Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Just Say Yes

I was moved by Margaret Haney's sermon at the Synod Assembly of the Synod of the Covenant, November 6, 2010. Margaret has served as the interim Synod Executive. Through this sermon Margaret shares a vision for the Synod and the church today struggling with its barrenness, its fidelity to its Traditions, and struggle with change, transitioning with openness to the new thing that God is doing. Margaret finds in the characters and themes of the Advent story a rich vision for the church today. Margaret has given me permission to share her sermon, "Just Say Yes" here. As you read it, ponder these questions:

Like Zechariah, performing our religious duties in the church, what shocks us about what God is doing today? How might we be struck dumb, silenced in our unbelief.
Like Elizabeth, barren of offspring in the faith, and seemingly too old to give birth, how might we be pregnant with new life? What joy might that bring?
Like Mary, dare we say yes to the risk of participating in what God is doing...has already done? May your Advent be blessed as you live and ponder these question!

“Just say ‘Yes!’”

Luke 1:26-56
Sermon by Margaret Haney, Interim Synod Executive
to the Synod of the Covenant Assembly, November 6, 2010

Today--we are celebrating many things in our life together--it is a great privilege for me to report to you this morning since I can feel us on the verge of something new--and as I pondered the message, the notion of Advent entered my mind and would not go away. Certainly, the season of Advent is only a couple of weeks away--a time when we wait upon the Lord to give us the greatest gift of the entire cosmos--the birth of the Savior of the world. I am also aware that in the next two months, I will be stepping away from this synod and all the wonderful opportunities you have given me to see some part of the vision that God gives the church in all our flaws and our beauty. This is truly an Advent time for me personally for I know that a new life is on the horizon for me and for the synod--as each of our lives enters into a time of waiting upon the Lord to give us again, the Good News. Jesus Christ is born to set us free.
My great love is story telling and so I wanted to share this story as a mark of our transition. We read today from Luke the phenomenal announcement of the birth of Jesus--to a young woman in some little out of the way place called Nazareth--that nobody ever heard of much until all this happened.

But before we get too far into that part of the story--let's rewind the tape to a spot just earlier in the first chapter of Luke--for the text we have just heard is best understood in the context of the whole story.

Picture in your mind--two people: an old couple of considerable status in their community, Zechariah, who is a priest in the temple--a man of some power and importance--and his wife Elizabeth. The Scriptures say they are both from Aaron's line and both are pious and as good as anybody you'll ever see--"they follow all the regulations of the Lord", Luke says--I guess we could probably add in our context the Book of Order. But they have no children--Elizabeth is barren (a condition considered in their time to be a reproach from God) and they aren't getting any younger.

Zoom the camera in on Zechariah--who is performing his priestly duties around the temple one day--when lo and behold--an angel drops in. Well--as would be true of any of us, I'm sure--Zechariah is scared out of his mind. But the angel says, "Don't be afraid" and then adds something that would also scare the bejeebers out of most of us--"your prayers have been answered." And with words of considerable eloquence, the angel announces that Zechariah and Elizabeth will be the proud parents of John the Baptist--who will be the one to cry in the wilderness—“prepare the way for Christ!”

So--Zechariah does the only sensible thing--he tries to explain the facts of life to the angel--"Get real!" he says. “I’m old”--and ever the diplomat--he is, after all, a priest--and "my wife is getting on in years! (Just read it, that's what it says!) We prayed that back in 1957--but we didn't mean now!”

So--the angel says, "Listen, bucko! because you hold the position you do and you don't even believe that God can do what God can do--you are now effectively silenced until all this happens!” The angel exits stage left--and Zechariah is standing there clearing his throat, trying to make a sound! And when he goes out to the people to bless their prayers--all he can do is motion to them--and they know something has happened--they guess he has seen a vision or something which has stunned him into silence!

Next scene—Elizabeth! She is jumping for joy! She has conceived a child and the disgrace of her barrenness is removed. And--as is the custom, she goes into seclusion--or maybe she didn't think anyone would believe her if she told them. At any rate, as the scene fades--Zechariah is silent--Elizabeth is in seclusion--and we are left in a mood of expectancy.

