Tell the Story, and Tell it Well

Mark 8:34-3, John 15:9-16a

October 28, 2012

We continue to count down to pledge Sunday, November 11. That's the day that members and friends are asked to make a financial pledge to the church's budget for next year. Each year we turn in our pledge cards during worship—and that is by design. Worship is not just when we gather to hear God's word, it is also a time when we are given a chance to respond to what we have received. Some people describe their experience of worship as a recharging.  They get a feeling of renewal by being together here in this place, and they are able to return to the world after worship. Giving back is an act of worship, an act of praise, just as singing and praying and reading are acts of worship and praise. We make our annual pledges during worship here in the sanctuary. I like to point out that we also collect food for the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry in the sanctuary, where we worship. Giving to support other people is an act of worship.  Your pledges to the church are important. More than important they are essential for the church to continue to offer Christ's presence from the heart of Oshkosh, serving with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.

Your pledges are also important for a more mundane reason; they help the Session plan the budget for the coming year. Every year the economy is uncertain. This year's uncertainty revolves around the election next month and "the fiscal cliff" that may be catastrophic, or may not be at all. It's always something that makes us edgy; there's always something that makes us want to play it safe and give less.

But there's also some excitement, or at least, I hope there's some excitement in seeing and participating in, all the things the church does. Two weeks ago I met with someone who is an expert in helping congregations with stewardship. He was a parish pastor before getting into this line of work. He said that he just didn't have the gene that most pastors have—he's not afraid to talk about money. He's not afraid to use the "M" word—and not just during the stewardship campaign. He reminded me that our congregations do amazing things—acts of tremendous kindness and compassion, offering encouragement, running schools...opening our doors to all kinds of people and organizations...just two weeks ago we celebrated the covenant relationships we have with the Samaritan Counseling Center, the Day By Day Warming Shelter and the preschool...we on the inside of the church take these things for granted. We do not see them as extraordinary or even unusual—they are just what we do. This morning at coffee hour take a look at the Mitten Tree that the Deacons have put up.  This sort of thing is not out of character for us, in fact, I'd say it would be out of character for us to look ahead to Christmas and not do something for other people. In past years we have gone with our strength and baked cookies and sent them soldier overseas. I see the impact that this church building has on our community every day. I see the smiles on the faces of the preschoolers, I see the peace and tranquility in the Samaritan Center's clients. I am surrounded by the good things that this church does every day. I have a front row seat. You guys are fabulous! The work this congregation does, the good, faithful work this congregation does—and that is done on behalf of this congregation is awesome—in the true sense of that word. As the stewardship expert went on about how vital and valuable churches like ours are, I said, "We've got to tell the story." And he responded, "..and tell it well."

In an effort to tell our story and tell it well, I asked the folks who gather at Brown Bag Bible Exploration to think about this question, "If First Presbyterian Church suddenly disappeared, who would miss us?" Later, I sent the question out to everyone in the church whose email address we have. It's a scary question, I admit. And it's also a question that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. For example, when I ask "church" do I mean the building, or the people? And then it's also hard to imagine a church disappearing, does that mean it never existed? Or that it existed as it is right now, but vanished? I know it's hard to imagine and the question is open to a variety of interpretations, but I also believe that the answers to the question are very revealing. One of the Bible Explorers said, when she first saw the question, "This could be interesting."

Here are some ways that the Bible Explorers answered. The Samaritan Center would miss us. Every week they see clients here, most days there are two counselors here, and demand for their services is growing as the reimbursement they receive from insurance companies is shrinking. Their clients would miss coming here.

Another person said that the Presbytery would miss us. We are one of the larger and more influential churches in the Presbytery. We currently have members serving on the Session records committee, the Committee on Ministry and the Committee on Preparation for Ministry. The Presbytery would miss the skills, gifts and expertise of our members. And the Presbytery would miss our financial contributions through per capita and mission payments.

