Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Report to the Presbytery April 28, 2009

"Abundantly Far More"

I know many of you will find this hard to believe. But truly, I had a wonderful spiritual experience at the annual meeting of a congregation once. It was way back in the first half of the 1970s; I was still a junior high school student; I do not remember the exact year. It was a difficult time for our nation. We were in the middle of the OPEC oil embargo, and the national economy was in a very serious recession. At my small, home church our annual meeting was on one very cold, winter Sunday. At that time my father was serving as both the Clerk of Session and the financial secretary of our little church.

He did his Clerk report, not much had changed in that little church in a year. He moved right into his financial secretary report, and reviewed the financial reports and the budget for the new year. Things were very bad. There was a lot of anxiety and a lot of discussion. I have this memory of my dad responding to many questions and concerns clearly and calmly. (By the way, my parents are very well. They are now fully retired and living in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.) This was a small family church, and this meeting was much more of a conversation among friends, than a business meeting. And then, after all of the concerned discussion waned, my father gave this sort of off-the-cuff little sermon to the congregation. He said something like, “We know this is a very difficult time for the church and for many of our families. We need to make some difficult decisions; we need to be managing this situation very carefully. But the church will carry on. We will carry on through this. The church will carry on.” My dad never used God language, like we preachers use. My dad would never have used words like prayer and providence. But in his own way, and in a way that was deeply meaningful to our family church, he proclaimed our essential truth: God will be God, and the church will carry on. Preachers, I challenge you to bring that same spirit of encouragement and hope to our people now.

More than fifteen years after that annual meeting of my home church, I was the pastor of a very small church. We did not have a secretary. I took the bulletin material and the announcements to Carol’s home every Wednesday morning, and she typed and then photocopied at her dad’s auto parts store. Without a secretary, I was glad to walk out to the road every noon and gather the mail, and I took responsibility for getting all the stuff to the right people: Sunday school curriculum to our teachers, bills and bank statements to our financial secretary, etc. You all know the routine. But that day, this one envelope caught my attention, so I opened it. This was a notice from the electric company to the church that because we were three months past due our electricity was going to be turned off. I had never experienced anything like this before either in my family or in the church, and this notice really upset me. For some reason, our financial secretary, Rose, was out of town for a couple days and unavailable. So this notice sat on my desk, and burdened my mind. Sunday morning rolled around again; this notice was still sitting on my desk and rolling around in my mind.

I noticed that Ron had arrived, and was sitting in his usual pew near the front. Ron was one of the saints and was a great supporter of me. He was on session at that time and was, of course, related to our financial secretary Rose. If I was 25 years old at the time; Ron was probably 65. Ron and his family became some of my best friends in the church as I was learning how to be a pastor. So I decided, on the spot, to share this notice with Ron a few minutes before the worship service. I snatched it up off of my desk, and went out and sat down next to Ron in his pew. Ron always sat alone in worship because his wife and two daughters were all in the choir. I handed Ron the notice from the electric company, and told him that this was bothering me and Rose was out of town. I was not sure what to do about it. Ron quickly looked at the notice. Calmly, he put it back in the envelope and tucked into his jacket pocket. He looked at me and said, “The session will take care of this. You need to worry about your sermon.” That is still very good advice for our preachers. He flashed me a big smile and sent me on my way to lead worship. It was another of those moments of grace in my life. At the next session meeting I noticed on the Treasurer’s report an extra large payment to the electric company. I did not feel a need a comment on it and neither did Ron, and the electricity was never disconnected, and the church carried on.

Wow, it is stunning to me how quickly the social and economic climate has changed in the past half of a year. My friends, for times like these the church needs to carry on. The church needs to be the church. Let us be clear about who we are what we are able to do. We cannot feed all the hungry people in the world, or even in our presbytery. We cannot stop people from losing their home because they cannot pay their mortgage. We cannot stop company managers from sharing the sad news that jobs are being eliminated, and people will be out of work. We cannot restore the investment savings of our people, or insure that everyone will have an abundant retirement. We cannot pay every tuition bill, or even everyone’s utility bill. But we can be the church. We can be the church. And the church will carry on. We can proclaim a word like this one from the letter to the Ephesians:

"Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever." Amen