Now before we move on--I ask you to note two things: 1) I suggest to you that Zechariah and Elizabeth symbolize for us something of ourselves and the traditions in which our own understandings are anchored--they try to be good, to follow all the rules, and God knows they are powerful and significant people in their church and community; and 2) you notice that God does not do away with those old traditions--No! God takes the old ways and makes them pregnant in order to usher in the new! That sounds like a strategic plan to me!
As with us--God takes us where we are--stays with us within our present understandings so we're not completely blown out of the water--and plants new life even in the most barren of situations. How we do fight it, sometimes! We wring our hands, we argue with each other, we bring Power Point presentations about how serious things are, we hold five more meetings to study it and try to think of all the reasons why it can't be done. Just remember--be careful what you pray for--like Zechariah and Elizabeth, you just might get it! As this story tells us --the old may be silenced but it will usher in the new! Prepare to rejoice!

So--now we fade out on that part of the story--and shift the camera to Mary--a young woman in Nazareth which is, as I said earlier, not any place anybody ever heard of much. Now you see the words on the screen--SIX MONTHS LATER--. The story is different now from the one we just saw--look at it! A young unmarried woman in an out-of-the-way place--and an old couple, who live within the power of the Temple.
But there are such striking similarities that--unless we are asleep at the remote, we can see that it is exactly the same story--an angel appears, followed by fear, followed by good news, followed by doubt, a response, and the departure of the angel! But--in this case, the announcement comes not to a man but to a woman--and equally striking, a woman, young, not married (although Luke says she is engaged, an arrangement made by families often when a girl was quite young). And even though we often think of Mary as very obedient, worshipful, thoughtful, believing--still we must be careful to notice that none of these qualities are mentioned as the reason God chose her. In fact, we don't really know why God chose her--but she clearly is the one!

Picture it--here's Mary--very young--in our time, she could likely have just texted her friends to go to the mall--when that angel drops in. "Greetings!" he says. "Have I got a deal for you!" And Luke says—“Mary was perplexed”-- which as to be an understatement. If you can remember the last time an angel dropped in on you while you were going about your everyday life--then you can understand how Mary must have been taken aback. Luke says, "She couldn't figure out what kind of greeting this was." (At least Zechariah was in the temple, where God's messengers sometimes appeared.) "Don't be afraid" the angel said (sound familiar?) and then he drops the news--she will become pregnant, will carry a child in her body “who will sit on the throne of David and will be called the Son of God." And then just to make it seem even plausible, he mentions that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, will also give birth to a child. And then--just to cement the whole thing, he quotes right out of the Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah (who by the way had been in a similar situation as Zechariah and Elizabeth.) “With God”, he says, “nothing is impossible.”

And Mary--she does what Zechariah did--she tries a little lecture on the facts of life--"You've got to be kidding! To put it nicely, I'm a virgin, if you get my meaning!" But I suspect that, even if she didn't say it, she was thinking about the considerable cost to her personally, if what this messenger says is true. Pregnancy out of wedlock, in her culture, is a capital crime--Joseph could have her put to death--so you see, as happy as we may be about this in our traditional telling of the story--we are not on a Sunday School picnic here! Being God's chosen comes with some considerable risk in carrying something new. And don’t you forget it!

So--the angel tries to sell her on the idea by telling her how important it will be--your child will be no ordinary child--Prepare to rejoice! God is bringing in a new time and is inviting you to be a significant part of it! And here--Mary differs from Zechariah--she gets it! And she does three things! Listen carefully--this is important for us as a synod and as individual persons--on any day of the year but especially in this time of Advent--transition and change.

First, she says "yes". “Here I am. Let it be as you say." I've always wondered, haven't you, whether Mary had a choice. And I believe, because God is a God of choices--that she did. She could have said "No". It is possible, don't you think, that Mary could have been the 37th person that God asked--but Mary was the first one to say "yes." And because she was willing to take the risk, considerable as it was, she got to participate in the most wondrous part of God's plan for the Universe--to give birth to the Savior of the world. She said "YES".

