Opening Sermon - Mid Council Financial Network 2012
“Sailing With A Little Faith”
Mid Council Financial Network
God above us, God before us, God within us, be now between us a bridge over which your truth can pass.
Our Gospel reading this morning is from Luke, chapter 8, verses 22-25. Listen as God may speak to us this day.
22One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, 23and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 24They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. 25He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So here we are, November 14, 2012, in Savannah Presbytery. Representatives of Mid Councils from across the country have gathered as members of a financial network within the PCUSA to look at how we cope with the challenges in a changing economy. Change always gives most of us a degree of angst; we tend to worry when things we are used to are suddenly different. If I look at my presbytery in the last three years, there have been significant changes. See if any of this sounds familiar within your context. In the last three years we have had our General Presbyter resign, three long time staff members have gone to other jobs, we are now operating the presbytery office with only two full time people and one part time person. The budget projects a deficit for this year and the proposed budget for 2013 is $370,000 compared to $675,000 in 2010. Church giving to the presbytery is down, and even worse it is uncertain with some churches not pledging. And we are continuing to deal with amendments to our constitution and issues that are divisive. So we worry, we are hurt, some are angry, we blame, and we look for answers when there don’t seem to be many. We are indeed unsettled by all of this. What has happened? How can we fix it? Can we survive, we wonder? Will there still be Summer Camp, Leadership Development Conference, and School of the Laity? We’ve been transitioning for so long, how can we find solid ground again? Where can we plant our flag as Savannah Presbytery? How can we find our way again back to the treasured relationships between our churches and the presbytery? Just plug in your mid council or the PCUSA; we are unsettled by all of this!
My mother was a Templeman, the daughter of a Baptist minister who was twenty years ahead of his time. Mother was not a preacher. She was very quiet and reserved. She lived a quiet faithful life that at times seemed to me like a Pollyannaish existence.
The 1940’s and 50’s were wonderful in so many ways as I grew up. However, as I got into elementary school, the cold war was escalating. Life began to take on some more sobering experiences, such as the testing of nuclear bombs shown on TV, and tuck and cover drills at school. Things like bomb shelters and stock piling provisions were presented by the government as our being ready in case of a nuclear attack.
My favorite uncle was Mother’s younger brother. A WWII hero and Purple Heart recipient, he was everything I wanted to be. Sam had become well to do as an optometrist. He had the big house, swimming pool, and a 1953 Buick convertible. I looked forward to going to North Carolina to visit him.
On one such visit, I remember lots of discussion about his bomb shelter and all of its stockpiled goods, which were rotated regularly so they would be fresh should the need ever arise that the shelter was needed. One of the essential items for any shelter was that of firearms to keep those out who had not properly planned for catastrophe.
Mother and Uncle Sam were very close, but on this particular trip I remember the conversations being rather adversarial. We had no plan at our home in Decatur, no shelter or supplies, and Sam was preaching the need for everyone to be prepared. Mother in her quiet way was resistant to the hype that was, in many areas, sweeping through society.
When we arrived home, being a Sam fan, I took it upon myself with all my nine years of wisdom, to challenge the position of my mother. I don’t remember the exact words I used, but my case was about our security, safety, and survival. It was about taking action now. It was about “what if.” I was anxious and worried as a nine year old boy and my uncle’s course of action seemed to be a way to ensure life would continue.
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is awakened during a severe storm by his frightened disciples. He quiets the storm and then asks, “Where is your faith?” As you know this story was first recorded in Mark’s gospel, where the question is, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Footnotes in the scripture also refer these two passages to Matthew 6 where Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Don’t worry, look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies, You of Little Faith.”
One of the commentaries I read said, “This indeed was a little faith, but faith nonetheless.”
So how does this help us today as we struggle with our faith and our doubt, our worries and concerns about the Presbyterian Church USA and about our Mid Councils? What has happened within our PCUSA has and is happening indeed throughout the whole of The Church itself. Jesus says throughout the gospels for us to get our priorities in order- to seek God’s Kingdom first and all these needs will be taken care of.
