A sermon offered at the 198th Annual Parish Meeting, the Feast of the Conversion of Paul, January 25, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day were Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; and Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
“I heard a voice saying in Hebrew: ‘I have a job for you. I’ve handpicked you to be a servant and witness to what’s happened today, and to what I am going to show you. I’m sending you off to open the eyes of the outsiders so they can see the difference between dark and light, and choose light, see the difference between Satan and God, and choose God.'” (Acts 26:16-18a, The Message)
A personnel recruitment and testing agency sent this memorandum to their client:
To: Jesus, Son of Joseph, Carpenter Shop, Nazareth
Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men you have picked for managerial positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests. We have not only run the results through our computer, but we have also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and our vocational aptitude consultant.
The profiles of all tests are included. You will want to study each of them carefully. As part of our service, we make some general observations. These come without any additional fee. It is the staff opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, educational and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. Specifically, we have the following observations about these candidates:
Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, place personal interest above company loyalty. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale. We feel that it is our duty to tell you that Matthew (the former tax collector) has been blacklisted by the Greater Galilee Better Business Bureau. James the-son-of-Alphaeus and Thaddaeus have radical leanings and registered high manic-depressive scores.
Only one candidate shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness who meets people well and has a keen business mind. He has contacts in high places and is highly motivated, ambitious, and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your chief financial officer and right-hand man.
All the other profiles are self-explanatory. The candidates do not have the team concept. We would recommend that you continue to search for persons of experience and proven capacity in management. We wish you every success in your new venture.
Of course, our commemoration today is not about any of these guys . . . today we celebrate the “conversion” of our Patron Saint, Paul of Tarsus, who was (as he says himself in his letter to the Galatians) “violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” (Gal 1:13) Clearly not someone you would recruit to grow the church . . . and yet that is exactly what the Risen Jesus did! He handpicked him to be a servant and witness. As has been observed by many writers: God does not call the qualified; God qualifies the called.
And that’s as true for the church today as it was when Jesus was calling fishermen from their boats on the Sea of Galilee, or recruiting tax collectors out of their offices in Capernaum, or accosting the firebrand Pharisee Saul on the road to Damascus. Just look around this room. If you were going to call some group of people to represent God and spread the gospel in Medina, Ohio, would you call any of us? Be honest! Maybe one or two . . . but the whole group of us? Not likely. But here we are, tasked with doing just that.
The other thing Jesus doesn’t do is give instructions. He calls the unqualified and then sets them to work with minimal direction. Just a few verses before the bit we heard this morning Jesus has told the Twelve:
Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. (Mt 10:8-10)
Then he gives them some advice about finding lodgings. That’s it. Minimal instructions and then the part read today, which boils down to “This is hazardous work” and “Don’t be naive.” (Thanks to Eugene Peterson’s The Message for those paraphrases.)
Professor Greg Carey, who teaches New Testament at the UCC’s Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA, in discussing this passage notes that although “Jesus gives the Twelve clear [if minimal] instructions,” once they are sent, “they are on their own. They must assess the responses of the cities; they determine whether to stay or to move along.” They probably wanted something more in the way of training (they were, as that fictional memorandum suggests, grossly unqualified). We would like more in the way of instructions and that drives many Christians to treat scripture as a rule book. But scripture isn’t a rule book and Jesus instructions, as Prof. Carey notes, “only take us so far. The faithful church must move beyond Jesus himself, as the disciples do.” Like “the disciples the church finds itself cast into the world, taking Jesus’ message [of healing and liberation] beyond his instructions into surprising new contexts.” (Working Preacher commentary)
As we begin our 199th year of being the Episcopal Church in Medina, Ohio, that is the self-examination we must undertake. Have we moved beyond the minimal instructions we have been given? Have we successfully taken the gospel message of healing and liberation into our context in this time and place?
In the Annual Journal that you will be given when we begin the business session is a page of parish statistics which reflects the data our national church requests from us each year in the Annual Parochial Report. Looking at those statistics might suggest that the answer to that question is “No.” You will find there, for example, that we began the year with a registered membership of 539 persons (active and inactive); we baptized six but lost two to transfer and one to death for a net growth of three; that’s a growth rate of a little more than 1/2 of 1% – not really very good. But . . . that report is constrained by the definitions and requirements of the canons, our “instructions,” if you will, from the national church.