Second, Mary took a journey to visit Elizabeth--up in the hill country of Judea. If you look at a map of the region, you can see that Nazareth was not exactly in the neighborhood--so we can assume that Mary made this trip with considerable determination--maybe to find someone to talk it over with--a support group, in our jargon; or maybe she knew that her elderly cousin would need help in her own time of pregnancy; or maybe she knew the wisdom of being a little less visible given the jeopardy that she is in.

But wonder of wonders! When she arrives--when Elizabeth heard her voice--the child in Elizabeth's womb leapt for joy at the sound! “And Elizabeth cries out,” Luke says. (If you have ever been six months pregnant and felt the child within leap for joy, you know why Elizabeth cried out. I still remember that foot that caught me in the rib cage when I was carrying those babies of mine. But what joy you feel because you know that there is not only life here--but it is vibrant and energetic--full of health and rambunctiousness. That is enough to rejoice over!) But there is a deeper message in this passage for all of us--and Elizabeth knows it--Even new life placed within the old traditions witnesses to the great and wonderful news that God is abundant beyond our wildest imaginations--even that new life within us says “yes!"

And third, Mary sings the Magnificat--a song of great rejoicing--"My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings, "for God has done great things for me." Notice, she doesn't say "will do great things"--she says "has done." And then just to show us what she means--she continues to sing of God's inverted order of things—“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly." “God has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty." This goes far beyond Mary in its newness--this is cosmic in its proportions. And then she reminds us that it is also part of the old--she reminds us of the promise that God made to our ancestors, to the whole nation, and to the very universe. Mary sings "Yes."

So what about us! Here in the Synod of the Covenant--in this time of transitions for all of us. We are gathered here to make promises about our work together and to celebrate the great joy of the coming of Emmanuel, God with us! We can rejoice in God's abundance in our personal lives and in the life of the synod and all the presbyteries--rejoicing that God has invited the likes of us to participate in his plan to redeem the world. The wonder of these accounts from the Scriptures is that they are about us. We, like Zechariah, have some difficulty believing that we might actually be part of the cosmic plan--that it is possible for us to be pregnant with God's possibilities, given the length of time that we have been barren.

But I tell you friends, on such a day as this, we can quit trying to explain why it isn't possible. All the scientific, financial, bureaucratic arguments we use to show God and ourselves why this can't be done--they need not apply. We must remember--today and all days--with God, nothing is impossible! We can say yes. We can rejoice. Like Elizabeth, God will take away the barrenness in our ways of doing things--We can feel the leap of new life in our very being--we can feel the vigorous kick in the rib cage--when we hear the sound of the voice that speaks--not only for us--but to the whole world; the whole Universe! As Jesus said—“even the very stones will cry out!” With God, nothing is impossible--in ourselves, in this synod, in all our presbyteries, in the universal church, in the whole world.

Rather than being anxious because we do not have enough to keep all the things we are accustomed to--we can rejoice with Mary at what God has already done to redeem the world! And on days like this, we can sing for joy that God invites us to be a part of it.

A word of caution, however--this is not about selfishness and winning; it is not about keeping everything the way it is now. In all the decisions we make, we had better be sure that we are with the poor and the lowly--for that, says Mary, is where God's promise is playing itself out. The mighty will be toppled from their seats in high places--and the rich will be sent away empty. We know, that when in our own land of plenty--one in four children live in poverty (that's double the rate of any other developed country in this world); that there are approximately 50 million poor people in this country alone--many of them right here in the boundaries of our synod; and we know that for want of clean water, thousands of children around the world die every day. We know that poverty and war are destroying people all around this world--along with those who suffer as victims of hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes and greed and indifference.

I pray that we can find the faithfulness to accept God's invitation to live into the promise as servants of the Lord. That is what Advent is all about--Believe it--God has come to dwell among us--God has said to us--Hey, I'm doing a new thing here! Can't you see it? The desert will bloom and the dry land will sing for joy!

