A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 11, 2015: The First Sunday in Stewardship Season.
Hebrews 4:12-16 Mark 10:17-31
A little more than a week ago I got a phone call from a film student at SUNY Purchase. He introduced himself and said he would like to interview me for a class project. He said the process would take about an hour, and he would ask me questions about faith. I said of course I would be willing to be interviewed and we arrange for the interview to take place this past Monday morning at 9:30. I hung up the phone.
And then I panicked. What would we talk about? [big pause] What would you talk about?
The day arrived. I heard his voice before I saw him. It was a quiet voice telling Stella, I’m looking for Pastor Jeff. He was taller than I expected with blonde, almost spikey hair. Somehow even though he told me he was a college student he looked so much younger than I had expected.
We shook hands and I saw his film crew arriving with equipment; lots of equipment – cameras, microphones, mixing boards, headsets – big boxes. And so we all galumphed down the hall to the sanctuary. As he set up I went back to my office. Then finally headed down to the sanctuary again a bit later. I saw that in the center aisle way in the back, near the narthex, he had set a chair. This was my first clue that it wouldn’t be one of those head-shot interviews. By setting up in this way the entire sanctuary, including the communion table, cross and stained glass window were captured in the camera’s viewfinder.
He asked me to give a little introduction about myself. And then, “when was the first time you wanted to become a pastor and how did that ‘lead’ your life?” Not an unexpected question to be sure. And I had my narrative ready.
And then, “how have you found being a public figure or a mentor in someone’s life?” I hadn’t really thought of that before. I’ve received my share of thank you cards from congregants, but I hadn’t thought about what it felt like or how I found being a public figure. I had assumed it was part of the territory and it had never occurred to me to think about how it felt. I said it had been different in different kinds of ministries and in my prior congregation most of my ministry had taken place in coffee shops, ice cream shops, and at kitchen tables in people’s homes. The ministry was characterized by a certain kind of intimacy; turning inward. But here it had more to do with shepherding the community in the church, out into the world; making ourselves vulnerable in new ways and taking risks together. I mentioned my sermon on breathing lessons, breathing in and breathing out – that being church has as much to do with our going out as it does with inviting people in.
There were lots more questions: Where have I seen God, how do I think religion has changed, and then the question that he seemed to be building to: “I want you to imagine you’re talking to someone who has not had a religious experience, or been involved in a church, or was turned off by it just because it seemed like something to do. What would interest such people – not selling points, but what do you think would bring people in?”
I talked about the blessing of the animals and how we had 30 additional people in worship last week. We always ask people to bring friends to church, but I didn’t need to remind the congregation to do that with the blessing of the animals – people just did it. The blessing connected with people’s lives; the animals connected with where they lived. What would I say to interest someone in coming to church? Basically I would invite people to come and be part of community. Church is about living in community. Faith is not something you do on your own. It’s not a personal quest or a personal possession. It’s about life together.
At approximately the same time as I was doing this unexpected interview, Laura Castleman, a member of this congregation who is currently active in another congregation in Indiana where she is doing Ph.D. studies in psychology, wrote a blog post that she announced was a departure from her norm of recipes and food.
For some background, I am not a person who grew up in a church. However, I had always been a spiritual person, starting at a very young age when I bewildered and amused my parents by “making up hymns.” I always enjoyed learning about our friends’ religious traditions and beliefs. I took several years of Jewish studies classes in college and in my senior year I began correspondences with two other young women I had met online years earlier. Both Christian, these two women are both kind, intelligent and compassionate. Both shared deeply about themselves, their churches and their beliefs with me. One of them had theological training and also patiently, honestly, and thoroughly answered any and all questions I had (and there were many, as I am a liberal, feminist, queer person who never imagined feeling safe or comfortable at a church of all places…) The fall after I graduated college, I discovered a wonderful church in my hometown, White Plains. I poured out my life story into an email to the pastor of that church, and he met with me and like my two friends, was nothing but compassionate, welcoming and kind. During that year, I attended church regularly and read books recommended by my pastor. With the encouragement of the pastors at that church, I decided to be baptized on Easter Sunday, 2013.
Laura went on to describe how, before moving to Indiana, she did research into local churches and became involved in a wonderful congregation near her university. She felt “overwhelmed” by this church’s love and support. So she decided instead of a food recipe for her blog post last week, she’d write her own recipe for church.
A Recipe for Church
- a generous helping of space.
- space that allows for the unfolding of wings
- space that opens itself to words too large to contain.
- pinches of patience as you listen. patience as you hear. patience as you wait.
- one strong net : for when we encourage you to leap, we also will catch you, over and over, as you fall.
- regular meals. dinners. post-worship Oreos and punch.
- a sprinkle of eye contact. during the sermon. when you know things have been tough. the “are you okay?”
- we drive each other home, right through silence.
- a weekly-or-more hug at the door, maybe with no time for words, but communicating all the same.
- when turning the dial, making the choice for community, even when that is the harder choice.
- the laughter, the laughter, the laughter.
- interaction, despite awkwardness, despite discomfort.
- the knowledge that we need this : that I need this.
And she concluded by saying “Oh.” As she had surprised herself. “So this is church.”
My friends, it’s about community, loving community, life together.
A man ran up to Jesus, knelt at his feet and asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus said, “Why do you call me good, no one is good but God alone. You know the commandments.” He said to him, “Teacher I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus looking at him loved him and said, “You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving for he had many possessions.
Faith is not a possession. Faith is not something you have or something you do on your own. Faith is about community. Faith connects you to others – it requires you to give, to risk, to connect. Faith is about life together.
We are moving into a season of stewardship where we speak openly about how we support the church with our money. Some of us have some money, others of us really don’t have much money at all. But one thing this congregation does is give. It has and always has given. I think that’s not because any one pastor preached a winning sermon on stewardship. Or because you got the stewardship visit from an elder (who would frankly rather die a thousand deaths than ask you about your pledge). I think the reason that giving has been so strong in this congregation is that this congregation understands that faith is about life together. And life together means we share what we have, we depend on one another, we carry one another, we encourage one another, we welcome everyone. Faith as life together extends from this sanctuary into the streets, into the hospital, into the world.
We have some financial challenges before us this year. That’s really no surprise. But it’s not because this congregation is not giving. You are. It’s because the challenges are big – sprawling, inefficient building tops the list. But the way we face big challenges is together. We give together, and we think together, and we dream together, and we pray together. Did you know that the property committee and I have been exploring how to green our church’s campus? We are actively pursuing bids for solar panels. And did you know that we estimate that once those solar panels are in, they will pay for themselves in less then 10 years, and save us an additional $600,000 over their 25-year lifetime. I share this with you because I look out and I see how faithfully you have given, how you have loved and trusted one another and this church. And it is that kind of faith that will continue to sustain us for years to come.