Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pentecost 23 - Year B

“The building is our idol,” our esteemed bishop said in his report at yesterday's Southern Conference Convention. “Some churches, if they had a choice,” he said, “would rather be without a pastor than a building.”

I immediately knew what he was talking about. My first church was like that. They had been without a pastor for about two years before I arrived. And when I was moving into the parsonage a couple council members made it known to me that they were happier without a pastor.

At first I thought they were saying that being without a pastor energized the congregation, that ministry was happening among all God's people, not just the ones wearing dog collars, that people were empowered to live out their baptismal calling through Word, Sacrament, and service. I thought they meant that being without a pastor meant that they were forced to flex their ministry muscles.

No. That's NOT what they meant.

“When we're without a pastor,” I was told, “we take in A LOT more money than we give out. We were able to amass a small fortune before you came along. Now it's going to all be gone.”

I thought this was some isolated grump. Some mean, cheap, old guy who lost the crowbar that opens his wallet.

But no. There was something in the water of this little church. There was a palpable resentment over paying me.

The treasurer hemmed and hawed whenever I submitted my mileage for travel allowance. They didn't pay me my continuing education or book allowance. And half way through the year they cut off my dental insurance after I jokingly boasted about never having a cavity (40 years on this planet and STILL no cavities!). They would whine about how “poor” a congregation they were, so poor they couldn't afford to pay me what they agreed to.

However, I was up in the church attic one morning with some folks and we noticed that some of the beams holding the roof together were looking a little worn. One fellow has his drill with him and wanted to see how deep the wear and tear went into the beam.

The drill went through that beam like cotton. It looked like the 150 year old building was due for some serious maintenance. They hired a contractor and received a quote. It was somewhere around s$300 000 to make all the needed repairs.

It looked like this “poor” little congregation was headed for closure.

But no. This “poor” little congregation who who couldn't pay me according to synod guidelines raised the needed funds in just five Sundays.

“The building is our idol,” the bishop says. Or as the writer of Hebrews would put it, “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands.”

I wish I could tell you that this was an isolated case. But I can't. I know of a church in Nova Scotia who let their pastor go because they said they didn't have the money to pay her. But they DID have the quarter of a million dollars to fix their bell tower when it toppled over – a bell tower!

“The building is our idol,” the bishop says. Or as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands.”

The point isn't clergy welfare, but ministry vitality. What I think our bishop meant when he called the building an “idol” was that it's easy to worry about the upkeep of our physical space at the expense of Christ's mission.

This is something I'm VERY aware of. And I know most of you are as well. I know there's some among us that are hesitant or even opposed to us getting an elevator (eventually!). You've been very open with me that you feel that we should be spending money on people not bricks and mortar or elevator shafts.

And I hear that concern. And I'm sympathetic. “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands” so maybe we shouldn't be spending so much on ourselves. At least that's what it can feel like.

But I don't think Good Shepherd is guilty of Bp. Ron's accusation. The building is not our idol. Our building is used 6 days and nights a week. There's always someone here. And by God's grace, there will be even more people coming here. And an elevator is simply the cost of doing ministry.

And we're working hard at making this worship space workable in this new configuration. And that will cost money. And I know that, since worship is the central act of the church, making such changes are the cost of worshiping God.

But it also feels to me like we're spending a lot of money on ourselves. Even though there are good, solid, gospel reasons why we're doing all this. And I've been thinking about these changes over the last year, wondering what we can do.

To me, it feels like 2009 has been a year of looking inward. And that was intentional. We explored the bible and our Lutheran theological tradition together, and we will continue to do so. We've tried to make our physical space more workable and attractive, which will be an on-going project. But these were all about US.

So, I'm going to give you folks a heads-up of what I'm thinking about for 2010. I'd like to make 2010 a year of mission, of looking beyond our doors, of touching people in the community with good news. I don't know exactly what this looks like yet, so I'd like to hear your ideas. And so would our executive. How can we impact people in our community with the gospel?

That's your homework for the next couple months and beyond. I have some impressions of what this might mean but I also know that you are a creative, faithful bunch who see opportunities that I do not.

Stepping beyond our doors is stepping beyond ourselves. In serving together as Christians we will grow together as Christians. And we will show the world that the church is not just some religious institution only interested in protecting itself, but that our call is to serve the world in Jesus' name, being salt and light, bearing witness to the God of life.

“Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands” because WE are that sanctuary. We are living stones, the holy temple where God dwells. Just like when Jesus in today's gospel despaired over religious leaders more interested in propping up the institution, and despaired even more of the little old widowed lady giving her final two pennies to corrupt, self-serving religious system, he did so because he knew that God was found in each of us, and in all of us together. This place we gather is sacred because this is where God's people – Christ's church – assembles to worship and to serve. This is home base for God's children, where we can rest and be fed, to go back into the world carrying God within us wherever we go.

So, bring me your ideas of how we can serve. Together, we'll bring Jesus' healing and forgiveness to a broken, hurting, and sin-stained world.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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