January 14, 2018
Scripture:1 Samuel 3:1-10
I have always thought this story of the call from the Lord to the young boy Samuel was interesting due to the nature of God that seems to be revealed within it. And that is probably due to the persistence the Lord shows in repeatedly calling out until Eli realizes who it is that the young boy is being called by. Which in some sense was refreshing to me…to hear that the times in my own life where I either mis-heard or stubbornly refused to believe that it was the Lord leading me in a certain direction were forgivable offenses and that the Lord would continue seeking to get my attention until I was ready to listen and to yield.
And so when I saw that this was the selection for today I read it again with keen interest. And after reading it through early in the week I set it aside to let the message sink in, hoping to gain some insight through the week’s events which might flesh out this idea of God calling out to us. And when I went back a few days later and reread the passage I realized I had skipped over the opening assertion which brought the rest of the week and indeed the message I wanted to share into much clearer focus.
I am not sure if you caught it but the second sentence of the reading was, ‘The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread…’. And I must confess I never saw or heard that little phrase before. Somewhere I think I always imagined that God was super present throughout all the times and stories of the bible, never thinking that there may have been times of such uncertainty and lack of clear vision back then as well. And that one sentence really grabbed ahold of me as I thought about how much and how often God must still be reaching out to the church, to the people of the faith, hoping to get their undivided attention in order to share something vitally important.
And then, the very next sentence of our reading gave me pause as well where it reads, ‘At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room…’. And I began to wonder, based on all of the mixed message confusion that is gripping the Christian Church at large, if the eyesight of the church as well had somehow begun to grow dim…if those who were seeking after the Lord might have lost a bit of their openness and understanding of whatever it is that the Spirit may be up to in these times. Is it possible that the church of our Lord Jesus is not able to clearly see what the Lord is trying to reveal to us and that is the reason for the wide disparity in belief and practice? Has our vision perhaps grown dim when we are so divided across the land and as we seek to follow after such varied understandings of the true nature of and purposes of our God?
But then again I heard a word of hope at the end of that same sentence where it reads, ‘the lamp of God had not yet gone out…’. The lamp lighting the room where the unseeing Eli slept…the lamp of our God was still burning…and seeks still to give light to the whole room.
And so, with those thoughts in mind I pondered who we are as a group of faithful friends seeking to follow after the leading of God’s Holy Spirit. I wondered if in fact our Lord might be calling out to us just as persistently as he did to the young boy Samuel, trying to get our attention only to have us presume that the impulses we felt were something else…were perhaps a call to stay the course…or to pray harder…or perhaps just our own concerns and feelings getting the upper hand when it came to truly discerning what the Spirit of God could possibly be up to in such fractured and uncertain times. I wondered if we too kept going back to Eli only to have him tell us as well to ‘go back to bed, go back to sleep, it is all in your head…’.
And somewhere in the midst of all that wondering it began to come together…somewhere I began to feel as if indeed the Lord is calling out to us…calling us over and over to trust and to step out in faith in the directions that lay in front of us but which may require a more significant leap of faith than we are comfortable with. I began to wonder if we might be ready to go back to a place of listening; truly believing that the voice we might hear could be the Spirit reaching out to us…and speaking of new wine and new wineskins to hold a new word from our Lord…
As many of you may know, I have mentioned my struggles with what I like to call ‘survival-faith’ for a long time. Probably because I have been in this church for such a long time and because I have seen the fortunes of the church rise and fall numerous times over the years. I have seen the membership grow, although always modestly, and I have seen it dwindle down to a precious few who still felt that the fellowship was an important part of their lives.
What I am referring to when I say ‘survival faith’ is a faith stance that is adopted by many churches when they begin to face trials of any sort but usually when they are having trouble making ends meet financially. Often these churches reach for any possible way to raise funds, usually through stewardship drives, membership drives, or any number of multiple fundraiser events. And sometimes these efforts result in allowing a church to keep the doors open and the lights on for a little bit longer.
