Author, speaker, and activist Brian McLaren is at Second Presbyterian Church this weekend, October 23-25. Trinity is co-hosting the event along with 10 other churches. He will speak about his latest book, We Make the Road by Walking, which offers spiritual seekers, ex-Christians, and long-time Christians from diverse backgrounds a common understanding of what it means to follow Christ. This weekend will include lecture, discussion, and worship in sessions on Friday evening (starts 7 p.m.), Saturday (starts 10 a.m.), and Sunday (9:30 a.m. adult education class). For more information go to www.weekendwithbrianmclaren.eventbrite.com or you can buy tickets at the door.
As I am writing this letter, Pope Francis is in the midst of his first visit to the United States. I devote my letter this month to a selection of things he said in his address to the U/S. Congress. Our Roman Catholic brother spoke gospel truth today. I commend it to you all.
Today I would like not only to address you, but through you the entire people of the United States. Here, together with their representatives, I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and –one step at a time – to build a better life for their families. These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society. They generate solidarity by their actions, and they create organizations which offer a helping hand to those most in need.
I would also like to enter into dialogue with the many elderly persons who are a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience, and who seek in many ways, especially through volunteer work, to share their stories and their insights. I know that many of them are retired, but still active; they keep working to build up this land. I also want to dialogue with all those young people who are working to realize their great and noble aspirations, who are not led astray by facile proposals, and who face difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults. I wish to dialogue with all of you, and I would like to do so through the historical memory of your people.
My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great Americans. The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self-sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future. They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves. I would like to mention four of these Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton….
Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).
This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.
Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God. Four representatives of the American people.
God bless America!
Our pastor, Kim Rodrigue, is allowing her body to heal from recent surgery and is taking some respite from pastoral duties for the next few weeks. We wish her to know our love and that with care and
understanding we all support this time for the healing that will come.
The season of Lent brings us a time to reflect and this prayer from A Book Of Uncommon Prayer by Kenneth G. Phifer spoke to me as I hope it will with you. Let us all be imagining the calling we have before us and how best to carry it out.
I Need to Be Aware
Expand my awareness O God
to others I may see today, tomorrow.
Help me to look for signs
of our common humanity among the
people I meet.
Help me listen to what people are saying to me,
not just to their words
but to what they are really saying.
Sensitize me to calls for help that I might give.
Alert me to signals that I may heed if I will.
In this big, booming world of ours,
I am always bumping into people,
then glancing off to pursue my restless,
I need to constantly remind myself
that life and love are found in
that you are speaking to me through
and touching me by means of human
I pray for others and thereby touch them with my
Ill people who know what it is to hurt and be
Lonely people who know what it is to hunger
for someone’s concern.
Pressured people who fear they are going to
As I think upon those that I know
and touch them with my thoughts
Help me to whatever extent I can touch them
with my life.
As I feel my way along in prayers
So may I feel my way along in my daily
looking, listening, reaching out and
As I would keep alive the memory of Jesus
Give me a fuller measure of his living and
healing spirit. Amen.
May each of you be blessed this day.
I am writing this letter 4 weeks after my foot surgery. I continue to appreciate your prayers, cards, good wishes, and understanding that I can’t yet do some things that I can ordinarily do. I see the doctor this week and am hopeful that he’ll tell me that things are moving along as they should be.
I’ve been thinking about my challenges as I recover from this surgery in connection to Trinity and New Beginnings. It is a challenge to accept the realities of this surgery, not knowing what its ultimate outcome will be. Perhaps you’ll see some commonalities.
- •The surgery was to fix something that has not been quite right since I was a child. Circumstances helped me to know that 2014 was the time do so something about this long-existing challenge.
- •The things that I know to do to recover do not apply. I am a walker; it’s part of how I know myself and the world. In my experience, it is part of being healthy. I am currently living with the instruction not to walk. It is confusing to be told that the best thing for me to do is to sit with my foot elevated.
- •There is no guarantee that this surgery will work. The doctor was pretty clear with me that if I didn’t have this surgery soon, it was likely that I wouldn’t be walking at 70. But he has also been clear that he cannot promise that there won’t be unforeseen complications.
