Monday, January 30, 2012

Zimri the Steward, the Kohathites, and Reflections on Caring

Brendan O'Sullivan-Hale's remarks from the 2012 Annual Meeting.

I have recently been making a habit of being chided by Diocesan staff. Which is not to say I haven’t deserved it.

First it was in conversations with Canon Kissinger, who has been guiding us through the transition and search process. She corrects me every time I say something about hiring a rector. We don’t “hire” a rector, we “call” one. I’m getting better at that.

Then, a few weeks ago, when the Bishop visited us, I issued the standard “The Lord be with you!” to quiet the room. Whereupon Bishop Cate informed me of her new rule that while it is acceptable to use this holy greeting to quiet a room, one must subsequently pray. For why else have we invoked our Lord, using the subjunctive mood, no less? The Bishop taught the lesson by forcing your Senior Warden into awkward extemporaneous prayer.

And then it was again with Bishop Cate, when she visited with the vestry just the other week. There, she corrected me after I referred to our successful stewardship campaign. She interrupted me, not unkindly, and said I really should be referring to our “pledge campaign”. Stewardship is much bigger than financial support, and we abuse the term if we simply use it as a euphemism for the examination of our bank accounts.

These three lessons have in common the set-apart nature of the church. Our activities – the need to engage staff, to raise revenue, to get people to just be quiet – mirror our day-to-day lives in the secular world. But our choice of words and actions in the context of the church reminds us that our purpose is different.

We “call” a rector because we are not simply hiring a pair of competent hands to transform bread and wine. We call because we are asking someone to enter into relationship with us.

We pray after we invite God to be with us because the appropriate attitude toward our creator and redeemer is humble prayer. If “The Lord be with you!” has an advantage in getting a room to be still, let the room at least be still for a moment longer to know the Lord is God.

And when we talk about stewardship, let’s treat everyone like grownups and say what we mean. If we need to talk about money, let’s talk about money. Stewardship is bigger than money, and I was going to talk today about all the ways people at All Saints have been inspiring stewards this year – but I need to tell you, our biblical support on this term is questionable. We all know the parables that refer to the stewards – there’s the one that has the stewards who multiply the money the houseowner leaves them in his absence, and there’s the one with the unfaithful steward who somehow wins Jesus’ praise. Titus talks a little about stewardship, but it’s only in reference to the responsibilities of bishops. Elsewhere, we’ve got Joseph’s steward tricking his brothers by stuffing their bags with precious goods and accusing them of theft. And in 1 Kings, a steward named Zimri gets the king drunk, murders him, and takes the throne for himself. He reigned for seven days, was besieged, and killed himself by burning his citadel down. Are you inspired yet?

Anyone who spends enough time talking with me about the church will at some point get me going on church words and my campaign against them as unwelcoming to an unchurched culture. Stewardship is one of those words. It’s not only unused outside the church, but it has a checkered pedigree. How about “caretaking” instead. It has a similar meaning and a better scriptural reputation to boot. Hear the words of Jeremiah:
Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: "You have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the LORD.
So I’m not going to talk about stewardship. I’m going to talk about caretaking. Nearly everyone in this room has been doing it.

Take the outreach committee, who this year has cared for our community by managing collections for the Damien Center, Horizon House, and other ministries, and in cooperation with the greeters has made sure that our gifts are brought to the altar to be blessed before going out to the community. They also stepped into the breach in an emergency situation for the Dayspring Center. Dayspring lost $100,000 in funding due to state budget cuts. The outreach committee chose to donate part of the proceeds of the yard sale to Dayspring to do our part to plug the gap, as well as engaging with a new partner in ministry, Miracle Place. A group will also be meeting later this week to evaluate possible new partnerships with IYG.

The greeting committee has taken care of newcomers and longtime parishioners alike by providing a friendly welcome at our doors on Sundays. The parish events committee has taken care of us by marshalling resources to help us celebrate together. I would be remiss if I didn’t note the many volunteers who bring refreshments for us at coffee hour each week.

