Feast of All Saints. 

What do these stones mean to you?

The people Israel, the people God has named and called to be God’s people, are at a turning point in their history. Back on September 17, the lectionary gave us the story of the Exodus, when God and Moses led the people through the Red Sea on dry land, and out of bondage in Egypt. In our schedule of Sunday readings, the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for about six weeks. But for the Biblical narrative, it’s been FORTY YEARS. People who left Egypt as babies have grown up, married, had children of their own, and could even be grandparents.

Just two weeks ago we shared the story of the death of Moses, at the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Now we’re beginning the book that bears Joshua’s name. This means we’re at the end of the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, which hold the great origin story of the people Israel and lay out how they are called to live. Moving from the Torah to the books of Joshua and Judges and beyond is a little like moving from the Revolutionary War era into early 19th century national history – if Moses is Washington and Jefferson, then Joshua is more like Monroe and Van Buren.

So Israel has survived years in the harsh, dry wilderness, and their future home lies spread out before them. Awesome. Wow. But it turns out there are people living in the Promised Land. So what comes next? A lot of war. While Moses was a prophet and spiritual leader, Joshua is a general. There’s a lot in this portion of Biblical history that we, rightly, find difficult to swallow – God’s word to Joshua is to kill everyone they meet, while God’s word through Jesus Christ is to love our enemies.

For today, though, let’s focus on this threshold moment. Listen, I’ve been to the Judean desert. It’s an incredibly harsh environment. Hot and dry and rocky, with minimal vegetation and only the most hardy and elusive animal life. And after far too many years out there, sustained only by miraculous manna, the Israelites are standing on the banks of an honest to God river. The Jordan river. Which is just a trickle in the dry season, but right now, it’s the rainy season, and the river is overflowing. The way ahead for Israel lies through a huge stretch of muddy shallow swift-flowing water. And it must have been so beautiful to them. All that water.

But the problem remains: How to get across? Israel’s journey to freedom began with a miraculous journey across a body of water; it’s time for another one. God tells Joshua, I’m going to make sure Israel respects you as the leader I have chosen. Call on the priests of the people, and have them carry the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan River.

The Ark of the Covenant was the holiest object Israel owned. It was an elaborate golden box that held the Tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments, written in stone by the very finger of God. It was a powerful symbol of God’s presence and God’s favor.

So the priests take the Ark and walk before the people into the Jordan, into all that muddy mess. And as their feet touch the water, the river… stops. Instead of continuing to flow downstream, the waters begin to pile up, as if a wall of glass were holding them back. The priests carrying the Ark walk ahead, into the center of the river bed, and stand there, on dry ground. And the people Israel follow them and pass them, crossing the Jordan without getting their feet wet.

Let me take the story a little farther than our lectionary text. When everyone has crossed over, God says to Joshua: Choose twelve men from the people, one from each of the twelve tribes. Have each of them find a stone, here in the middle of the Jordan, in the riverbed. Carry the stones out of the river, take them with you. And when you make camp tonight, make a pile of those stones, to help you remember this day. So Joshua summons twelve men, one from each tribe, and tells them what to do. And they take their stones; and then, finally, the priests carry the Ark out of the riverbed, and the waters of the Jordan return to their place, flowing and overflowing as they were before.

When the people made camp,  at a place called Gilgal, the twelve stones were set up as a monument. And Joshua told the Israelites, ‘When your children ask their parents in time to come, “What do these stones mean?” then you shall let your children know, The Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea,* which was dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty… These stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever.’

The Israelites are on brink of a new chapter in their history. They’re uncertain what lies ahead, what they’ll be able to carry forward from their past into a new way of life, whether they are really many enough and strong enough and bold enough and faithful enough to go where God is leading. And in this moment, God gives them a saving act – that miraculous crossing of the Jordan – and says, Remember this. And build yourselves a nice pile of rocks, to make sure you remember it.

What do these stones mean to you?

There are several times in the Old Testament when people raise stones to commemorate important events. Later in the Book of Joshua, Joshua will ask the people, As you settle in this new land, are you going to stay faithful to God, or start worshipping the gods of other nations? And Israel says, We will serve our God! And Joshua raises a stone to remind them of their decision, their commitment, saying, ‘This stone shall be a witness against us, if you are unfaithful to God.’ Much earlier, in Genesis 28, Jacob raises a stone at the place where he had the dream-vision of angels going up and down a ladder from heaven – a vision of the active presence of the Divine on earth. Several generations after Joshua, the prophet Samuel raises a stone as a monument to celebrate a victory against Israel’s neighbors and perennial enemies, the Philistines. This stone is given a name, Ebenezer, meaning “Rock of Help,” for as Samuel says, Thus far has God helped us.

