The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Discerning a possible merger

3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 6B
Mark 4:26-34


In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In a couple of churches where I’ve served, the Sunday School has used the Godly Play curriculum.  In case you’re not familiar with it, Godly Play is a church school curriculum based on the principles of the Montessori Schools.  It’s an interactive way of teaching children that attempts to meet them and their sense of wonder and curiosity where it very naturally is at that early childhood stage of development.

In the Godly Play curriculum, the teacher doesn’t lecture the children, or assign tasks for them to accomplish.  Instead, the teacher sits with the children in a circle on the floor and serves more as a storyteller.  After the story is shared, the teacher helps to guide the children into a deeper understanding of the story by presenting “wondering” questions.  The teacher doesn’t put anyone on the spot, but opens up discussion by “wondering” about the story that’s been told: “I wonder why Jesus would have done that.”; “I wonder what the blind man first saw.”; And so on.  It provides space for the children’s imaginations to open up and to discover the deeper meanings of the stories we all know and study.

One of my favorite tools from the Godly Play teaching resource is its approach to parables.  Each of the stories from the curriculum has a box containing all of its visual aids.  But parables have special gold boxes - because, as the program says, “parables are a gift”.  Sometimes they may seem a little harder to understand than some of the other stories, but they are a gift.  It may take a bit more digging or unwrapping, but there’s always something beautiful hidden inside.

Part of why the parables work so well for the Godly Play method of teaching children is that they already inspire the imagination.  They often bring up as many questions as they answer.  And Godly Play isn’t just about depositing information into supposedly empty young minds - it’s about teaching these minds to engage the Christian story - to engage the challenges and the questions of our faith - to build literacy.

Parables lend themselves to that kind of teaching.  Jesus wasn’t interested just in teaching about a mustard seed.  The mustard seed itself wasn’t important.  What was important was the ability of the faithful to re-envision how they experienced their faith.  They needed to think bigger than the limits of their faith had previously permitted.  They needed bigger imaginations.  And so do we.

This morning we heard two parables of seeds.  Seeds make for a good starting place for parables.  Seeds, like parables, contain more within them than is immediately evident.  In the first of today’s parables, the point seems to be that the seeds grow - not from the inspiration or direction of the farmer - but apart from any human interaction.  The farmer plays a role in the life of the seed - in the sowing - but once that role is accomplished there really isn’t anything more that he can do.  He must wait for the processes beyond his control to take over.  Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like that.  We can have a role in it - in making space for it - but its flourishing requires forces that are beyond our control.

Moreover, we hear that this kingdom of God isn’t just like any seed, but like a mustard seed - a tiny seed that grows into a giant shrub.  Its yield is so much bigger than its initial product could ever suggest.  Though the tiny seed may have appeared insignificant, the shrub it produces becomes something big enough to cast shade, and to provide shelter for the birds.

The kingdom of God is like that - as is our role within it.  We take these seemingly tiny steps - we sow these tiny seeds - and there is no end to the wonder that can come of them through the mystery - the unimaginable gift - of God’s intervention.  That’s why the steps that we take - as Christians and as a church - are so important: like that mustard seed, their reach extends farther than anyone might have imagined possible at the beginning.

We’re in a season of our church life when one of those steps is right in front of us.  Most of you know that Holy Trinity has been experiencing declining financial health for a number of years now.  That’s why Mother Brenda agreed to shift her role here to part-time ministry for a while shortly before her departure.  It’s also why I was called here as your part-time Priest-in-Charge rather than you calling another full-time rector.

When I first arrived here, Canon Betit informed me that a significant part of my work would need to be leading you through a period of transition that would probably culminate with a merger with Christ Church in Lynbrook.  We were all shocked and saddened to learn of its closure before we would have a chance to explore a path forward for both of our parishes. And this news came just after our annual meeting, where we all saw the financial picture of the parish with the realization that, despite our sincerest efforts at austerity, our financial safety net was too-quickly vanishing.

Though the committee that put together our budget for this year, along with input from the Vestry were able to keep our budget deficit to the lowest it had been in a long time, we also knew that if we didn’t find some way forward in the course of this year, it wouldn’t be possible for us to plan for another year after this one.

