A sermon by Rev. Dr. thom bower
Based on Mark 10:17-24
Delivered at Lyonsville UCC 11 Oct 2015
My name is thom. You should feel free to call me thom – or pastor, or pastor thom, or the reverend doctor thom bower. You can call me just about any name you want I and I will respond. You can even call me Bob – although if you call me Bob I will probably reply that I am not Bob.
There’s a lot of implications in that statement: “I am not Bob.” You can probably tell by looking at me: Bob was taller, his hair a different color, and he wore different robes than I do. Bob is from a different generation than I, had very different seminary experiences than I, and so understands ministry different than I.
Bob was your settled and called pastor. I am your interim minister. There are some distinctions those specific titles bring with them. Like Bob, I am going to care for you. I will visit homebound and people in hospitals. I will officiate at weddings and funerals. I will plan and lead worship, and I will attend board meetings.
But as an interim minister I have a different mission among you. I am specifically here to help you transition from one settled and called pastor to another settled and called pastor. I have quite literally come to minister with you in a way that prepares for my departure from you.
In just a few minutes we will sing a hymn’s refrain “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage.” Let me use that refrain to talk about what I will be doing with you as an interim minister. And I want to focus on three particular words.
First is “us.” I think a lot of our hymns are improved when we remove the language of I – me – mine – my and replace it with the words we – our – ours – us when we move from the singular to the plural.
Amazing Grace how sweet the sound
that saved wretches like us,
we once were lost …
O for a thousand tongues to sing
our great redeemer’s praise
the glories of our God and King …
Blessed assurance, Jesus is ours …
This is our story, this is our song,
praising our Savior all the day long;
The hymn we will be singing has already made that move to the plural: “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage.”
I think this shift away from the singular to the plural is significant for many reasons, most importantly because Christian faith is not an activity we can do alone. One of the hallmarks of Christianity is that it is done together, and the very act of sharing our faith means it is dependent on others.
This is even more essential for us within the Congregationalist heritage. Those 16th century English Congregationalists claimed discerning God’s will is neither done in colloquies of designated church leaders who decide what is best for everyone nor by individuals off by themselves receiving privileged insight of God’s will. Discernment, they claimed, occurs within the congregation – a group of people deliberately working together in worship, in prayer, in service to identify God’s movement among them and to join with God. Conscientiousness in the Congregational tradition is to give assent to the discerning work of the congregation – the “us.”
My work as interim pastor is so much less about helping you and you and you discern how to be faithful in your individual lives as it is about helping us all discern how to be faithful. I am here to help you become a stronger congregation – which is a different purpose than helping each of you grow in your individual faith.
Please don’t get me wrong: this is not an either or situation: the congregation cannot discern without discerning individuals nor can the individual discern without a discerning congregation. But when it comes to which will receive more of my attention, it will be the congregation.
This shift in emphasis from the individual to the congregation is one of a couple significant shifts I have observed in the past few years in my work as a religious educator. Another shift is in the second word of this hymn’s refrain: wisdom.
As a religious educator I have become more focused on how we grow in wisdom. Wisdom discerns what is appropriate – not just what is right but what is appropriate – not just about ethics but about integrity. So I am often going to be asking you why:
Why do you do things the way you do them?
Why is this an important expression of the Lyonsville’s identity as a congregation?
Why is one course of action wise than another course?
My intent is not to have you second guess your choices, but rather help you articulate your values. My intent is to help you become more conscientious about being a congregation –because we can all be more conscientious about our faith, especially the faith that we share.
The man in our scripture lesson comes to Jesus in order to put life into perspective. Mark describes the man running as if to catch up to Jesus or at least to make sure he gets to Jesus before Jesus leaves town.
People in the bible simply do not run. Running is not part of the biblical culture. And so when people run, something important is happening:
people run when Jesus casts out an evil spirit
and commands it to enter a herd of swine;
the father runs out to greet his prodigal son;
a man approaches Jesus and the disciples wearing only his loin cloth – which is snatched as he streaks away;
a person runs from the cross of Jesus to return with a sponge;
the women run from the tomb to the disciples,
and some of the disciples run back.
That’s just about the totality of people running in the Gospels.