This practice of raising stones has several purposes. It marks a moment as significant. You don’t raise a stone for just any old thing. Raising a stone says, What has just happened, or what we have just done, is important. It matters. And raising a stone, creating a physical landmark linked to an event or moment – it proclaims something to the future. It says to the people, Remember this day. In Joshua 4, that’s made explicit: Joshua tells the people, When your children ask you, What do these stones mean?, tell them. Tell them how God stopped the river so that we could end our long wandering, and enter a new land and a new life. Raising a stone is both celebration and commitment. The stones raised in Scripture mark victory, revelation, covenant, deliverance. The stones say, Remember – and live accordingly.

The stone monument in Joshua 4 is all this, and a little more. Because unlike those other stones, this isn’t one large stone but a pile of stones, a cairn. A representative of each of the twelve tribes contributed to the cairn, choosing a rock from the riverbed and carrying it to Gilgal. The monument represents both a significant moment in salvation history, and the people’s unity in experiencing and responding to that moment.

Our Gospel story today is a provocative parable that a lot of people have questions about. I preached about it in 2014 and when I looked back at that sermon, I didn’t have much to add; if you’re worried about the girls who didn’t get to go to the party, I’d love to hand you a copy of that sermon, or point you to some other great commentaries on that text.

But I’m preaching on Joshua today because this text is speaking to me. I’m laying this story before us today – spending perhaps a surprising amount of time talking about rocks – because I feel like this year this story is a little bit about us.

What do these stones mean to you?

This story makes me think about our stones – the literal ones. Having this year’s fall giving campaign happen within the frame of our parish conversation about a capital campaign has made me particularly aware of the history inscribed in the buildings and land around us. The rocks of our walls – piled up in 1964 as the church was built – they’re rough blocky golden native stone of Wisconsin. These granite boulders – one, two, three – they’re glacial erratics, brought to Wisconsin from somewhere farther north by the Great Ice, and left when the ice melted away, about 10,000 years ago. I don’t know whether the one outside sits where the glacier left it. The two that form our altar base and our baptismal font were moved here from Turville Point, over on Lake Monona, the home of one of the founding members of this congregation. Visible signs of the generosity and commitment of Henry Turville and of all that first generation of Dunstanites, who piled stones together, both literally and metaphorically, in this place, to say, God gave us this beautiful place. God called us to be a church together here. Thanks be to God.

And this story makes me think about our metaphorical stones too. All the ways we each bring contributions and pile them up to build something together. Our pledges of financial support, sure, in this giving campaign season. We’re still in the middle of our campaign – hoping to gather in all pledges by next Sunday – but so far a whopping 68% of you have increased your pledges. I’m just staggered by that, and really hopeful about what that means for our budget and our ministries next year.

But there are so many other ways we pile our stones together, friends: All the people who will bake and decorate and set up and clean up for our much-anticipated Pie Brunch next Sunday. All the time and energy and art supplies and warmheartedness and commitment – on the part of teachers, parents, kids – that allows us to have Sunday school. All the voices of people and instruments raised in beauty and praise in our worship today. All the hopes and ideas and intentions and observations that have gone into our discernment and visioning work towards a possible capital campaign to improve our property. In so many ways, we become greater than the sum of our parts, by the alchemy of God’s grace.

I’ve said it before: In some ways this is just another year at St. Dunstan’s, and in other ways it’s a very unusual year. We’ve been growing slowly for a while but suddenly we’re at the point where some Sundays, we actually have to sit next to each other – and we might even have to start sitting in the front row! And we’re thinking big thoughts together about our identity and our future and our mission. This is a really exciting time to be rector of St. Dunstan’s. And also, a little nerve-racking.

What do these stones mean to you? We stand on the brink of a new chapter, uncertain what lies ahead, what we can carry forward from our past and what new gifts and new challenges we’ll encounter, wondering whether we are really many enough and strong enough and bold enough and faithful enough to follow where God is leading. The stones piled up by those who built this place, stone by stone, year by year, tell me, We have come this far by God’s help. And we’re still building – and building anew: piling together our contributions, literal and figurative, to mark this strange, holy, joyful moment of celebration and commitment. To remind ourselves to remember, and to tell the story of this time. And to be a sign to us that God keeps making a way.

Sermon, Feb. 19

1 Cor 3: 9-11

For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 

You are God’s field, God’s building.

You are God’s field, God’s building.

I’m going to preach briefly today, because I want to give time to our guest speaker, Crystal Plummer of the Episcopal Church Foundation. Crystal is our guide as we walk together through a process of discerning whether this is the moment for a capital campaign to raise funds for some updates and improvements of our building and grounds; and if so, which projects and possibilities should be the focus of that campaign. And in a few moments she’ll talk us through that process, what it means and where it goes from here.