Joan Gray, former Moderator of our General Assembly, thinks we may be going about that backwards. She has named this problem “bank account” Christianity, where how much we have in the bank determines what our mission can be. It’s imbedded in our budgeting process, and the vision is curtailed from the outset. This is the opposite of what we know about the early generation of disciples.
Some years ago in a sermon on Pentecost Sunday, the Rev Rick Olsen said this, “These first evangelists had no physical resources, no money, no expensive buildings, no paid-gulp! - staff, yet they grew like wildfire. What they did have was a gale force Spirit, given to them in tongues of flame….they relied on that Spirit they opened themselves up to it, they couldn’t help it, they could do nothing less… Their reliance on the Spirit had to be total.
The Reverend Gray has another word to share here. She points out that an early symbol for the church was a ship, not just any ship but one with sails. The early drawings of that time always depict a sailboat, never a row boat. You’ve seen some of those drawings with the cross at the bow of the vessel. It is always a boat that is wind powered, Spirit powered. Who does the work on such a boat? The wind of course does- it is never the people within. My friends, on this ship of the church we are not meant to do the work. All of us using all of our muscles will make no headway in rowing it. This boat is meant to catch the wind, catch the Spirit. This Spirit Wind moves the ship like a knife cutting through the sea.
Olsen says, “The great lie of Western society is that everything is up to us. Our mission is dependent on our own budget, our own resources, and our own strength.” Brothers and sisters, let us not buy into this lie. We are not alone, we somehow, even at our time of “Little Faith,” know the Holy Spirit is within us, within the people in our churches, and within the assembly of this Mid Council meeting this week. What the Spirit calls us to do is steer the boat, and position her to seize the wind. We must present the sails so that they catch the wind efficiently.
Fellow presbyters and friends, that is our purpose today as we begin a process to discern how to guide the PCUSA ship and our Mid Council ships to respond to the Spirit’s power in turbulent seas. Stepping out in faith and truly relying on the Spirit is scary. We must give up our own power even, or perhaps especially, when we don’t know where we are going.
Recently, I had a day dream (I confess I’m not given to visions) about this. I was looking out to the sea, which strangely seemed to be about the size and shape of our United States. All along the shoreline were marooned ships; their names read The Hungry Ones, Homeless, The Marginalized, Downtrodden, The Least of These.
As I looked out into the sea, I saw a small sail boat moving through the water heading toward wrecked boats, and as it turned into the channel, I could just make out the name of it. Love, it said. As I continued to watch the horizon suddenly I saw sailing vessels of all sizes and descriptions. Some were larger than most of the others and had tow lines helping the smallest of the boats to keep up. There were groups of clustered boats, lashed together with their crews helping each other sail ahead as one. They were doing more with the combined resources than could have happened by sailing alone. I counted the sailboats as they sailed, following Love, to help those in need. They numbered 189 in all and they flew several common flags. Some said Hope, others said Faith, and and still others said Jesus Is Lord! Then I noticed the boat named Love flew a banner in addition to its flags. It read Presbyterian Church USA, 189 sailboats together, Sailing With a Little Faith!
My mother listened to me without interruption that day. Then she said in her quiet and calm way, “I know there is a lot of fear and anxiety over all of this arms escalation. I do worry about it, and I worry most about my family. But my thought is there can never be enough shelters, and none on either side is in control, no matter the number of weapons. So I choose to have faith that God is in control.” That, above all other things my mother taught me stands as her legacy to me. She Faithed it!! She understood that faith is not a passive noun to be discussed. Faith is an active verb to be lived out!
My friends, I am persuaded that God has great things ahead for all of us in our beloved PCUSA. God will use us as we are, even with our “Little Faith.” That faith, combined with Hope and Love through the power of God’s Holy Spirit, is stronger than any of those things that would divide us. So let us sail as one in the Spirit, for as Joan Gray said at Savannah Presbytery’s Stated Meeting in May of 2009, “I have never been in a church or presbytery where there was enough, where everyone was in agreement. But somehow with God’s presence and blessing, enough is always enough!”
All hands on deck! Grab a line! Trim the sails! The wind is up! Let us cast off! In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit! Amen
©Copyright Russell Gladding 2012