Like Mary, we can say Yes! “Here we are--let it be as you have said." We know that God calls us to show that we believe in the abundant love and grace that we are offered for the taking--that Christ is here in our midst gathering us up into the presence of God. We know that God calls us by name--that God searches us with loving eyes--and asks us, the humble and the powerful, to make the leap of faith, trusting that God has already set it in motion--and because God loves us and desires our companionship--we are invited--think of it--to come along! To share the abundance that God has placed in our lives so that we can be a part of the mission of Christ's church--serving not ourselves but those whom God loves.

Can't you feel the pregnancy in this room--the new life that God has placed within each of us--and within this synod--as this season of Advent approaches--can't you feel the new life that we celebrate? It may seem that it is more than we can do—But we know that with God--nothing is impossible! Do we want to be a part of it? Prepare to rejoice! Just say "Yes."

Let us pray: God of small heartbeats and cosmic truths--who are we that you should invite us to be a part of your gift to the world--who are we that you should place new life within us! Sometimes we have all the power of the tradition with us, like Zechariah-and still we don't get it! And sometimes like Elizabeth, we dance with joy because we know that you have taken away our barrenness--we hear the voice of newness call us and we feel the joy of new life leap within us. Sometimes, like Mary, we get a glimpse of the cosmic nature of what you have promised--to us and all people in the world. We ask your blessing on us--we bow before you in praise and thanksgiving for your promise of new life. Please, we ask, for each person here in the issues of their own lives; and for this synod as we begin a process of seeking the new--give us the courage to not be afraid, but to say "yes"! To be your faithful people in knowing that with you, nothing is impossible! Give us hope! Help us to believe. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Report to Presbytery - November 2010

Ron Ferguson, of the Iona Community once wrote: “Geese in a flock have seventy per cent greater range than a single goose on its own; Geese in formation fly seventy-five per cent faster than a single goose.”(from "This is the Day: Readings and meditations from the Iona Community,(c)2002 Neil Paynter)

It is my joy to serve as a leader of this flock, the Presbytery of Lake Michigan. I serve not alone but with the Leadership Team members, trustees, staff, many committee and ministry teams, all of whom could have panicked during an historic economic crisis, but have not. By the end of the year, we will have traveled this journey together for three years. So I want to provide a reality check perspective and highlight some accomplishments.

The proposed 2011 budget to be considered at the end of this meeting is based on 34% less shared mission support than in 2007 when you called me. That's an average decrease of $64,000 per year.

How have we positioned ourselves to absorb this? In 2008, we moved from two part time program associates to one. In 2009 we withdrew support from the Cherry Valley new church development project, when designated funds were exhausted. In 2010 we challenged the Greenwood Agency to run its ministry on its revenue and support, with modest program support. For 2011 and 2012, Higher Education ministries will be reduced. And we managed with a lot of belt tightening, using more technology, less postage and paper, and by refocusing our expenditures on a new ministry plan based on conversations with you at our June & September meetings last year. The Ministry Teams have been working this year on strategies toward meeting 4 goals. The 2011 proposed budget year was prepared with these goals in mind.

Another Reality Check for perspective: In 2009, in the teeth of the worst economic crises since the depression, you collectively reported contributions of nearly $16 million, up 1.7% from 2008, the second highest in the Synod per member giving. Collectively our membership change in 2009 was a net loss of 227 members, down -1.4%. Comparatively, again the second best in the Synod. Seven Presbyteries reported actual net gains in membership, with the highest gains by far in three non-geographic Korean Presbyteries, which is why the General Assembly is encouraging us to grow this church deep & wide.

In 2009, PCUSA congregations reporting contributions of $2.1 billion, and with capital and building Funds,investments, bequests, other income just under $3 Billion. Together we still have means to do great things. Congregations reported expending these funds this way:
71% Local Congregational Programs
14.3% Capital Expenditures
5% Local Mission
3.2% Validated PCUSA Mission
3% Other NonPCUSA Mission
2% Investments
1.5% Per Capita Apportionment.

A couple of comments on three of those numbers:
First, PCUSA Congregations spent 1.5% in 2009 for Per Capita: we run this church on 1.5% of the expenses. That's pretty incredible!