- •I want the rest of my life to be fruitful and active and will do what it takes to make that happen. At the same time, I am frightened by the unknown.
As we continue on this journey to a new beginning and I continue on a personal journey of recovery, one more commonality is the knowledge that none of us does this alone. Just as I have been buoyed by your expressions of support, the community buoys each other in this time of change. We need to be able to express our hopes, dreams, fears, confusions in the community and have them all honored. We need to know that others are also praying and working toward a healthy new beginning.
And God. God is the big commonality. It is not always easy to trust that we are doing this work with God by our side, but we are. God has been with us since the beginning. God is with us now; God will be with us in every future.
This is my prayer for all of us:
- God, be the love to search and keep me;
- God, be the prayer to move my voice;
- God, be the strength to now uphold me:
- O Christ, surround me; O Christ, surround me.
WHAT IS YOUR ROI?
As most of you know, I’ve been preaching from the texts used in the New Beginnings curriculum. We took a break last Sunday for All Saints Day, but today we return to the last text, this passage from Matthew.
If you were reading along in your pew Bible, you probably noticed that I stopped reading before the passage actually ends. Seems the folks who put this curriculum together and chose these passages wanted to give us a break. Perhaps they thought that the reality of NB was challenging enough without having to contend with the verse about the master throwing the third slave into “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” We are dealing with the Parable of the Talents, light version.
But even the “light” version is challenging. You may know that the Parable of the Talents occurs in two separate places in the Bible — the one I just read from Matthew and also in Luke.
A little biblical primer might help us understand it better:
Biblical scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel written, and that it functions as one of two primary sources for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Together these three Gospels are called the Synoptic gospels, as they tell a synopsis of Jesus’ life, unlike the much more overtly theological Gospel of John. You can find many of the same stories in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, often tweaked slightly because of the original audience and purpose of the particular gospel.
However, there is also a fair amount of material in Matthew and Luke that isn’t found in Mark. This material is thought to come from a second source, often called the “Q” source, from the German “quelle,” which means “source.” Q is thought to have come from oral tradition at the time of Jesus’ life, saying that are only preserved as they were incorporated into the gospels of Matthew and Luke. So our parable would have come from this Q source. Luke is thought to be closer to the original in how the stories of Q are told, so any changes in Matthew’s rendering would have meant that the writer of Matthew’s gospel wanted to make a particular point. In Matthew, Jesus is seen as Israel’s Messiah; his connection to the God who is disclosed in the Hebrew Scriptures is apparent. In him, we see the culmination of God’s work and God’s promise. Matthew is speaking to “church people” who are coming to know Jesus.
The point of the story in Matthew’s Gospel is the extravagance of God’s gifts and what it means to be entrusted with so much. One major difference between Matthew’s telling of this parable and Luke’s is the size of what the master entrusts to his servants. A talent was a lot of money. One talent equaled 6000 denarii, which is the amount a day laborer would make in 20 years. If you put that in terms of the current minimum wage in the United States, which many of us would agree is too low, that would amount to about $300,000 in 20 years. Imagine giving $300,000, or 2x that, or even 5x that much, to a beginning worker at McDonald’s. That’s the kind of situation we see in this parable.
Another major difference is the difference in the size of the gifts. In Luke, each person is given the same, much smaller amount. In Matthew, one servant gets one talent; another two; another five. Or, $300,000; $600,000; $1.5 million. “Each person according to their ability,” is what Matthew says. There’s nothing about what they deserve, just a comment about what they seem to be able to handle. Only…if anyone had thought that they were able to handle this much money before, they probably wouldn’t still be slaves.
The third difference is this: In Luke, we know from the beginning that the man who gives out the money is seeking power and prestige, and we get the sense that he may not be kind. In Matthew, all we know is that he was going on a journey. The third servant, when chastised for not working his talents, calls the master a harsh man, and says that he was afraid of him. It’s clear that he has no love for the master. But all that we’ve seen of the master up to is point is that he compliments and promotes those whose work has paid off. So the hearer of this parable – that means us – we never know whether the master is a harsh man, worthy of fear, or whether the servant who hid his talent is simply name calling.