The Journey in Faith program, put together by our education committee along with many members of this parish, clergy and lay, as well as other members of the community, has been a huge success. It was originally envisioned as a program for the many newcomers to this parish over the past year, but turned out to have much broader appeal, with many longtime parishioners staying as well. It reminds us that our faith requires repeated feeding, both in the sacraments and in engaging our minds. It’s also an example of how this parish comes together around a project, with more than a dozen people involved.

Mason and the choir have done outstanding work enriching our worship through music. I couldn’t be here for Christmas, but I have heard nothing but good things about the Bach Cantata on Christmas eve. And in his report from the music ministry, Mason informs us that the choir will be starting a recording project this year.

The Sunday School teachers have cared for our children through engaging them in Godly play, as well as teaching them about the importance of caring for others. This year for their Christmas outreach project, the Sunday School went shopping at Kroger to buy personal hygiene items for the clients of the Damien Center.

A little more scripture – I want to tell you about the Kohathites. Remember the Kohathites? You’d be forgiven for missing them because in the dozen or so times they show up in the Bible, we’re mainly told where they’re living or who they’re begetting. But in Numbers we learn that in the distribution of offerings that are brought to Moses as he finishes building the tabernacle, that “Moses took the wagons and the oxen and gave them to the Levites. Two wagons and four oxen he gave to the Gershonites…and four wagons and eight oxen he gave to the Mararites…but to the Kohathites he gave none, because they were charged with the care of the holy things that had to be carried on the shoulders.”

We are indebted to the Kohathites of All Saints, the altar guild and the acolytes, who care for our holy things. Our altar guild mostly works in the background, but our worship on Sundays and Wednesdays couldn’t happen without their care. Our nineteen (19!) acolytes contribute to the reverent atmosphere of worship through their faithful service.

I have two groups of parish leaders to offer special thanks to. First, the vestry. I may be the one who stands up and talks all the time, but let there be no mistake: Helene Russell, Ann O’Bryan, Robb Biddinger, Rose Lane, Brad King, Mark Gastineau, Shelley Stewart, and Jim Tomlinson do all the work. I want to offer particular thanks to Robb Biddinger, who in his last two years as junior warden has done an outstanding job caring for our beautiful old building and all her aches and pains.

Second, the Search Committee. By necessity due to the confidentiality of their work, this group has to work quietly. But since forming in April, the search committee has been working very hard. I know the process seems slow at times, but there are particular steps that it is required they go through. Additionally, remember that the six people on the search committee are given particular trust on the part of this parish. The charge to Linda Ferreira, Don Bryant, Kevin Morgan, Katie Day, Brad King, Helene Russell, and John Phillips is to bring a single name to the vestry. They are exercising due care in association with that responsibility. Their thoughtfulness comes through in the parish profile they published to tell our story to prospective candidates.

On a personal note, I want to thank everyone in this room for your patience. In this interim period, we have all been working hard. Many of us are tired. But the high level of engagement of members of this parish should give any new rector confidence that lay leadership in this place is strong.

I want to take you back to Jeremiah for a moment – “I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the LORD”. We’re in the Old Testament here, but the imagery recalls the person of Jesus, our good shepherd. Here on earth, we, the church, are Christ’s body. Jesus is our shepherd, but we too are called to be shepherds through caring for each other and the community around us.

Let’s connect this scripture to our vision statement:

I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more. We believe that something special happens to us through our worship of God. In his comments in the parish profile reflecting on our ministry of providing funerals for AIDS victims rejected by other churches, Dave Kubley reflects that “our beautiful liturgy can be such a comfort to grieving people.” And they shall fear no more.

Nor [shall they] be dismayed. We believe in building upon our extraordinary history as a beacon for social concerns. We care for the people in our community in many ways, large and small. We look for the needs in the community around us to turn dismay to hope.

Neither shall any be missing, says the Lord. We believe in welcoming all people, without exception. All Saints has a gift of gathering up the missing into Christ’s love through our unconditional welcome into our doors.

In these ways we are caretakers of the legacy handed down to us by decades of parishioners before us, caretakers of the needs the community presents to us today, caretakers of each other, and caretakers of faith in Christ’s love passed down through generations. In these ways we are the body of Christ at the corner of 16th and Central. I am grateful to each of you for your role in that. Rector or no rector, this is what we do.

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