Isaiah 2:1-5 and Romans 13: 11-14.
Preached at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ, November 28, 2010.
When I worked for New York Conference, all four Regional Conference Ministers knew we were drowning. Each of us working w ith between 90 and 100 local churches. The Alban Institute, sort of the Einstein of Think Tanks for the liberal church, says that a judicatory minister can effectively serve no more than about 50 congregations.
And the local churches, they didn’t make our situation easier. They expected us to be present for whatever they wanted us for. (Ironically, when we weren’t wanted, they were equally good with that articulation.)
There were the times we needed to be at the table:
~when a congregation was looking for a pastor,
~when a local church was going through conflict,
~when an “outside voice” could make a difference– whether to provide a “non-anxious presence” or “prophetic challenge.”
I also thought it was helpful when we were with congregations during low points of mourning or the apexes of celebration.
But they also expected us at other times– for their chicken BBQs, their rummage sales, their church anniversaries, their pastor’s anniversaries, fashion shows, community meals, and to preach when the pastor was away.
A woman announced once to Conference Executive Council that none of the staff ever visited her church. My colleague David, perplexed and exasperated, exclaimed, “But, Ann, I preached at your church last Sunday.” She responded, “That didn’t count.”
Another colleague, Marian, tells of a church whose building burnt down; got rebuilt; next their renegade pastor, non-UCC pastor, tried to claim it the building once he pulled the church out of the UCC.
In time, it took about three years, the members got rid of that pastor and rejoined the association. About that time, the lay leader from this church thought to call up the conference staff person and said: “Marian, you have to come, right now, and save us.”
Early on in our tenure together, the NY Conference staff, we realized that less than constructive work dominated our days… that this busy work kept us from more important work… that we needed to stop doing some things in order to do other things… that we had to figure out how to free ourselves and our “to do” lists from others’ and our own expectations.
We needed room for what our churches really needed from us. We could name those tasks that would make a difference for the future of our churches. But we couldn’t find the time and space to get to them.
This dynamic, our limitation, came up over and over again, in conversations, in staff meetings and at our annual staff retreats. We spent time on it. In fact, those discussions about how to do what we needed to do probably became one of our stumbling blocks, one aspects of our bondage. We’d say we were going to stop doing certain things, let go of others (often expectations from an earlier era) to get on with more promising, forward-looking work.
But, you know what? We never really did. We talked about what we hoped for, wanted, needed to do. But what we never got the old stuff off our plates, made room to do that which was new…
I thought of this last Sunday, Wanda, in our Worship Standing Leadership group. We find ourselves in a similar fix: your Worship SLG wants to be taking on bigger questions of our worship traditions and how they serve us. We want to work together, cooperatively, involving you all, to develop new and different worship experiences.
But we get limited by what people (including ourselves) expect us to be and do — based on how we have been. We get all knotted up in the details and the minutiae. The pressing immediate questions– like “How do we get lectors, liturgists and acolytes signed up, and do we have all the slots filled for the next few weeks?” Or “What time will the Christmas Eve services be this year?”– such questions take up our time and attention and energy, so we often fail to get to the larger or longer term issues and concerns we would like to, need to…
Our Scripture from Paul’s letter to the Romans also reminds me of this dilemma: how the immediate, though though less important, seems more pressing than what matters more in the long term. Let me read the Romans passage again, but in a different translation:
“But make sure that you don’t get so absorbed and exhausted in taking care of all your day-by-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God. The night is about over, dawn is about to break. Be up and awake to what God is doing! God is putting the finishing touches on the salvation work he began when we first believed. We can’t afford to waste a minute, must not squander these precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight. Get out of bed and get dressed! Don’t loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute. Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!”
Although the apostle Paul wrote this passage long ago, it speaks to the challenge we face this season. Day-to-day obligations are always heavy. But they increase as Christmas nears. Entertaining, shopping, decorating and duties that have come to define a perfect Christmas get added on, pile on, heap up on our already over-busy, over-scheduled lives.
Paul, expectant for the imminent consummation of God’s salvation, waiting for Jesus to come right back, reminds us to consider the weight of our various options. He writes “deliverance is near,” which sounds sort of like “you don’t have forever.” Or more promising, “Dawn is about to break.”
God is interceding in human affairs, providing something truly life-giving, real, lasting. Far from any passing, temporal satisfaction we might receive from the latest gadget or a new car, God offers what is really important, makes all the difference in the world.