Now, to our ears, there is a basic problem with this parable. It begins with a master and his slaves, or servants. And while that wouldn’t have been the place of discomfort in this parable to Jesus’ disciples, it’s a stumbling block for 21st Century Americans.
So, imagine it like this:
3 minimum wage employees are each given more money than they’ve ever seen before — by their boss who is taking a trip. It’s the boss’ own money that he entrusts to them, not something borrowed to make a point. The two who are given the most money go to work with the money and double what they have. Maybe they traded with it – or perhaps they worked with it some other way. We don’t know how, but what they did caused the money to grow. Remember, though, these aren’t investment bankers — these are people who are used to getting by on little, but their boss recognizes some kind of abilities in them. They’d been given a lot, and they responded to that gift by taking risks and helping it to grow. And when the boss returned, he was pleased with these two, and blessed them, and promoted them. The third employee who is given less — but still a lot of money, as he is not without ability — is fearful and lacks imagination. So he digs a hole and hides the money. When the boss returns, employee #3 digs up the hidden money and returns it to his boss. The boss is displeased, as he knows that a simple trip to the bank would have been a better use of his money, and would have still been secure. So he losses his temper with the employee, calls him wicked and lazy, and gives that dirty, mud-caked talent to the employee who was willing to take the most risks.
The parable of the talents, light, 21st Century version, is still a challenging story. It remains hard to think of one employee losing it all for a failure to live up to his abilities, a failure to take a few risks. So what does it mean for us? Particularly, what does it mean for Trinity Presbyterian Church at this pivotal time in the church’s history?
I’ve spent most of my adult life working as a pastor in churches. In churches, money matters, both as a spiritual discipline and as a way to pay the light bills. It’s also an essential way to share with people who have less. It’s stewardship season at Trinity, a time that we are reminded that money matters. But still, it isn’t the focus of our conversations. For three years, though, I worked at the Presbyterian conference center called Ghost Ranch. I served on the management team there, during a time of some shake-up and need for change. The executive director was much less focused on meaning and faith — and much more focused on the bottom line. So in every meeting, with every new initiative suggested, her question was always the same. What’s your ROI? What is the return on investment we can expect if we do this?
It was irritating to hear that question every day, but it’s not a bad question. If you do a certain thing in ministry, what kind of return can you expect? If you take a risk in reaching new people, what will your payoff be?
The word “talent”, that we use to mean “ability, skill, gift”, has its origins in this monetary term we find in Matthew. Just as a talent was a lot of money, something not to be wasted; a talent-ability-gift is a great thing, not to be hidden away. A talent has got to be used if it is to be worth anything. If you put it away for safekeeping, it losses its worth. That’s true for individuals, and it is true for a community.
So let’s look at this community and its talents, its gifts. I’ll name a few:
– kind people
– People who are aware that there are many people in this world, and in this community, who have less and need a hand up
– People who think about their faith — who believe that using your mind and loving God need not be contradictory
– A willingness to take a stand on real things that matter to real people, and to welcome those who the church has often excluded
– A large piece of land, in a high-value part of town
I wouldn’t say that Trinity has dug a hole and hidden its talent there. In fact, the building is up here on this hill, perfectly available for anyone who takes the initiative to find it. But that’s one of Trinity’s challenges. While some people have found it, many more have not. And when you have kindness, and thoughtfulness, and intelligence, and bravery as your talents, you may just have a responsibility to make sure that people who need those things are invited to experience them. Multiplying your talents means bringing them into people’s lives, instead of expecting people to find their way to you. You know what your ROI is if you stay on this hill and do nothing different. What might it be if you find a new way to reach out and form relationships, to invest your talents directly with people who need what you have to offer?
Most of you know that the New Beginnings small groups have finished their work, and are handing next steps over to the session. You’ve probably heard that not all the small groups agreed, and there are several different recommendations emerging. There’s an elephant in the room, the kind of thing that we always prefer not speaking — but that everyone knows — so it needs to be spoken if we are to move ahead. It is this: A couple of those recommendations involve selling this land and joining in mission with some other congregation, perhaps in a different part of town. The groups who are making this recommendation love this congregation deeply, as deeply as those who want to stay in this same place. We don’t yet know what the session will recommend, or whether they will recommend a variety of that course of action. But the question has to be asked: With the great gift — the talent — of this valuable property, is it best used in the same way it has been used before, or would it be a greater gift to people God loves if the money were freed up for new missions with new people? Would a new setting, and a new commitment to listening to your neighbors, help you to reach out to those in the community? What has the greatest potential ROI?
