The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel
June 1, 2008
First Congregational Church,
Scripture: Matthew 7:21-29
‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
Apparently there is a church in
It’s a good reminder that while there are some things about the church that are constant, the world around it changes. On the one hand, the church is a place of steady practices that are more than two thousand years old. But the world around the church shifts and therefore the meaning of what we do shifts as well. Inevitable.
So what was that church to do?
Abandon its name to pick something that doesn’t seem as silly? Or dig in and criticize Ian Fleming for naming a spy after a Canadian church?
Well, this church didn’t change its name. And it didn’t call
for a boycott of James Bond, Sponge Bob Square Pants or TinkyWinky either.
Instead, they embraced the irony. Now that being the
Finally, here on
But I’m not naïve. I knew the hot tub was not realistic. What with the charming grassroots ethos of our church, where everyone in the church is considered a minister of the church, and we disapprove of hierarchies, I realize that a hot tub might send the wrong message. No, it would have to be a really big hot tub that we could all fit in together for our annual congregational meetings. Sort of like a giant lobster boil, but with Congregationalists.
You know, you ask me to share my vision for our church, and then when I do, you laugh at me.
But no, for that half a million, we got a new roof, that most of us will never see, and then, if that wasn’t exciting enough, there was the tuck-pointing. What is tuck-pointing, you ask? Now I know, so I will tell you, even if you didn’t ask. We had people go into the crevices that separate every brick, every single brick on every exterior wall of this old building, and replace the stuff that holds the bricks together, with new stuff – every brick, every single brick. The dust filled the church and our offices, and the project seemed to take on the shelf-life of uranium. Tuck-pointing – I never want to hear that word again.
Apparently, it’s pretty important to do this. I know of another church where they did not do their tuck-pointing. True story; I know the minister. What happened was that where the stuff between the bricks had crumbled away, water accumulated, and then in the winter it froze.
Then, at the height of the Christmas holiday season, when the temperature shifted, up and down, those bricks started flying out. And they didn’t just get loose, crumble and gingerly tumble. No, these bricks started exploding off the building.
So what did the church do? They built this little walkway with a roof, from the sidewalk to the church entrance, so that the parishioners would have some barrier to protect them from the exploding bricks. Apparently, attendance declined somewhat.
Which is to say that for us, tuck-pointing and replacing the roof was the non-glamorous work that absolutely had to get done. It is a good metaphor for much of the work of the church. It is not easy, not glamorous but it lays the foundation. And if you do not do it, there will be consequences.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus urges us to be like the “wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” That’s the text I chose for my annual report this year, and it’s the text I want to share as we look back upon the year that has past and prepare for the year ahead.
Jesus contrasts the wise man to the foolish man who built his house on sand, leaving it vulnerable to the weather. Now, if you care only about yourself and current residents of the house, you might be able to get away with a house built upon sand. In fact, you might save money on your foundation, using cheap sand, and then you might have more money for the shiny bells and whistles, like palladium windows, chandeliers, a disco ball and yes, a giant hot tub that fits hundreds. All that, built on sand, could last a decade, maybe two. But if you want to leave a solid foundation for the next generation, you can’t do that. You need to go ahead and build on rock.
For that reason, on this the occasion of our annual meeting, I want to say a few words about how it is that we were able to replace our roof and get into all those little cracks between the bricks. I am proud that as a church, we did not burden our congregation with another capital campaign right now, or with extra debt, but that we paid for this out of our yearly pledges.
That was not easy to do. Annual giving at our church had been moving up steadily in recent years, but when we realized we had this work to do a couple of years ago, church leaders saw it not as a problem but as an opportunity to challenge the whole congregation to move up, so that our annual giving would be at a more appropriate level for the size of our membership.
And what we discovered was that, for the most part, people were glad to be challenged. Often we heard comments along the lines of “Thank you for telling us,” and “You only needed to ask.” We had other people who over the last two years have told us that they had no idea that the church was supported entirely by the annual gifts of the members. They didn’t know what was expected of them, or how much their annual pledge mattered.