However this way of going about trying to maintain a church does not often work out over the long run. And it also does not usually lead to growth of any sort that would relieve the underlying problems as the people’s energy often tends to run out at the point of being financially current. And usually the underlying causes of a move towards ‘survival faith’ are tied in with a church’s property and the costs of keeping buildings or properties maintained and usable.
In the middle of the twentieth century the institutional church in America was in a heyday. Membership was solid as nearly everyone went somewhere to church and took their children along as well. Not going to church was seen as setting a bad example and very few it seemed were not engaged with a church somewhere each week. Large congregations were able to support large buildings and many churches enjoyed a very real sense of financial and spiritual health, purpose, and sustainability.
However, over the last three or four decades due to profound social and cultural changes the church has lost its ability to draw in new members and in some cases even to retain current and long-term congregants. This has caused a situation that finds many churches struggling to support their ministries as well as their physical properties. No longer are people feeling it is necessary to absolutely make time for church each week as times and circumstances and the issues people have to deal with each week have made the message the church offers less relevant to their lives.
And as of yet, the church has not found a way to modify her message and to address the still real and pressing spiritual needs of those who have left the church. This results in fewer and fewer people remaining behind trying to support ministries and properties that are often beyond their needs and abilities. And it is at this point that those smaller and often ageing congregations feel a need to revert to ‘survival faith’, trying hard to preserve fond memories of a thriving church in the past and trying to find a way to do anything other than close the doors of the church one final time.
And I think that the reason I struggle so with this approach to understanding and practicing our faith is that it tends to wholly exclude God from the picture…as if our Lord had given us the responsibility to care for the church some time in the past and then gone away somewhere, leaving us to try and figure out how to keep the church as a vibrant and living force within our community. In this way ‘survival faith’ practice tends to place the focus of the church simply on being better landlords of church buildings and better stewards of dwindling resources rather than on being those blessed with knowing and holding the Good News of a loving God who seeks to be known through our actions as givers of love, mercy, and grace. It is hard to keep one’s eyes on God if they are always and only focused on endlessly striving to pay the next round of fuel and electric bills, or to support the pastor.
And as a second and perhaps more serious weakness of the practice of ‘survival faith’ we must note that such behavior forces the focus of the church totally inward rather than outward towards the community in need of the loving and saving message our Lord keeps asking us to share.
So here in our church I tend to try to diffuse any efforts to define ourselves as building caretakers first and a purpose-filled worshipping congregation somehow second. This is not to say that any of our efforts at securing the funds needed for continuing our ministry are misguided whatsoever, but rather to say that each of those efforts must always originate first in the desire to serve one another, rather than from some fear of eventual failure. Our faith direction as a fellowship grounded in a call to serve our Lord through actively reaching out and loving our neighbors requires that we all keep our eye on seeking to discern what it is that the Lord is asking of us and to strive each moment to live into that vision together.
Several years back a number of the Council members read a small book titled ‘Not Your Parent’s Offering Plate’. This little book was filled with financial advice for small churches, some of which I felt was quite important for our situation. The basic premise of the book was several fold. First it asserted that many small churches are having a very hard time demonstrating their relevance to society at large in the current social and cultural climate. It acknowledged that times have changed and many folks just do not feel a pressing need to make time for the practice of ‘church’ in their lives. Truly this is something we all see across the board, in churches large and small.
However the book did not throw in the towel at that point but rather stated that what churches needed to do was to find a way to share their own stories of how their life together and the ministries they are involved in are making a real difference in their community.
We are and have always been a people of story from the very beginning. Story telling in an engaging way has been a part of all of our lives from a very young age. And if the church can find a way to understand what it is that the Lord is persistently trying to tell them…and if they can find a way to share what the Lord has been doing through them, if they can learn how to tell that story…then they will find that there are others who are open to hearing it. For this is truly the essence of good news…stories that tell of the goodness and grace that results from faithful partnership between willing hearts and a Spirit of love so much wanting to bless all of God’s beloved.
When the members of a church begin to tell their story, when a church is able to share all that the Lord is doing in and through them, then those who hear will feel the energy and love that flows from a people truly alive in the Spirit. Telling our story to others offers them the opportunity to share in the joy of loving service along with us, sometimes causing them to come out and join with us and other times prompting them to support such works of holiness from a distance. In either case the works of God are magnified and the kingdom of our Lord draws ever nearer.