Second, Congregations spent 14.3% Capital Expenditures: We also have invested heavily in capital improvements! Many of our congregations have done major renovations to position yourselves for ministry in this 21st Century. Kalamzoo First and Grand Haven First just before I came, Westminster Grand Rapids, Fairplain, and Okemas before them, and since, Brooklyn, Eastminster in ELansing, Hastings, First, North Westminster in Lansing is undergoing a capital campaign now. Collectively this amounts to a multimillion dollar investment in our future. With that investment we are carrying significant debt service, and for which the Presbytery is ultimately responsible. All this impacts why 5 or 6 churches alone are giving $200,000 less in mission support in the past 4 years.

Third, Congregations allocated 3% or $86 million to Other Mission groups: Do you remember the $50 million campaign? If we redirected half of what we are now giving to other institutions to support our mission we would nearly match that huge campaign with one strategic decision
to shift 1.5% to PCUSA Validated Mission. Presbyterians are still generous people with power to effect much good. It’s a matter choice. As you make your mission budget choices I challenge you to shift one half of what you are giving other mission entities to your flock’s mission. Focus your support on your local mission and PCUSA validated mission. We are stronger, faster and more effective when we fly in formation.

I have worked hard and covered a lot of miles to engage you all. I am proud to report that on December 14th I will complete my goal of worshiping with every congregation in the presbytery. What out come do I hope for, from all this effort? In every encounter, whether at worship, at a Session consultation, or pastoral visit my goals have been to built relationships and establish trust, to nurture a culture of respect for our diversity, to inspire a faithful response in this time and place to the amazing grace we've received in the Lord, and to instill a sense of urgency in our response. I've tried to do this by providing transparency, speaking the truth in love, giving encouragement pointing to hope. Praise God if I’ve managed a fraction of that.

Finally, I want to recognize a few people. Many of you know that Rev. Christine Barnes, associate pastor at Brooklyn, has served this year as Moderator of Synod of the Covenant. You may not know that elder Bill Sorensen, of Kalamazoo, First, was elected the new Vice Moderator of the Synod. I served on the Synod Executive Search Committee this year representing the EP/GPs and our presbytery. The Synod is recognizing Lake Michigan Presbytery’s assets! The Synod elected the Rev. Dr. Raafit Saaki, an Egyptian born Arab by birth, a grandson of missionaries raised in the Sudan, he married a Korean woman. He has a passionate vision for compelling hospitality, and in his person represents the future. I hope we will invite him soon to preach for us.

I also want to recognize some leaders who has served this Presbytery extraordinarily well, and who are concluding their particular service and will ask to stand if present: Dave Milbourne, end his service on the Leadership Team last year, and the Budget and Finance Committee this year and was on the task force which guided us in the development of our ministry plan;
Andy Thorburn, has served on the Leadership Team, the Action Planning Team and liaison to the Greenwood Agency, and was our interpreter of the Ministry.
Nelson Lumm, served long on the Staff Services Committee, on the General Presbyter Search Committee that called me, and this year leaves the Administration Ministry Team.
These three have been stalwart pillars of the Presbytery for many years. Thank you! Those of you who are new to the presbytery, get to know these leaders. They will give you insight into the ethos that makes this Presbytery what it is.

And finally I want to recognize someone who is newer to us, who I will ask to come forward, who has lit up the Administration Ministry Team with incredible energy, intelligence, imagination & love, Pat Ramsden, would you come forward? Pat came onto the AMT my first year & took this team’s ministry to a very high level, with workshops for stewardship leaders and then personnel committees, preparing manuals for personnel committees, Clerks of Session, and an upcoming one for treasurers publishing the Stewardship Program “Building Hope”. How many of you are using it? We want to hear from you. And recently held a gathering for Elders and Deacons with Joan Gray, here at Westminster. Pat I have nothing to give you today be the esteem of your colleagues.

It is a great joy for me to fly with this flock we call Lake Michigan Presbytery,
on this incredible journey we call ministry. “Geese in a flock have 70% greater range than a single goose on its own; Geese in formation fly 75% faster than a single goose.” Thank you for your trust and respect, for the gifts of your time, your energy and your treasure.