I want to say something directly to those of you who have been here a long time, who may be older, and who can’t imagine Trinity being anywhere else. IF — and that is a big if – please don’t hear me saying that a decision has been made, because it hasn’t – but IF the congregation’s decision is to free up this land and to live out ministry in a different location, the congregation’s care for you will not diminish. Pastoral care will not lessen. You will be loved no matter what. All of us have the right to be cared for and ministered to at each stage of our lives. You who have been with this church through many stages of your life, who have supported it with your many talents, are especially valued. And if Trinity chooses to do that in a different location, those of you who have been here a long time will be asked what you need, and everything possible will be done to meet those needs. I raise this because this concern has been expressed in some poignant ways, and no one need wonder if they will receive care from the church they have long loved.
It is my job to help the session and congregation make this decision, acknowledging that it is a challenging one. And whatever the decision, to make sure that everyone’s needs are listened to, and all people in this congregation are honored. This decision is not, should not, can not, be an “us v. them” decision. It is an honest, often difficult, sometimes freeing, attempt to discern how Trinity’s vast talents can best be multiplied.
It’s all for God’s sake. We have indeed been entrusted with much, so it is our job to live up to our ability. And really, what do we want to hear more from God than this?
Well done, good and trustworthy servant. Well done, good and trustworthy church.
Kimberly L. Rodrigue
Trinity Presbyterian Church
November 9, 2014
I like to garden. It’s fun; it’s good exercise; it’s relaxing. It involves being outside and getting your hands dirty, and sometimes the rest of you too. It’s the most direct way to get beautiful flowers, and delicious fruit, and healthy trees. It often involves some surprises — and the discernment of whether that new green thing growing between the plants you recognize is a weed to be pulled or a volunteer plant to be cherished.
Because I have moved a fair amount in my life, I have gardened in places that:
have four distinct seasons, like Nashville…
have a 12 month growing season and abundant rainfall..
have hot summer days and cool summer nights and way too little rain.
If you want your plants to thrive, you plant different things in those different places. Water loving ferns, for example, will not thrive in the desert unless you mist them and water them practically everyday. And the desert doesn’t have enough water to make that a responsible thing to do. You are much better off embracing your cactus side than hoping that semi-tropical plants will grow in the high desert! Trust me on that one.
There’s one thing that all plants need, though, wherever they are — good soil in which to grow. They don’t all need the same kind of soil, and plants native to an area are most likely to do well in the natural soil in that area. But few of us are gardening in virgin land, so the soil has likely been altered. Most of the time, it will have lost some of what makes it rich and able to support life, and will need to have something added to it. Something to make the soil more fertile and life-supporting.
You can go to Flower Mart or Home Depot and get all kinds of fertilizers, packaged in innocuous forms. They come shaped like spikes and in dry pellets, both of which are practically odorless. These sanitized versions are relatively recent inventions and make the task of digging in dirt much more palatable to the urban gardener who hauls the fertilizer home in the back of a SUV.
Or, you could go old school and get some manure. It’ll be smelly, but it’ll also remind you of the wonderful connection between what animals need to get rid of and what plants need to grow. It is easy to forget that for most of the history of the world, that connection was plain for anyone with eyes to see and a nose to smell.
It was certainly clear in Jesus’s time, when he told this parable about a fig tree that was not fruitful. I’ll admit to a bit of struggle with that this week, when the scripture gives a passage that speaks of spreading… poop, caca, doody. Which it is not something that a preacher often has to find ways to speak of.
So here we are, in the story that Jesus hands us. A little excrement on our hands.
Jesus was nothing if not real.