But the lectionary, our cycle of readings, gave me a good text for leading into Crystal’s words, and reminding us why we ask questions like this – what is God calling us to become, and how could our buildings, our property, better accommodate and support that growth?

You are God’s field, God’s building. I’m not a Greek scholar; I fumble around with online resources and pretend I know what I’m talking about. But I got curious about those words, field and building. They seemed suspiciously generic. I wondered if the Greek nouns, the words originally used by the apostle Paul in this letter to the church in Corinth, were more specific and perhaps carried a bit more meaning. So I poked around a bit, and my hunch was correct.

Let’s start with “building.” Turns out the Greek word is oikodome. It’s a compound of two other words – oikos and dome. We’ve talked about the word “oikos” here before – it means a household, a group of people living together under the same roof, functioning as a system. It’s broader and messier and has fuzzier edges than “family,” which is why I like it as a metaphor for a church. Then there’s Doma. We’ve got words based on that – who can guess what it means? Yes – house or home. As in “domestic.” For the language geeks, this turns out to be an Indo-European root, which means it’s really old and really widespread – I was surprised and fascinated to learn that the English word “timber” shares the same root, by way of Old Norse, and originally meant “building”, or, “to build.”

Okay, so, back to Paul: the building here isn’t just any building. It’s a home. A place where people live together. But there’s more: my online source claimed that this word isn’t exactly a noun – more of a gerund: it implies the building process, not a finished product. A home under construction.

So what about the field? It turns out this Greek noun is only used here. There are LOTS of fields in the New Testament, but they’re all named with the noun agro, root of our word “agriculture.” But this field is “georgion.” I was stumped; I thought, Paul used this word for a reason, but I can’t find anything that tells me what this noun implies, that’s different from agro.

Then I saw that another form of this word is used a LOT – the form that means a kind of person, or a kind of worker: someone who tends a vineyard. Someone with the particular skills to care for, prune, support, and encourage a grape vine, so that it will grow strong and healthy, and yield plenty of good-tasting grapes. In that form, this word all over the place – like in the parable in which the landowner rents out his vineyard to vine-keepers, or in John chapter 15, verse 1, when Jesus says, I am the true vine, and my father is the vinedresser. Georgos.

It’s not quite that Paul is calling the church a vineyard – that’s still another Greek noun – but he’s calling the church something that God tends, as one would tend a vineyard. So what’s the biggest difference between a vineyard and a field? With a field, you plant; the plants grow; you harvest; then you till the waste back into the ground and leave it for the next growing season. Every year it’s wiped clean, and the farmer starts over.

But a vineyard is perennial. It takes a long time and a lot of care for the grapevines to mature. That’s why you’d build a wall around a vineyard, and not around a field – a vineyard is a significant investment of resources, time, and care. Thinking about that image, my mind goes to our work slowly adding perennial food-bearing plants on our property here – hazelnuts, currants, fruit trees. It’s a long-term project that will yield results years or decades in the future – and only if we think ahead now, and put in the time and effort to nurture that potential.

You are God’s field, God’s building. You are God’s vines to be tended, God’s home under construction. Paul is writing to a particular church, in this letter, and he sees a particular need for growth in that church – a few verses earlier, in last week’s text, you may remember that he called them spiritual BABIES, not ready for solid food, because they were devolving into trivial factionalism instead of staying focused on Jesus Christ. But, while that’s the context for Paul’s words here, images like this – of cultivation, tending, and building – are used for the Church and for God’s people throughout the Bible, both Old Testament and New. God expects God’s people to be always becoming. Never finished. Another season of growth, rightly tended, will yield more fruit. Another day’s work with brick and mortar, rightly planned, will make more room for an expanding household.

In the conversations we’ve already begun, about possibilities for our capital campaign, we’re talking about things: walls, carpets, fixtures, pavement. But we’re always, really, talking about who we are, as an oikos, a household of God, and where we feel the tug of becoming. As we continue those conversations, we will encourage each other always not just to name what we’d like to do, but why we’d like to do it – What constraints would be eased, what possibilities could be accommodated, by the changes we imagine?

As we walk farther into this season together, I’ve found some grounding in the words of the Jesuit scientist and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. His words echo and amplify Paul’s invitation to the church in Corinth to make themselves available to God’s ongoing work among and within them, and to trust their becoming to God, the Master Architect and Vinedresser. Here are Teilhard’s words:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability— and that it may take a very long time…. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. 

Sermon, January 22

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.