People who may have no time for church are thus offered an opportunity to touch the face of God as they feel deep within that they are somehow able to truly help another in need. And I would contend that if we truly look around we will see that this is happening all around us…many people are hungry for a chance to return the blessings they know they have received…almost as if it is in our nature…which as those created in the image of a loving God should not be all that surprising. Regular, ordinary, perhaps long-unchurched people will come to assist the church in its ministry of love and compassion if they believe that the work of the church is important and is helping others…if the church’s story is genuine and truthful. And in my experience I have seen this dynamic in action many times over. A simple case in point is Sauros Deli’s New Winter Coat Drive which they hold before Christmas each year in which many of their customers take the opportunity to join in to help provide brand new coats for needy children and adults who patronize our Food Pantry.
Now ignoring the financial realities of sustaining three buildings and simply working harder to tell our story is arguably not a great way to sustain the church…unless you believe that indeed our church truly is a fellowship of loving individuals serving our Lord through serving our neighbors, and a church who happens to be using three buildings to do so at this time. In other words, we are a church in three buildings doing the work we have been given…we are not a church because we have three buildings. And that point may seem trifling given the very real financial needs before us at this time. However I would contend that there are many churches who define themselves by and through their buildings, rather than through the ministry they are able to do as a result of having those properties.
And that is the difference when it comes to being faithful in ministry first and trusting and believing that God is both in charge of our work and prepared to support that work going forward whatever that means. In other words, we have three buildings now because we need three buildings to do the work our Lord has asked us to here in our community. We need the Grange to feed our neighbors, we need the Thrift Shop to clothe our neighbors, and we need our sanctuary to nourish and cherish the souls of everyone who comes through those doors. This is not to say we could not do more, because I know that all of us feel we could expand on our ability to serve our neighbors better and in more ways. But rather to say that we have these buildings along with a call to steward them for the Lord and by the Lord…and…by faith we believe that the Lord will continue to open our eyes to the ways and means he intends to allow us to continue to do so.
But at its heart, this whole way of living out our faith in a time of such great social and cultural resistance relies heavily on our ability and our willingness to share our story…to share what it is that the Lord is doing in and through our church…and to tell that story with excitement and wonder every chance we get. For that is not only testifying and witnessing to what it is that God is doing, but also opening up the opportunity for those who hear to be moved by the Spirit to find a way to support God’s efforts by supporting us.
And that story is my story….as well as yours. It is not simply the pastor who is charged with showing God’s grace to the community but the responsibility of everyone here who has felt the blessing and the grace of fellowship with God in this place. This is a story about hope and promise…not one about fear or worry. It is not about simply supporting our buildings or finding a way to pay all of the costs associated with our ministry here…it is not a ‘survival’ story whatsoever but rather an assertion that indeed there is so much Good News to share here! Good News that our God of love is still alive and working full time to make a difference in the lives of everyone he sends our way. It is a story of the brand new things the Holy Spirit is doing to accomplish the will of God through our ministry. It is a story of how God wants to lead us into even greater community through partnerships of doing good things together.
…and…it is a story of creative ministry that serves a Lord whose provision is not always visible or assured before we need to begin serving.
Now I cannot give any of you faith for that is a gift directly from the Lord, and I cannot convey the excitement and confidence I have in all that the Spirit has revealed to my mind’s eye and in my heart of hearts, but I do know that we are an important and critical part of our Lord’s work in this place and time. Openness and willingness to continue to listen for the voice and guidance of the Spirit is all we need to assure that our story will continue to be written and that our fellowship together will continue and thrive.
And so I ask you all as we begin this new year together to find a way to tell the story of our church to someone…to share why it is that the Lord has brought you or kept you in this place…to tell of all that God is doing and of the incredible difference it has made in the lives of so many. I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to all that the Lord will accomplish through the efforts of this small little gathering of his faithful going forward…
…we have an amazing story…won’t you share it with me?