“A Changing Ministry”
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For September 11, 2016 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Based on Luke 15:1-10
My ordination in the United Church of Christ is connected to the 9/11 attacks in a very strange way. When I was part of the In-Care Process (what is now called Member In Discernment) my church membership was in Southern Ohio, but I was working on my doctorate in Richmond Virginia. That distance caused several complications in the process to my approval for ministry; those are stories for another day.
But I had made it almost to the end of the process. I had been summoned to appear before the Committee on Ministry, to preach, to endure about 90 minutes of their questioning, and then I was dismissed while they deliberated and decided if I would be presented to the Association for approval. At the time I did not know anyone who did not pass approval by the association – so if I was passed by the Committee on Ministry I was effectively approved for ordination.
The day of those significant interviews was September 10th, 2001. That is how I happened to be in an airplane the morning of September 11. There are stories about being in the airport and boarding the plane that morning; those are also stories for another time.
But I was on an airplane that morning. The plane was taxiing on the tarmac, the engines speeding up to launch us into the air. Then the engines were cut, and the pilot spoke across the intercom: “Folks, we’re being ordered back to the gate. We’re not sure why, but all flights are being cancelled. We think it has something to do with an event in New York, but we really don’t know. We’ll all have to find out back inside.”
Inside the airport gate was … confusion. People exhibited a wide range of emotions: frustration and anger at their flights being cancelled, bewilderment at what would shut down all airlines, the beginnings of fear and sorrow as news and rumors spread.
When I spoke with a ticket agent, they told me that I probably would not get a flight for a few days. I had nowhere to stay in Ohio. The friends I had been staying with had left town that morning, driving to meetings in another city. I went to the rental car agent where just an hour ago I had turned in my car. I asked for it back, but it had already been rented. I was able to get a different car.
So while the nation sat transfixed in front of television screens, viewing and reviewing images of the twin towers burning and collapsing, images of the pentagon burning, images from a farm in Pennsylvania, listening to exhausted news reporters trying to process the latest information, I was driving from Dayton Ohio to Richmond VA, about a ten-hour trip. Instead of seeing the news footage, I listened to radio reporters – mostly public radio – describe and try to make sense of the day’s events.
I worked through a lot of thoughts driving that day. Two thoughts still stand out with significance. First, as I drove past Wright Patterson Air Force Base, two F-16’s launched right above my car. I thought “Those are Ff-16’s.” And then I thought “Why should I know that those are F-16’s? I’m not in the military. I am a dedicated pacifist. Why do I know military aircraft on sight?”
Hours later, somewhere in the hills of West Virginia, I thought: “This changes everything. The events of this day change everything. The way I am going to minister is going to be different than I ever imagined. Most of the questions I was asked yesterday are now irrelevant, as are my responses. I am going to have to do ministry in ways no one ever expected because of the events on this day.”
The events of 9/11/2001 are not the only factors that have affected how doing ministry has changed. The expansion of the internet and internet resources: Wikipedia, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix. The dot.com bubble. Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The 2008 housing crisis. Smart phones, Kindle, IPads, and tablets. Black Lives Matter. Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers. The way we planned to do ministry changed. What we thought we could trust has not been as steadfast as we expected.
A woman loses a coin, furiously cleans her entire home to find it. In the time of Jesus, women spent most of their days in and out of one another’s homes, sharing labor and trading the products of their work for the benefits of their families. There would have been a bunch of women who knew of this one woman’s lost coin.
In Jewish society when something was lost everyone was charged to help look for the lost thing. When money was found, it was to be left where it lay and reported to others so that the one who lost it could return to that place and reclaim their lost cash. To not report the location of the found money was the same as stealing the money. So …all the women who had been into this one woman’s house were now suspected thieves because maybe one of them saw this coin and did not point it out when it was reported lost. Asking the other women to come clean her house is a chance for all the women to redeem themselves: if one of them did take the coin, she may now return the missing coin; for those who may have seen the coin and said nothing, they can now clear their names by helping locate the missing coin.
The events of this day change everything.
The party at the end of this story celebrates the return of the lost coin to its purse and, more importantly, the restoration of trust, the restoration of community, the transformation of tense neighborly relationships. Oh, if it were only that easy to restore our society, to restore our international neighborly relationships, to reestablish trust and eliminate suspicion and reclaim a sense of predictability.
But the world changes, and the needs of the world change, and so the ministries we are called to must change. This is something all congregations, all denominations, are facing and have been facing: the world changes, and the needs of the world change, and so the ministries we are called to must change. Some congregations, some denominations are more forthright in addressing those changes. Lyonsville has been forced into facing those changes because a pastor has left creating the need to search for a new pastor.
You may resist the changes. You may bemoan that the ways of being faithful are now different. You may complain that things are no longer the way they used to be. I don’t believe you would have called me as an interim minister if that is all you wanted to do.
Almost a year ago you called me as an intentional interim minister to help you engage change, to help you assess the possibilities for new ministry, to help you prepare for a new settled pastor, to help you discern God’s call to serve God’s people in a changing world. I realize: these tasks are not easy for you. They are sometimes uncomfortable for me, too.
I also realize that my work has been more focused with some of you than with others. I have worked more with the Leadership Council and Transition Team than the entire congregation. Today, after worship, we want to report to you on what I, the Leadership Council, and the Transition Team have been working on in the past year – and how that work has begun helping Lyonsville engage change, helping Lyonsville assess the possibilities for new ministry, helping Lyonsville prepare for a new settled pastor, helping Lyonsville discern God’s call to serve God’s people in a changing world.
The events of this day change everything …
And I believe, just like the women in Jesus’ story, there’s going to be a party, a grand rejoicing, a celebration of new relationships – because our God calls us to greater faithfulness than we have ever experienced before.