If we move beyond the instructions, as Prof. Carey suggests the followers of Jesus are supposed to do, one gets a much different picture. We may have a “registered” membership of 542, but a good number of those people are inactive . . . some don’t even live in Ohio anymore. Our active worshiping community at the beginning of the year was really composed of around 200 people and to that active group this year we have added 19 adults and six children that I can name. They are not yet technically “members” as defined by the canons, but they are certainly part of our parish family! There may be some more, people who have quickly grown so familiar that they seem to have been here longer than the year. But even just counting those I can name off the top of my head, that’s a growth rate of 12-1/2%, twenty-five times what our “official” statistics would suggest.
However, as the Rev. Loren Mead suggested more than twenty years ago in his book More Than Numbers, there are other measures of church growth: there is growth in maturity of faith, increase in corporate effectiveness, and success in transforming the outside world. Those are very difficult metrics to measure. It’s really not easy to determine if, when, and how God’s “ways [have been made] known upon earth,” and God’s “saving health [manifested] among all nations.” (Ps 67:2) There, however, some indicators.
We have, for example, not only added 25 people to our worshiping community, we also added two pledging households to our stewardship base and have seen an increase in financial commitments from pledging households of about 2-1/2%. In 2014, we added to our outreach ministries, increasing our outreach expenditures to 18% of our operating budget, well above the nationwide Episcopal Church average which is 11%. Our outreach includes, as you can read in the Annual Journal, $11,000 raised for and spent on feeding the hungry through the Free Farmers’ Market which provided almost 50,000 pounds of food to over 4,300 of our neighbors.
We are offering education in biblically based personal fiscal responsibility and financial management through the Financial Peace University program in which sixteen Medina households are participating, about half of them not (yet) members of this congregation.
We have added to our youth group which now includes middle and high school students not only from our own congregation but from other Episcopal congregations in our mission area and other Christian churches in our city, youths who meet in this building every Wednesday evening for supper and bible study and who, throughout the year, have raised awareness of homelessness in our community, raised money for shelter ministries, built teddy bears for children in need, repaired the homes of the poor, and taken part in the councils and ministries of the church. Two of our youth group members, Nick _______ of our own parish and Richard __________ of Christ Church, Kent, are among thirteen diocesan youth nominated to be part of the official youth presence at this summer’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church.
Of course, we completed addition of 400 square feet of open and inviting gallery space to our parish hall, and reorganized our usage of space moving the nursery to the second floor of Canterbury House (on the same level as our worship space) and consolidating our offices in the undercroft. (There are still some finishing touches to complete, but for the most part that process is done.)
I suggest to you that all of this represents growth in maturity of faith, increase in corporate effectiveness, and success in transforming the outside world . . . and that it is just the tip of the ice berg.
Yes, our official statistics may not look all that good and when the hierarchs of the diocese and the national church look at them, they may “hand [us] over to councils and flog [us] in their synagogues,” (Mt 10:17) although I don’t really think they will. As we approach the bicentennial of our congregation, I believe we have ample evidence that we have followed Jesus’ instructions to feed the hungry, house the homeless, cure the sick, and liberate the captive. And we have followed his last instruction, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19-20a)
Can we do better? Yes, of course, we can and we will because we have faith that those “who endure to the end will be saved,” (Mt 10:22) and we believe Jesus’ assurance that he is “with [us] always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20b) We have followed Jesus’ instructions and gone beyond them. We may not be the most qualified, but we are the ones who have been called. We have taken Jesus’ message of healing and liberation beyond his basic instructions into our context in Medina, Ohio.
I believe that through the open windows of our gallery, through the activities of our youth, through the ministry of our food pantry, through our faithfulness our neighbors and all who pass by “can see the difference between dark and light, and choose light, see the difference between Satan and God, and choose God.” (Acts 26:18a, The Message) I believe that through our faithfulness and God’s grace St. Paul’s Parish has grown in many ways and will continue to increase; “may God, our own God, give us his blessing. May God give us his blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.” (Ps 67:6-7)
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.