Some of you are “numbers” people. You can look at trends and see that after about a decade of annual pledges being around $600 thousand a year, suddenly we are looking at an annual income of $1 million – but some of you are not “numbers” people. It may be more helpful for you to imagine bricks exploding out of the walls and hitting you on the head. Either way, God can work with it.
Here, on a serious note, I want to say that I believe without a doubt that God is working through it, through us, and through our church. Generosity takes many forms, outward giving, welcoming the stranger, and reaching out, and yes, replacing roofs.
Now comes the fun part, when in this ethos of generosity, we
can engage our holy imaginations as to what God is calling us to do next. When
I first came to this church, I commented to the search committee that
everything in their materials and conversation seemed to be about money. At the
time it made me angry, to be honest. I had come from a church that had a budget
less than a third of this church, and I was aware that most churches in
On the other hand, I came to understand that it was an overarching concern, almost an obsession among church leaders, because of a debt load from the last capital campaign and the ongoing needs of the church and a desire to give more away in mission. I don’t believe the average worshipper was aware of it, but you had this small devoted group of extremely hard working lay leaders who worried about it, and carried that burden disproportionately alone. I know I am speaking very frankly here, and to a first time visitor this might seem strange, but I believe in telling the truth. This is it. Our financial crisis, so called, was not that we didn’t have enough money. It was that we had one group of members who carried the worry and burden of it, disproportionately, and then we also had this much larger group of faithful worshippers who had no idea. That was what our financial crisis was all about.
It turns out that the money was there, and is there, because you are generous, mission-minded and you love your church. It’s a remarkable thing in life: when burdens are shared, they stop being burdens, and we all get to grow and change.
Let me tell you what a pleasure it is to minister among you as we turn this tide. Every year the budget process becomes less about needing to cut and more about being free to dream. We’ve come a long way. So now what?
As your senior minister, part of my job is to discern, with you, the calling of God upon our unique community of faith. Everything we do in the Christian walk matters, but there are times when one or two practices become particularly important for our community. And we want to be open to God’s leading on that.
One area of growth for us is the ancient Christian practice of hospitality. A lot falls under that category, including but not limited to welcoming all people to our church, regardless of social status, income, sexual orientation, physical and mental health, spiritual questions, regardless of intellectual gifts, career acumen, marital status, bad grades in social studies…no matter who, no matter what, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. This is evangelism, but there are people who get nervous about that word. So for those of you who want another word, and since you go to this church, I know there are probably 200 of you who want another word, and the difficulty is that you all may want a different word, let’s remember the ancient Christian and Jewish practice of welcoming the stranger: hospitality. But given that the world is a broken place: this is justice-centered hospitality, and, dare we say it, justice-centered evangelism.
So because of this, our next priority needs to be the spiritual formation of our youth. You might say, what does one have to do with the other? Everything. Here, I am speaking not only on Sunday mornings, but through fellowships, mission trips, and all sorts of faith-building activities that we have not even imagined yet, because we have not been able to.
Do we already work hard in this area, and provide faithful spiritual formation for our youth, with a team and number of volunteers that other churches envy? Absolutely. Our recent Youth Sunday, with six preachers for this year’s graduating senior class was a reminder that there were scores of adults in the years past that led to these young people’s spiritual formation, deep questions about life and serious discipleship.
I want to challenge us to step up to the next level. We can talk about this justice-centered evangelism here in church together, as adults, and we can live out true Christian hospitality in our households and our relationships, but what messages are our children and teenagers and college students getting out there in the world? Do you want the church to step up to the next level? Or are you happy with the messages of exclusion, hatred, sexual exploitation and materialism that the world is offering? If we don’t shape our youth, who will carry the real message of Jesus into the next generation?
When I visited
During Communion, look at them as they come forward, pray for them as they return to their seats, give thanks for them whether you know them or not, ask God to bind up their broken places, as they will pray for God to heal you, too.
You, the people, are the rock of the church.
The church, built on a rock, has the freedom to dream.