It seems a simple parable. A property owner planted a fig tree in his vineyard…it grew no fruit for 3 years…the owner demanded that it be cut down…the gardener convinced him to allow him to carefully tend it, adding more of that manure on it, with hopes that it’d turn around and become fruitful. The vineyard owner complied, saying, “You have one more year. If it works, great. If not, it is coming down.”
But Jesus’ parables are often more nuanced than they appear, and this one is no exception. Jesus’ original hearers would have known some things that we may not.
Though fig trees are native to the Ancient Near East and are one of the earliest fruit trees known to have been cultivated, no vineyard owner would plant a fig tree in a vineyard. Vineyards do sometimes have other plants growing in them, most notably roses, which succumb to many of the same diseases as grape vines, and are planted as a kind of “canary in a coal mine” to warn the vine grower if there are problems.
But not fig trees. Figs require a lot of ground water, water that would be needed by the vines. They provide a canopy of shade that would be detrimental to vines that need sun. And they attract the kind of birds that like to eat grapes. So from the beginning, the hearer would know that something is a bit off in this parable, and would be curious about the point Jesus might be trying to make.
The comment about bearing fruit is not as straightforward as it seems either. Fig trees usually take a year or two to bear any fruit at all; three years to bear the kind of fruit you’d want to eat. So you’d expect to see something by the time the vineyard owner comes looking, but the fig tree is not as far behind as you might think.
Why these incongruities?
For Jesus’ hearers, they would know that the fig tree was not only a tree which produced delicious fruit; it was also a symbol of religious teachers and religious institutions. Rabbis sat under them when they taught. Putting this fig tree in a place it doesn’t belong is like a neon sign, flashing:
This is for you, churches and ministers! Pay attention!
And the three year time period? Perhaps a reminder that though a church’s fruitfulness does not need to come to full ripeness right away, there does need to be some progress. Visible progress. For without some sign of fruitfulness, it looks like what a church is doing is not working.
Back to that pesky manure. In the story, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Which is hard to translate into talk of fertilizing a church without falling into the thought that what we pile around a church when working on change is all just a bunch of…. Well, you know.
But the manure here is a good thing. It’s all the efforts to learn and change and grow. It’s the things that those carefully tending the church apply to its base, its core, to its way of doing ministry and being church, in a good-faith attempt to help it to bear the hoped-for fruit.
I said a couple of weeks ago that it is always easier to deal in the general than the particular. The general point here is that in both our personal lives and our corporate life together as a church, we need to be fruitful. To be showing some growth, some progress toward becoming what we are called to be. Like the tree’s purpose is to bear fruit, we need to be accomplishing that which is our purpose. Not all at once, but better day by day, till we become like a fig tree offering plentiful fruit for the taking.
All of this is equally true for each of us as individuals as it is for the church. Today, though, my focus is on the church. This church. Some of what I have to say may be difficult for you to hear. Some of it is difficult for me to share. Because this folder — contains 39 years worth of this congregation trying to figure out how to be church. There are reports from 1975, 1976, 1983, 1987, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2012, and 2014. 39 years worth of digging around the base of the tree and putting manure around it. Some of you have been at this longer than I’ve been an adult; longer than 2 people on the staff have been alive.
First, the good news. This congregation has known for a long time that it needed to do something. You’ve devoted an enormous amount of time and resources to figuring this out. There have been meetings, consultants, presbytery involvement. Some ministers were more up to the task than others, but something was done during each of the past 5 pastors’ tenure, with efforts also being made during two interim periods, including this one. These pages represent a lot of honesty and struggle and difficulty, and hope and work. The question is:
Did all of this work bear the fruit that was hoped for?
Listen to these words from the past, then you decide.
That the Session set active recruitment of new members as its number one priority for 1976…
Although Trinity was not founded as a “neighborhood” church…additional study of the character of the surrounding neighborhoods is needed to help the session determine how best to serve the people in this community.
Trinity’s congregation is growing older.
From Pastor Dick Baldwin in 1976:
For some 20 years Trinity had a sense of identity that grew out of the turmoil that created Trinity and gave it a sense of mission. But that beginning fervor has long sense gone. There is now no real sense of future, at least not clearly defined….from 1942 to 1958 the congregation worked toward building the church. Since 1958 there has been no clearly defined or perceived goal – owned and nurtured by the congregation……We can “dream up” another building — like a retirement building and gain some enthusiasm for that. But I suspect that would only put off dealing with a more nebulous and difficult concept — that of ministry and service to people.