Several of the Bible Explorers noted that God would miss us. It's true that God works in churches besides this one, but we also have a unique relationship with the Lord, and many individuals and families find that this is the place and these are the people who help us to grow in Christ. It would be hard for all of us to find another home where we can be fed and challenged—and God's presence in our community would be diminished if the church suddenly disappeared.

The Bible Explorers also pointed out the community at large would miss us.  We have gotten a lot of attention in the past few years because of the steps we've taken in beautifying the Green Space. This is the most obvious, visible, public change we've made in a long time. And people in the community have noticed. If the Green Space went away, and the church building also disappeared, they would be missed by people we do not even know.  We have been at the corner of Church and Division Streets since 1893, we are part of the city's skyline, even if people do not know the name of the church, or anyone who goes here, the building is a landmark and would be missed terribly.

Children would miss us. Certainly the students who come to preschool would miss their school. For many of them it's the first time they have been away from their parents. And preschool gives them a chance to try to new things and grow and start to learn how to be a part of the world. Sunday school students would miss us. One Explorer asked, "Who would tell the children?" if the church disappeared.  And we do not just educate children, but we are also committed to helping kids go to church camp, because camp can be such an important part of a person's growth in Christ.

Now it gets a little complicated and hard to put into words, when I describe the church not as a physical space, a building that is our safe place and home.  What does it look like for the church to disappear when we imagine that the church is the people? In one sense we can imagine that the people are still here, but the bonds that hold them together as a community, or as the Body of Christ, are gone. Isn't that harder to picture? These people you know from church, somehow the connection you feel with them is gone.  It's a loss like no loss I've ever experienced, and I'm glad this exercise is all pretend.

See, in some ways we can never know the impact we have on this community.  And since we are "insiders" it's hard to know how influential we are. Someone pointed out Tuesday that our congregation has a ripple effect.  Like the waves made by a pebble thrown into a pond, we leave this place and work and live and volunteer and we touch people and have an impact on lives that we are completely unaware of. And perhaps will never be aware of.

What I think is so revealing about imagining that our church has disappeared is that it makes us aware of how much we do for other people. And how much we do for people who will never repay us.  For example, each week two different Narcotics Anonymous groups meet here. And while they are here, this is their space. This is their haven. This is their home. These people whom we never see, whom we wouldn't recognize at Pick 'n' Save if we saw them, would be homeless if the church disappeared. And when we talked about who would miss us, it was always other people. Now maybe that's because when we  think about the church disappearing, we also imagine that we ourselves disappeared, but I don't think so. I think it's more a sense that we have that we do not exist for ourselves, for our own good and security. Rather, this church has a strong identity in the fact that we exist for other people.

When Jesus prepared his disciples for his death, he gave them a new commandment, that they love each other, as he had loved them, and as God had loved him.  That is, the commandment was to receive and accept his love—and that's a hard, hard things for many of us to accept—the reality and strength of being loved passionately by God—and then to reflect that love, or share that love in the world. One translation on Tuesday described that as "the fullest possible joy."  Isn't that a great phrase, "the fullest possible joy" is loving others as one is loved by God. The fullest possible joy.

In the lesson from Mark, Jesus lifts up a paradox, that those who try to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose themselves, or their souls, or their lives [the Greek word here is a little slippery] will save them.  Jesus is telling his followers to put others first, to imagine their welfare and well-being as more important than one's own. It's a risky, daring way to live. But it is also life-giving and joy-filling. That is the story that we need to tell. That is the story that we need to claim as our own, to embrace and to be a part of.

Our story, the one that we should be ready to tell, a story that fills us with joy, is that we are not here just to look after ourselves. We are here to share the love that has first claimed us and set us free. And then we are to turn around, look outside these walls and live the fullest possible joy.  Yes, the church needs money to make that happen, but when each of us knows that we are part of life-giving work that goes on all around us every day it is easy and renewing to use our money to tell our story, and tell it well. Amen.