In this story the man runs to Jesus. It gives a sense of urgency to his question. Remember that in Mark’s storyline, Jesus has been meeting with a bunch of people with questions. Most of the questions have been adversarial: they are meant to pick a fight, or at least create a debate. But this man’s question has a different tone to it: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
In the verses right after this story the disciples ask a couple more big questions: “Who can be saved?” ‘We gave up everything to follow you – does that count for anything?” These are big questions. This are questions of ultimacy – questions that has meaning for the soul. These are questions of wisdom – not just what is right but what is appropriate.
I have been with you only 10 days, but I have heard from many of your leaders that they have some big questions, questions of ultimacy, questions that has meaning for the soul of this congregation:
Can Lyonsville Church remain vital?
Will new members be attracted?
Will new families become part of our legacy?
Will the doors remain open?
Is this possibly the final generation for this congregation?
I am not going to promise you simple answers. The dynamics that create these issues are complex, and so the answers to address these dynamics are also going to be complex. I do not have the answers to them. If I did, I would not be working in small congregations in the Chicago suburbs as a local church pastor. If I had the answers I could hold much more profitable employment! But these are the issues nearly all congregations are facing.
I am not going to be telling you what you should do, either as individual or as congregation. I will be reflecting back to you what you have told me you think you should be doing. I will be reflecting back to you the commitments you say you have as a congregation, and I will ask you as individuals how you live out those commitments. And when those stated commitments do not accurately match the lived commitments, then I will be asking you which is more important: the ideals (which mean your behaviors must change) or your behaviors (which means you need to restate your commitments).
Along the way I will be sharing what some others say and do in US church life – not that they have the right answers for Lyonsville, but it is useful to compare what others have discerned. I believe these are useful activities on the course toward greater wisdom. And while I do not have the answers, the prescription to address these dynamics and insure the longevity of Lyonsville, I am with you to seek wisdom as together we discern appropriate ways to be faithful.
That endeavor requires the third word: courage. This transitional work can be tough. At times it may seem as though I am introducing conflict into your congregation. At times it may seem as though I am sustaining problems. At times it may seem as though I am unwilling to solve the problems. There are going to be times when you say “We didn’t have these problems when Bob was our pastor.”
And here is one of the biggest differences between being a settled pastor and being an interim pastor: my role is not to solve the problems, resolve the conflicts, or bring an end to the problems.
My role is not to keep things stable, or calm, or even familiar. My role is to help you prepare to call a new pastor, and in that process to identify what is essential to your congregational identity. That means sometimes I will be asking you to do unfamiliar things. It means sometimes I will be asking you to do uncomfortable things. It means sometimes I will be asking you to change the ways you do things. I will be asking you this so that you better understand how you work together as a congregation. You will not be better off at the conclusion of my ministry with you if I was the chief problem solver. I will care for you as these dilemmas are engaged. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage.
There’s three caveats to make here. But first a story. 25 years ago, while I was in college, I traveled with a circus for a summer. The director was a United Methodist minister. At the end of the summer I summarized his educational philosophy this way:
We grow through conflict.
I am here to help you grow.
Therefore I am here to put conflict in your life.
That is not my educational philosophy. I don’t feel a need to introduce conflict into the life of any congregation: most congregations have enough conflict already.
But I am not going to shy away from conflict. And when it arises – notice I said when, not if, because conflict will occur – I am going to be asking the difficult questions like:
“Is this the way you always deal with disagreements?”
“In what ways is this problem similar to previous problems you have had as a congregation?”
and “What are healthier ways to deal with this issue?”
Second, in case I have scared you, I think you are capable of this work. Just as the interim search team investigated me before my interviews, I investigated you as a congregation. I would not have accepted this position if I did not feel that you as a congregation were up to these ministerial tasks. In fact, let me confess to you I turned down more than one congregation who had my profile because I did not think that we would do good ministry together. I do think we can do good ministry together.
And I think we can enjoy doing ministry together – that’s my third caveat. Yes, it will be challenging. Yes it will at times be stressful. Yes, at times our prayers are going to asking wisdom and courage – and patience and strength to persevere. It will also be meaningful, filled with sincerity, and I believe these tasks before us can be done with great joy and laughter.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days. It is a significant prayer that will guide us in the months ahead. Let us begin that work now with our hymn.