From Interim Pastor Angus McGregor in 1987:
Now is a moment unlike any other…Now is the time for Trinity to decide its future.
From consultant Herb Miller’s report in 1994:
Our congregation began a spiral of membership decline in the mid-1960s, as the ministry of a much loved pastor was ending. A slow decline continued until the mid-1980s, when a devastating conflict reduced membership in significant numbers…. [We have] an unconscious desire to make progress without making changes….we will pay one of two prices as we proceed forward into the future. We will pay the price always involved with making significant changes, or we will pay the price of congregational death.
From a presbytery listening team report in 1995:
…a major issue is discouragement and fear for the future. Part of this has been heightened by the Herb Miller report, which seems to have initially generated some enthusiasm for the possibilities and then to have become an impossible burden… The congregation continues to get older.
From a session report in 1997:
We followed up on some of Miller’s suggestions, but growth and renewal continued to elude us….either we make major changes, or we will have to close the church in a few years.
[They went on to suggest three possible options –]
-sell part of the property to obtain an endowment that will allow us to hire more staff and strengthen our programs
-seek to merge with another Presbyterian congregation which has complementary strengths to ours.
-determine that continuing as an independent congregation is not feasible…we would phase out our congregation with a celebration of our gifts to advance God’s Kingdom on earth.
Create a task force to…coordinate efforts to encourage church growth.
And ending with this:
Our prayer for Trinity is this: God, with deep gratitude for our church community, we ask you to guide us in our future and equip us to be your servants in a hurting world.
That’s just a small part of what’s in these pages. It’s a lot of fertilizing for a lot of years. 39 years of struggle and hard work and trying to change things just a little, hoping that a little will be enough. The same things, again and again and again. I don’t know about you, but it makes me want to cry.
This is from deep in my heart: when I think of the congregations that I know well, I cannot help but think that this is a congregation that deserves to make it, to thrive. There’s so much kindness here, and a great deal of love. There’s love for one another, and love for people in the larger community who find themselves in times of particular need. You involve your head and your heart in your faith, and live it out in ways that are real and Christ-like. Those are good, good attributes. They are what the world needs.
But people aren’t going to just show up to receive them. You have to take it to them. Some of you have been learning that and fighting that for more than 39 years; people who have come more recently have seen that truth also. In the hope that it would bring people into this building, you’ve tried changing things a little, time after time after time. And it keeps yielding the same results. It is time, I believe, to either:
accept that big change is not what this congregation is going to do, and be happy as you continue to get smaller…or
take a leap of faith, trusting that God is with you as you go boldly into the future, trusting that the world needs what you can offer.
497 years ago this week, Martin Luther hoped to change the church a little. But when he spoke his convictions, and looked at the realities facing the church at that time, he ended up changing it a lot. The choice before Trinity now is probably not as far-reaching as Martin Luther’s, but for this congregation, it is just as important, and it is big. Are you able to trust God enough to acknowledge that making small changes has not worked for the past 39 years, and is unlikely to work now? Can you take it a step further and trust that God is with you as you consider big changes? What kind of Reformation do you hear God calling Trinity to make?
In this choice, in all of your choices, you are heirs of the conviction and courage that Martin Luther showed so long ago. It is ours to draw on, ours to claim, ours to fortify us on the journey. As you continue to discern, I remind you to claim that heritage. And may the peace of Christ be with you.
Kimberly L. Rodrigue
Trinity Presbyterian Church
October 26, 2014
Not so long ago, we knew exactly what mission was. It generally involved Christians traveling to other lands, sharing the good news of the gospel with people who had never heard the name “Jesus Christ.” Along with this sharing, there was often an attention to people’s physical needs. So missionaries built hospitals and schools along with preaching the gospel. They provided well trained doctors and nurses; they taught people to read; they showed women in roles that some had never seen before. They helped people know the importance of clean water, and helped many achieve that basic need for healthy living. Often, people serving in these roles did a lot of good.
