Stewards of the Mysteries

I Corinthians 3:18-4:1, October 20, 2013

I had a most interesting conversation in June at PresFest and I've been waiting until today to share it with you. Some of you remember Kathy Anderson who was a member here for several years before she moved away. She first came to this church a few days after moving to Oshkosh. Her only son had just been deployed to Afghanistan. She felt a warm and sincere welcome here and became an active member very quickly. About a year later we startedBrown Bag Bible Exploration—and Kathy became a kind of charter member of thatgroup. She told this story one day: When she was a little girl she asked the pastor of the church where her family went, why dinosaurs weren't in the Bible. The pastor made her feel bad for asking that question. He told her it did not belong at church! I was so sad and angry to hear that! Here's a girl with an active, curious mind, wanting to know more about the coolest things that kids can imagine—God and dinosaurs—and her pastor, the man called to lead the church in the way of Jesus Christ--told her that her question was not appropriate!

It took a big effort for Kathy to come back to Oshkosh from North Carolina for PresFest, but she was very, very glad she did! She came up to me at one point in the afternoon and said, "You have to tell people what they have here!" At first I mistook her passion for anger. She was so enthusiastic about this church! She said that she really did not understand what a strong, vital church we are until she moved away and tried to find another congregation. She has been frustrated and disappointed, but that has only made her more aware of how important this church was in her life and faith.

It is often said that you don't know what you've got till it's gone.  Kathy helped me to see and understand the type of church we are. She has both the perspective of an insider and an outsider on this congregation. Sort of like someone who after leaving home is able to see his home for the first time, Kathy was able to see—and get me to see—the type of church we are. We were good for Kathy and she was good for us. I'll try to explain.

Often at Bible Exploration people will say things like, "I don't agree with what the Bible says," or "The Bible may say that, but I think it's wrong." Kathy would often make observations or ask questions as someone who had had a lot of life experience that she was trying to put in dialogue with what the Bible way saying, and sometimes that was difficult.  She would ask questions from her experience with a kind of fearless curiosity. At first she asked timidly, "Maybe I'm missing something here, but..."And these questions always made us consider something that we had not considered before. After a few months we would turn to Kathy when the conversation was getting a little dull, and ask, "Kathy, what do you got for us?"

After about two years of meeting nearly every week with Bible Exploration we were able to get Kathy to see that her questions and observations were gifts to everyone. They were not burdens or obstacles, but we all found that she was helping us to see and experience God's word as the Bible reveals it to us. Far from being inappropriate as her questions had been called when she was a little girl, they were valuable and helpful—we benefited from them! Then Kathy moved away.

I phoned Kathy last month to talk in a little more depth about what she experienced when she came back to our church. She said she really appreciates that we allow people to have questions and doubts, that there is room for a lot of different opinions and that everyone is welcome. Then she said something that really got my attention: not only did we allow her questions, no one offered ready answers. Instead we adopted her questions as our own. It makes me realize that the best questions are the ones we keep asking. I found this quote from a continuing education event I went to three years ago that says what I'm thinking at this point: "When certainty dies, curiosity returns." I don't know who first said that, I searched for it on Google and nothing came up, maybe I said and wrote it in my notes! It really summed up my experience serving this church. We are not quick with easy answers, but we're good with embracing questions, with probing uncertainty, with wondering and leaving room for doubt. That means we let people grow in Christ however Christ is leading them. Maybe we don't see ourselves that way because we're us to it.  Maybe it takes a former insider who has left us to help us see and experience how life-giving and affirming and accepting we are. Kathy's life was changed because this church gave her room to ask her questions with other people who joined her on their walks with Christ.

Next Sunday is Pledge Commitment Sunday. That will be your chance to inform the church how much money you plan to give to support the work and mission of this congregation next year.  "Stewardship" is the word that we use for this concept. I always imagine both "s's" in that word as dollar signs. But "stewardship" isn't only about money it is about how we care for what we have been put in charge of. You can think of stewardship of the earth and creation, for example. I love the phrase Paul uses in his first letter to the Corinthians, he calls believers "servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries." It's our job to take care, to tend, the mysteries of God. How does one take care of or nurture, a mystery? We take care of our cat at home by giving him food and water. What does it mean to maintain the mysteries of God? One way we can understand it is by acting in faith, trusting that God will work with and through us.

