Sermons at Union Congregational Church
Preached by The Reverend Gail L. Miller
October 7, 2018 World Communion Sunday
Luke 10:38-42 Third in a four-part series on Change
Engaging Change – Making Choices
The past two weeks, we’ve looked at different aspects of Change:
Encountering Change – What Can We Learn?
Experiencing Change – Experiencing Loss
Next week: Embracing Change – What’s Next For Us?
Today: Engaging Change – Making Choices
Churches are constantly engaged in the process of discernment – or making choices. Asking questions like:
• What of this do we hold on to because, if we lose this, we stop being ourselves?
• What is it that we let go of because, if we don’t let go of it, we will give up our opportunity to fulfill our mission?
There is in this tension an urgency to keep changing without lurching to quick fixes. To do this well, we need to live in an environment of a deep sense of trust, and an awareness and a reality of facing the changing environmental conditions. Last week we considered the changing world we’re in and its effects on us.
Because once there is trust and a reality check – only then we have a capacity to begin to experiment our way forward; because we only learn through experimentation.
Three common characteristics of resilient people:
• A staunch acceptance of reality
• A deep belief that life is meaningful
• An uncanny ability to improvise
(How Resilience Works, Diane Coutu, Harvard Business Review)
And I wish for the church to be resilient as well!
A colleague of mine was serving a church that faced a decision back in 2011:
The day after Easter my church received a surprise visit from a Hollywood location scout. He offered us $10,000 to shut down our sanctuary for three days so that his company could use it to film the wedding scene from an upcoming Adam Sandler movie. The film’s plot involves a teenager who impregnates his schoolteacher (the Mary Kay Letour¬neau story played for comic effect). The wedding scene takes place years later, when the offspring of this illicit union is a grown man getting married. Our sanctuary would be featured in a scene that included a fistfight between a priest and a worshiper whose telephone repeatedly interrupts the marriage ceremony.
I’m sure that I’m not the only pastor who’s been tempted to throw a punch at a wedding ceremony cell phone user. That bit resonated with me. And I’ve seen enough Adam Sandler movies to know that the funniest scene from any of his films is the fistfight he had with Bob Barker on a golf course in Happy Gilmore. The thought of paying homage to that particular ridiculousness right in our sanctuary made me smile.
Moreover, the offer happened to arrive on the same day that our office staff spent hours stuffing hundreds of envelopes announcing the kickoff of our latest capital campaign—an effort to raise $100,000 quickly in order to renovate our Sunday school facility during the summer.
So I thought about saying yes. And then I considered not just some practical concerns but also a more fundamental anxiety. For good and for ill my church is a classic mainline, main-street, tall-steeple, in-bed-with-the-larger-culture sort of place. Sectarian appeals carry very little weight with me or with the members of my congregation. Even when I’m the one stating the case, I rarely find myself persuaded. But in this instance, I found myself with nothing to say but “Hollywood? That’s just not who we are.”
I am not the kind of Christian who would boycott a movie (I might wind up watching this one). But the church I serve is not mine [it belongs to Jesus], and I found myself wanting to protect its true owner from the world.
Because I was barely able to convince myself of this, and was certainly unable to make the case in language that would convince the pragmatists I serve, I didn’t try to explain myself. I just said no to the location scout. It felt good. And then Hollywood called back and offered us $60,000.
According to my understanding of congregational polity, a pastor has the authority to turn down money. But not that much money.
We convened our deacons the next day. When the meeting began I was perplexed. Sixty thousand dollars would not determine the future of our church, but it would certainly make things much easier in the short run. Still, I had reservations. Uncertain of what to do, I stayed on the sidelines, frustrated at my own irresolution and slightly embarrassed that my scruples seemed to have a $50,000 price tag.
At the start of the meeting our senior deacon took a straw poll and found that 18 of the people in the room were in favor of accepting the offer. Five were opposed. These five felt strongly, arguing that no matter how lighthearted the treatment might be, our church should not be involved in a story that gets laughs from the sexual exploitation of an adolescent. But this was a decidedly minority opinion.
The notion of turning down “free money” just as we needed to raise money did not make sense to most of our deacons. We spent nearly two hours discussing how difficult it is to find funds in a down economy . . . what a powerful impact this unexpected windfall might have on the children of our church . . . how beautiful our Sunday school might look.
We talked and talked, yet not one mind was changed. It looked as if we would have to settle for a lack of consensus—one that carried a nice payoff. We would take the money. After that we would try to patch things up with the people who were offended.
Then all of a sudden one of our longtime deacons said, “Look—it seems as if saying yes to this offer is going to hurt some members of the congregation. Not most people. Obviously not the majority. But some people. So I guess the question isn’t about a movie. It’s about us. Is $60,000 worth hurting some of our members?”
Let’s pause this story to turn to the Mary / Martha story…
They each made a choice – and each of them had good reasons for making the choice they each made. But Jesus has something to say about it… and it’s quite simple…Choose HIM! Being busy is not what it’s about. Making sure your house is in order is not what it’s all about… Choose HIM!
We learn what’s important – what we should choose – by turning to Christ and asking not What Would Jesus Do?, but what does Jesus want US to do.
So how do we know what he wants from us? How do we know what the next step is on our journey with God? Unfortunately, discerning God’s will is not an exact science – and at times it can be really hard. So we should always think theologically, and see what the scripture says.
We’ve already heard from Jesus that we should choose him. This is reinforced elsewhere when Jesus says, But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you (Matthew 6:33). Jesus makes it clear that God will provide food and shelter for his people. And our role is to seek first the Kingdom of God. When we are about kingdom business, we know we are on the path the Lord wants us to be on.
When we walk with the Lord, we can trust and have confidence that we are making the right choices. When we are serving, loving, and obeying him we can know that he is guiding our path. If we are learning more about Jesus, committed to his church and the saints, serving all people (not just those who call this church home) we can trust that he is guiding us. As we take steps in relationship with our Lord we are walking by faith into the future He has for us.
Another way to discern God’s will for us is to push love to the forefront. Now “love” can be a vague lofty ideal, so let me offer a more specific definition. Love is essentially the choice to value the need of another rather than our own. Though simplistic as a definition, it becomes a manner of living that runs counter to the world.
But love is one trait that Christ clearly said would distinguish our lives from the rest of the world. A transformed life is marked by genuine love.
And so we discern / decide what Christ wants for us by aligning our priorities and decisions with the values and ideas that Jesus lifted up as most important: Seeking him, and Love – Caring for others.
In this way we really are the BODY OF CHRIST – as we resemble him in our decision making and our prioritizing.
It is helpful to imagine that Jesus is with us in the room or in the moment.
Here are three questions I’ve mentioned before that can be helpful as we seek to answer this “discerning” question – Is this what Christ wants us to do?
• Are we including everyone?
• Are we valuing people over all things?
• Are we caring for others more than ourselves?
Is $60,000 worth hurting some in the church? What do you think my friend’s church did?
Five minutes later the deacons voted unanimously to turn down the offer even though most of them thought we should accept it. We went from polarized to selfless in a matter of seconds. I have mouthed unanswered prayers inviting Jesus to join our meetings dozens of times. I have interrupted agendas to speak confidently about his presence when he is nowhere to be found. This time I kept my mouth shut, and he walked right in. (Matt Fitzgerald, pastor of Saint Paul’s United Church of Christ in Chicago. Take the money and run? When Hollywood came calling, Christian Century, October 24, 2011)
I want to close with a prayer that I’ve prayed a lot through the years.
Prayer of Good Courage: (Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978)
Lord God, you have called your servants
To ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
By paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknow.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
Not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us
And your love supporting us,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.