A friend of mine wrote me yesterday that she and her partner have separated. She’s got all three kids on her own. She’s feeling overwhelmed and terribly alone. And, on top of all that stress and tension, all those unwelcome changes in her life… Christmas is coming!
In previous years, she explained, she has had all her Christmas shopping done by now. She is panicked: how’s she going to get everything done this year.
Beloved, I promise you, as I responded to her: if we truly want a life-giving Christmas, figure out what you need to do, to be… do that, and that alone, and let go of the rest.
But you protest, “Michael, I hear you. It sounds good. Thanks for the invitation. The permission. But it’s not that easy. Didn’t you begin your sermon by admitting you haven’t always gotten out from under the small stuff. Didn’t you admit that in your last job, you and your colleagues where always overwhelmed by the needling little tasks, so much so that you never got to the big issues, what you really felt you should be doing.”
That’s what I said all right. But I didn’t finish my story. Didn’t tell you that after too long, it changed.
I think part of our problem was we were mostly talking among ourselves. We didn’t take up the conversation with the whole conference. Make our case, trust them enough to share why we couldn’t do everything they wanted us to do, why we had to say no to somethings in order to do other things, why we wanted to get to new things they might not expect or even appreciate.
But, eventually, I did learn how to free myself up. By accident really. But free nonetheless. It’s my trick, grace really. Something I continue to work at, practice getting better at.
There came a time in my tenure when I became so worried, despairing really, about the future of our congregations– how they just keep at what may have worked in the past, but clearly wasn’t working anymore. I got so bothered by our churches captivity in the daily grind, so tied up, knotted tight in keeping the lights on and the bulletins printed that they don’t find room to think about bigger questions, look creatively towards the future, how they might need to be and do differently.
In my frustration, I added a whole new portfolio to my job description. A revitalization program. Made it my goal to figure out how the conference could challenge, prompt, resource local congregations for transformation, for greater effectiveness, to begin reaching out and serving more people.
I clearly didn’t have time for anything else, especially a whole new, conference-wide program that aimed to move heaven and earth in some small way, or at least to affect a bunch of congregations that really didn’t want to be changed.
But I went ahead with it. Created a revitalization program that eventually enrolled 75 congregations from across the state. It was a lot of work. More than I ever imagined.
And here’s the trick I learned: once I just got started doing other, new, more important things, what really mattered, those other, lesser things, even people’s expectations, didn’t have quite as much power over or hold on me. Once I was engaged in the new program, I suddenly found myself free, found it easier to not do other things.
Beloved, if it sounds like I am counseling prioritizing, you’re not hearing me. For almost 6 years, my colleagues and I tried prioritizing, and it didn’t have enough juice to make the difference we need. I guess you could say that prioritizing is a step in process. But what I’m really talking about it… what worked for me: SUBSTITUTION. Or to borrow a phrase from Nike: Just do it.
Start living a bigger life. Make what really matters your agenda. The center of your activity and existence. Don’t wait until you’re freed up. Until the details are handled, the minutiae all taken care of. Instead, undertake the big ticket items. Get busy with what really matters.
And suddenly, all those little details, the lesser errands, the littler tasks that so often get between you and really living, won’t be so pressing or confining anymore.
As you prepare for Christmas, what do you want to do differently this Advent? Or better, what do your really think you should be doing? Rather than depleting energy and your bank account, what can you substitute that will bring about not only renewed hope and faith, but also a big difference in our world?
You might even ask friends for suggestions, what should your substitutions be? Those who care about you will remember what’s exhausted you in Christmas past. Together, you can encourage one another to press on toward the goal.
As I might recommend to my friend, Lisa, now single with the three children, “Instead of spending all Saturday running wild and ragged, shopping for perfect gifts, dedicate the day to those children whose parents have separated.”
Isn’t that what Isaiah’s promise of coming to God’s holy mountain is about: finally recognizing and arriving at what really matters. Starting living life bigger. Start up that mountain. For God’s judgemen is between that which is worthy of our engagement and that which is a waste of our time and attention. Like making peace: we all have someone we’re at odds with, someone we’re holding a grudge against. This Advent, put peace first. And while we are at it, let’s ploughing all the money we waste in armaments into food; let’s substitute well-being for war. May it be so, even this Advent. Amen.