Here's another way that this church does that: The Prayer Shawl ministry began about three years ago. We give shawls to anyone who asks for them—some people we know, others we don't.  Deacons take them to shut-ins, some go to the Day by Day Warming Shelter, Samaritan Center counselors can give them to clients. Earlier this year we gave a prayer shawl to Baby Amy. Amy was born to a friend of a member of this congregation. Before she was born her doctors discovered health issues which meant Amy would have surgery very shortly after being born.  The night before the first operation, Amy's mother stayed at the Ronald McDonald House near the hospital in Milwaukee.  She sat alone, without family and without her baby. Here's part of what she wrote in a thank you note to the Prayer Shawl ministry: "I sat in the rocker all night wrapped in my prayer shawl.  I felt surrounded by prayer & the strength of God. The thought that people who did not even know us were praying for us gave me great comfort."

When you support this congregation, one of the ministries you support is the Prayer Shawl ministry. They meet once a month in the Quilt Room downstairs. Your donations to the church paid for the request forms for prayer shawls on the back table. Volunteer knitters and crocheters made the shawls and who knows where they might end up.  Just giving to the church makes this kind of life-giving caring possible. Look in the mirror, do you see the Body of Christ at work in the world?

At last August's Session meeting Lisa Strandberg from the Samarian Center came to thank the Session for the support this congregation gives to the Samaritan Center. Here's part of what she said, Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to worship with and address a congregation (not yours) that supports us. There happened to be a member leading worship that day. She invited me up to speak, I blathered on for a while about the good work they do through us, and then I sat down. Then that member stood before the congregation and said, "Thank you, Lisa. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Samaritan Counseling Center and the help I got there."

We hear comments like that often. In fact, someone I was meeting for the first time once shook my hand and said, "Samaritan Counseling Center saved my life."

And here are a few recent comments from clients ... comments your members should consider addressed directly to them:

I want to thank you for helping me get my life back.

You saved my life. I was down to nothing and felt life would have been better without me. You helped me rise and see life is worth everything. Thank you.

I am grateful for your part in my now joyful life!

You really helped me through some tough times. Now my life has been going very smoothly. Thank you so much for changing my life!

The Samaritan Center has two offices in our building. Most week days they use both office for about 8 hours.  It is too bad that most of us are unaware of how many people come to this building every week. Broken people, discouraged people, confused and angry people.  They come here and get their lives and souls back. And you make that possible when you contribute to church and help pay the utility bill. Look in the mirror, do you see someone making life-changing ministry happen?

On Sunday morning, the day after PresFest you remember we worshipped outside, under the tent and we had Bubba the hawk and Fran the owl in worship that day.  Kathy asked if she could get into the building, she wanted to sit in the sanctuary for a few minutes. When I saw her again she said, "Tell them that they embody those words on the banner: "energy, intelligence, imagination and love."

We are taking a different approach to raising money for next year's church budget this year. We're not talking about how the church needs money to keep the lights on and buy crayons for the Sunday school. You all know that. Instead we're talking about the ways our church is making a positive difference in the lives of people we touch because we open our building for other people like the Narcotics Anonymous groups that meet here two nights a week, like the Preschool that's here every week day morning. We open our building. But we also open ourselves to reach out to other people with the Prayer Shawl ministry, and by welcoming questions and
cherishing them more than answers.

Imagine you're new to town and visiting a church for the first time on Stewardship Sunday. Are you more likely to join a church so you can help them balance the budget, or a church that has told the story of how the money that members and friends put into the offering plate each week shares the love of Christ with children, friends, neighbors and the wider community? That's what we do all the time, but we're so used to it that we forget the capital G Good that God does through this congregation all the time.  You looked in the mirror a few minutes ago. You saw a portion of the Body of Christ that is engaged, excited and energetic. That is all because the money you contribute is put to work, and we can do more good in Christ's name with more money.  No, I need to rephrase that, "God can do more good through us."  Amen.