The truth of the matter is, even if we had been able to proceed with a merger with Christ Church, we still probably wouldn’t have been able to keep going indefinitely.  The two struggling churches together probably would have been a bit stronger than we were apart, but probably still not enough stronger to have made enough of a difference in the long term.

As difficult as this is to hear and to think about, the good news is we have been offered another possible way forward.  The rector and other leadership of Trinity-St. John’s Church in Hewlett - the congregation that originally founded us - have extended an invitation for us to reunite with them.  One of the unique aspects of this offer is that they haven’t extended it because they are struggling and they need us to come save them.  They are already a very stable parish with close to 200 people worshiping there each week and a substantial enough endowment to continue as they are in perpetuity.  Instead, they are extending this offer because they have learned a bit about our challenges and they think that we could both be stronger if we were to come back together again.  Our parishes are similar in many ways, not the least of which is our shared history.  Even our name came from them.  So in many ways, this merger would make a lot of sense.

But even so, nothing has been decided yet.  I have had extensive conversations about this possibility with their rector (the Rev. Chris Ballard), and with our bishop and Canon Betit.  The only thing that has been decided at this point is that it is worth exploring.

With their blessing, I presented the idea initially to our vestry in its meeting this week for a first conversation.  We devoted a great deal of time to discussing the possibilities and what all it might mean in our life together.  Our discussion was passionate and thorough, but the only thing we decided at that meeting was that we needed to expand the conversation to include you.

Two weeks from today, we will have a roundtable discussion after church that will be devoted to exploring this opportunity, discussing any other possible ways forward for us as a parish, and most importantly: discerning God’s will for us as a parish.  Even at that meeting, though, nothing final will be decided.  It will be an opportunity for us to discuss and discern as a community.  No one will try to force you to think or act in any particular way - we will only discuss and discern.

In the course of these two weeks leading up to that discussion, I hope you will take some time to really think about this possibility or any others you may be able to imagine.  Research Trinity-St. John’s Church a bit.  Look through their website and learn about them.  Spend some time praying for wisdom and discernment.  Pray that we will be open to the will of God.

But please don’t panic.  Please don’t waste your energies worrying about who is to blame for our current struggles.  As you think about it and discuss it with one another, please don’t catastrophize this situation that, honestly, isn’t even a situation yet - it’s no more than an idea.  Don’t waste your time thinking about all that could go wrong, and ignoring all that could be beneficial this early in the process - there’s still just so much that we don’t know yet.  Please don’t start or spread gossip, or rumors, or anything else that might be hurtful to anyone else here.  All of these are the kinds of things that can endanger the livelihood of this community faster than any financial difficulties could.

As I said to the vestry on Thursday night: I don’t expect that kind of behavior from you.  I have come to know you as good, honest people who love God and who love the church.  That’s the only reason I would take the idea of this merger seriously at all: because this is a community that needs to stay together.  I have known parishes that needed to die.  But this community needs to live.  So it’s worth thinking about big ideas that can not only allow us to live, but to thrive and to grow like that mustard seed from the parable into a piece of the kingdom of God that is more significant than we can even imagine right now.

I suppose Jesus could have said all that he said more simply: the steps you take in bringing about the kingdom of God will yield unimaginable rewards.  The things you do, through the intervention of God, will produce more than the simple things themselves.  Perhaps it would have been easier if Jesus had just said it.  But like the children in Sunday School, we all learn in a deeper way when the answers are discovered and discerned and not just simply heard or passed on.  As we make our way through this challenging season into the fullness that Christ has envisioned for us, it may not always seem like the path makes sense.  Sometimes it may be painful.  Sometimes it may feel like we’re giving up a lot.  The mustard seed had to give up something of itself to grow into its plant.  So there will also be times when we’re joyful.  And there will also be times when we gain more than we could have imagined.

Imagine this journey as if it were a parable.  A parable is a gift.  It’s a gift because it gives us the chance to work through the big questions of our faith and our relationship with God and how we put that all into practice.

We’ll hear more parables in the weeks and months ahead.  We’ll even live through a few parables here and there, ourselves.  I suspect we’ll encounter stories and experiences whose meanings are difficult to unpack.  I wonder what unimagined gifts we might find…

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