Monday, January 26, 2009

Stick to the Message

Sermon preached on Sunday, January 25,the Sunday of our Annual Meeting (Epiphany 3B): Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

I come to you at the time of our Annual Meeting with mixed news. Some things look good, others do not. I must be honest and say I have been filled with some uncertainty over the past months. There are some forces at work about which I do not know what to do (and those of you who know me well know that it is hard for me to admit that).

Two things, in particular, are troubling. The current economy and our long history of overuse has meant a precipitous decline in our endowment funds—somewhere above 50% over the past three years. We can no longer count on them to sustain us, as we have for a generation.

Second of all, average Sunday attendance has also dropped precipitously in the last year—20%. The Vestry and I have wrestled with this and we don’t exactly know what it is about. It is probably the perfect storm of several factors coming together. However it came about, though, it is troubling.

The news is not all bad, I must say. Giving is up; especially average weekly giving is way up. The number of kids in the parish is up slightly. Generally speaking I think the spirit of the place—of you and I—is good. This is a relatively happy place, and not everyone can say that.

These things are good but there is also those things that trouble, and they cannot simply be ignored.

Over the past four years (this is my fifth Annual Meeting, can you believe it?) I have spoken much about thriving rather than surviving. I have come on, at times, like gangbusters with lots of ambitious plans. Some of them have worked! That’s the good news.

But I do not come to you this morning with ready solutions to our problems. They do not lend themselves to ready solutions or quick fixes. We are going to have to come to these solutions together. My bag of tricks is not enough on its own.

We are in a great place of paradox. There are some ways in which we are thriving. I believe that, and I don’t think it is just a pipe dream. And yet there are other ways in which we are on our way to barely surviving. Thrive or survive, which is it? I wish I knew.

What is our future about? How do we even have a future? I look to the readings this morning for some answers to those questions and I find they tell us four things:

· Believe that God is in what is happening to you;
· Trust in God;
· Keep a sense of urgency;
· Stick to the message (and find ways to spread it).

The reluctant prophet Jonah preaches to the city of Ninevah, a place where things are so bad that Jonah is of the opinion God should simply wipe it off the face of the earth. Ninevah is the Sodom and Gomorrah of Jonah’s day, and Jonah wishes God would do to Ninevah what he did to those notorious cities long ago.

Yet God sends Jonah with a warning, leaving open the possibility that the people might just repent and then God could change God’s mind about them. What is Ninevah being asked to do?

The simple word is “repent,” but it is a word that has a richness of meaning. Ninevah is being asked to take an honest look at its life, set that beside an honest view of how God desires humankind to live, and be willing to change when it sees the difference. Remarkably the story says they do just that; they change and then God changes God’s mind.

The text literally says, “They believed God.” What did they have to believe in? They had to believe that God was truly ready to act in their lives and that they could believe that God could change his mind about them. And the story is that is what came to pass.

I take this to be saying to us that we need to be honest about the state of our affairs. This is not a time for sugarcoating. Let’s be honest. But let’s also see God present in where we are and believe that there is still hope for us, just as there was for Ninevah. Now is no time to abandon hope. It is, rather, time to believe all the more that God has a purpose for us.

The psalmist builds on this with a simple message of profound trust.

Put your trust in [God] always, O people,
Pour out your hearts before [God]; for God is our refuge.

Now is the time to trust in God. That’s why I had us sing “I will trust in the Lord” a few minutes ago. It is precisely what we need to do. Without that trust we are lost.

So believe that God is in this moment and trust in this same God as the one who has a purpose for us and with whom we can hope.

Third, maintain a sense of urgency. Paul believed that Jesus was returning soon and so he exhorts his people to act with all urgency. Don’t get caught up in the attachments of the moment. Remember something bigger is going on and breaking in even as we speak.

Christians (or at least most of us) have long ago resigned ourselves that Jesus is not returning soon. But we haven’t stopped longing for it, and we should continue to live in a sense of urgency about it. That urgency allows God to break through in all kinds of little ways to bring in the kingdom of God in our lives and the life of the world around us.

Be an urgent people even when it seems like there is nothing to be urgent about.

I believe that attitude is key for us. We must not lose our edge. It is so easy to do that when the seas are choppy and it seems like you’re hanging on for dear life or when it seems like continued decline is just inevitable.

Don’t give into that, Paul would tell us if he were alive today. Keep your sense of urgency, keep your edge. Defy the odds. You can do that, because God stands ready to break in. Glory stands ready at the door. Seek it with all your heart.

Lastly we are told by this morning’s Gospel to keep to the message and find ways to spread it. The message is that the Kingdom of God is at hand and we need continually to change our minds, turn around, to see that and believe it to be true. And this Kingdom of God, we believe, is for absolutely everybody. That is the message this place holds dear; it is the core of our very being as a church. We must not waver from it.

And we also must continue to find ways to call others into it. We must fish for people. That means keeping our line in the water, finding, if you will, new ways to bait the hook, looking for new places to cast our lines.

Believe God is in our present moment, unpleasant as some aspects of it are. Trust that God is for us, wholly and completely. Maintain our edge, our sense of urgency. Stick to the message and keep fishing.

There is a bottom line to all of this that we all need to hear. God wants this place to exist. God has a purpose for us. Despite all that has happened and is happening to us, God wants us to be. Anything we do in response to the many forces that are at work on us must have this as its grounding. Despite all that is, I still believe it is true, and I invite you to join me in this belief. It’s sort of a Yogi Berra-ism. If we believe it together than we can all believe it.

Do I have my moments of doubt and uncertainty? Of course I do, and I suspect each one of you does as well. We are, after all, human, and at our heart a pretty pragmatic, realistic people.

But God calls us to be more than that. God calls us to be God’s people, full of faith, hope and love in spite of all signs to the contrary.

The last year or so is not the journey I would have chosen, either for myself personally, or for this parish. But it is the journey we are on. Let’s be real about it, but trust anyway, and let’s keep proclaiming the message that will keep us alive. The Kingdom of God is at hand for absolutely everybody!

As long as we can say that, then God has a purpose for us.

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