Other times their legacy was more mixed. For as long as any of us have been alive — indeed for hundreds of years before that — “Christians” were from parts of the world with more money, going into parts of the world with less. So along with stories of Jesus, missionaries sometimes brought a condemnation of native culture. They also, quite unintentionally, often brought diseases which killed people in their mission field, as these people had no immunity to European or, later, North American diseases. In our current climate of nervousness about the spread of Ebola from Africa to our own lands, we should remember that it was people like us who first brought diseases like smallpox and measles to a population not equipped to fight it.
When the western part of this country was settled, missionaries were often part of that landscape too. Their mission was to bring the gospel to both western settlers and to the Native Americans who were there before. There was even a sort of informal divvying up of the west according to different denominations. Presbyterians got New Mexico; Lutherans got Minnesota; Catholics went wherever they wanted. While that has certainly changed, remnants of it still exist. Tiny towns in NM often have a Presbyterian church, not infrequently built in an Eastern style, instead of the Pueblo architecture that naturally evolved in that land. One lasting and very positive legacy of these efforts is that much of the medical care in those same small towns is done through Presbyterian Medical Services.
Sometime in the second half of the 20th Century, things got much more complicated.
We learned more about the pairing of colonialism and mission work, and how that influenced people, sometimes holding them back from discovering faith true to their own situation.
We saw numbers shift dramatically, as Protestant churches in the developing world continue to grow rapidly, even as they shrink in the United States and Europe. Great example: Presbyterian missionaries from the United States began visiting Korea in 1884. That was the first time people there heard about Christianity through a Presbyterian presence. Now, out of 50 million people living in South Korea, almost 10 million identify themselves as Presbyterian. Here in the U.S., with a population of about 317 million, we have under 2 million people in the PCUSA.
We learned that it was paternalistic to assume that we have everything to teach people in the developing world about following Jesus, without realizing that they have something to teach us too. Christians in Central America pointed out the simple fact that Jesus seemed to have a special care for poor people, which might mean that they had something unique to teach those of us who were not poor. A whole different way of doing theology arose in that context. We call it liberation theology, and it has had much to teach rich and poor alike. Gustavo Gutierrez, who wrote the seminal Theology of Liberation, challenged — and sometimes infuriated — comfortable Christians by saying things like, “The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order,” even as he empowered less comfortable Christians to see that they had a special place in the heart of Jesus.
The way we think of mission has changed. It is changing still.
In 1997, I was fortunate to be able to spend a month in the West African country of Ghana. The 1983 Women of the Church birthday offering was given to the four seminaries of the former Southern Presbyterian Church to help students develop relationships with Christians in other parts of the world.
Think about it — a group of mostly older, mostly traditional women knew that we had something to learn from cultures not our own. They didn’t know exactly what it was, but they knew it involved taking us out of our comfort zones and forming relationships. So they let go of this considerable fund of money, trusting that the experiences it afforded some seminarians would be good for the church. It’s another example of people who weren’t thought of as the ones with power making a real difference in how we know what it means to be a follower of Jesus. They envisioned a new form of mission.
Anyway, their offering paid the way for my group to spend that month in Ghana. I learned much and have many memories from that trip. A crowded city…beautiful countryside and beaches…disturbing castles converted into dungeons where people were held before being loaded into boats headed for this country, where they would be sold as slaves.
My most important memory from that trip is of eggs. Ordinary white chicken eggs. Hard boiled eggs, to be exact. You see, lots of the food in Ghana didn’t agree with our tummies. Some that did, didn’t agree with our taste buds. The rice often had bugs in it; fish covered in red sauce was hard to choke down at breakfast. We ate less than we normally would, and the Ghanaians noticed. So one evening we had a special meal.
Each of us was served a plate with two hard boiled eggs on it. Salt and pepper shakers were on the table. Not exactly a feast here in the US, but that night in Ghana in 1987? Heaven. Food that we knew would not make us sick. Food that would go down easily, even with some pleasure. And more than that was the love behind that feast. You see, eggs were a delicacy. Each egg cost the equivalent of one US dollar, which is waaaay more than any of us have ever spent on a simple, uncooked egg. When you factored that cost with their very meager incomes, it was an extravagant meal.
After our enjoyment and our thanks, we felt guilty. We asked why. “Because you are our guests. Jesus showed us that we should love. We wanted to do something that you needed, and we realized that the way we are used to wasn’t what you needed. It made us happy to give to you.” Wow. It still chokes me up to remember being the recipient of such generosity. And when you consider the context — that this gift came from the descendants of people who were sold into slavery to work in the region of the US from which we all came — wow. That must have been what it felt like to be with Jesus.
Mission turned on its head. The so-called privileged people experiencing what it means to love and be loved like Jesus. That’ll change you.
Here at Trinity, we’ve been talking about mission a lot this past year. We’re asking specific questions like, “What is Trinity’s mission and does it need to change? If so, how?” One of the things that is clear in those conversations is that it is hard to get past old understandings. For so long, mission has been thought of as something that we do in some poorer country. Something that most of us support with financial resources and a courageous few do in person. That’s how it has been thought of at Trinity, and quite a few other churches. And while there are still missionaries in foreign lands doing good and important world in Christ’s name, that’s only a small part of what we mean when we speak of mission today. In fact, this “new” way of talking about mission is actually very old. It looks more like what the early church did.
For them, mission and identity were the same. What they did in the name of Jesus and who they were in the name of Jesus were their mission. How they worshipped, what they shared, how they were active in the community were all parts of their mission. This was before they had buildings to take care of; before they had complicated decision-making processes to slow them down. The words that Jesus says at the end of Matthew’s gospel were heard much more directly, and much more locally. Go…make disciples…baptize…teach. I am with you always.
Many of us are used to a different version of the end of Matthew 28 than the one Bar and I read. The one that goes like this, “Go, therefore, into all the nations…” It’s easy to think that is a calling to some far-off land. But the original would not have been heard that way, and the paraphrase is closer to the passage’s original intent. The word we are used to having translated as “nations” actually meant “the Gentiles.” Spoken to a Jewish audience, it meant “go to everyone who is not just like you…” Which from the beginning signified that: your life, your work, your worship, your mission are the same. Love God. Follow Jesus. Trust the Spirit. Share this way of life. Let it be how you approach the world.
I cannot think of mission in Nashville in 2014 without thinking of dinner in Ghana in 1987. Who are the people that would make Trinity happy to give to? How might we pay attention to finding out what they really need, even when it is different than what has worked for us? Are we willing to stretch enough to offer them two eggs — to give them something that is precious to them — because it is what they need. Can we do it in love? Can we do it in God’s name?
Because make no mistake:
Any ministry that reaches out to others in a new way…or that reaches out to new people…
Any ministry that does that in a way that values loving others more than our comfort…
Is going to change who we are and how we do things.
Let me say that again:
Any ministry that reaches out to others in a new way…or that reaches out to new people…
Any ministry that does that in a way that values loving others more than our comfort…
Is going to change something about who we are and how we do things.
I want to be extra clear about that, because saying that you want to reach out to new people and saying that you can’t or aren’t willing to change, is setting yourself up for failure. One comes right along with the other.
So what is there to hold on to? If you make some changes in your mission, where will you find steady ground on which to stand?
Let me harken back to early September, when I preached a sermon in which I borrowed heavily from Walter Brueggemann. There is the treasure…and there is the clay pot in which we hold the treasure. The pot may change, it may even break. A new pot may need to be thrown.
But the treasure…that remains.
God’s self-giving love to us and to all. We know it in Jesus.
That you can count on. That you can lean on. That you can trust. And if you have the courage to change, that is what you will share. It is what you will live in your actions and speak in your words. The old, old story of love beyond measure. Of a God who promised to be with you always.
Your mission is what you do and who you love; it is how you worship and how you serve. It is who you are.
Let us pray:
Good and great God, your call to us is challenging and wonderful. Give us eyes to see and ears to hear your desires, and the courage to respond. Show us a mission that is faithful and true. In all that we do, hold us close to yourself in love. Amen.
Kimberly L. Rodrigue
Trinity Presbyterian Church
October 19, 2014