“As I Was Saying . . .”
02.05.2017 Preaching Text: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:12)
Over the last few weeks, rather than reading through a given book of the Bible, as has been our practice, the Bible Study Group has been discussing the lectionary texts for the coming Sunday.
This past Tuesday, when we read today’s lectionary readings, we couldn’t help notice that each addresses the very same issue as last week’s readings. Specifically, each is a critique of how the faithful outwardly appear to be serving God while ignoring, often unconsciously, what God truly desires.
This is not, of course, an unusual theme in scripture. We’re dealing with human beings, after all. We all have the tendency to substitute worldly, secular attitudes and behaviors for godly ones. What’s missing, as was said last week, is the spiritual discernment that helps us separate the spiritual wheat from the worldly chaff.
Shortly after worship last week, Linda and I drove down to Connecticut to visit my mother. As we were pulling into the parking lot where she lives, Linda received a call from one of her nephews, Mark, an active member of his U.C.C. church as well as the son of a retired U.C.C. pastor.
Mark had what seemed an odd question. “Is there a difference,” he began, “between a church meeting and a business meeting?” Linda put me on the phone. What was he talking about? I wondered. He went on to explain.
He said he’d just come from his church’s annual meeting. After being called upon by the moderator, he began by thanking the outgoing pastor for her service, then added how sad it was that, in his opinion, the church had not been as welcoming nor as respectful of her as they should have been.
The moderator immediately interrupted, “I have to stop you right there, please,” he said. Mark said he wasn’t finished and continued to make his point.
The moderator again jumped in, this time somewhat less politely, “I have to silence you,” he insisted.
Stunned, Mark exclaimed, “What? This is a church meeting.”
“No, Mark,” the moderator replied, “This is a business meeting.”
Incredulous, Mark persisted, “First and foremost, we are a church, and a business second. It’s sad that this entire meeting has been all about finances.”
At this the moderator cut Mark off again and said he needed to end the meeting.
“But this is a church meeting,” Mark protested, undeterred.
“No,” the moderator said, “We have church meetings at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays!” (To their credit, they shook hands afterwards!)
What struck me most about the moderator’s comments, aside from his rudeness, was not how unusual they are, only that he was willing to admit them openly. Unconsciously many of us might well agree, given how secularity informs much of our thinking.
In last week’s sermon I wrote, “The fact is, our world is full of ready-made answers. There’s no shortage of them. The secular world is nothing if not eager to impress upon us its logic, from the way we welcome the stranger, organize our common life, raise and spend our money, as well the way we treat one another.”
Thus Mark’s call could not have been timelier.
Mark’s grandmother, my mother-in-law, often would say, “Watch what they do, not what they say.” There’s great wisdom in this. For we frequently betray what we really believe by our actions, individually and as the church.
The moderator at Mark’s church fits the profile perfectly. While we say we are a church dedicated to the life and teachings of Jesus, we so often default to culturally-informed, and frankly un-Christ-like behaviors and actions.
In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses this. As it was, there was a group within the church there who’d separated themselves from the rest of the church.
They assumed themselves to be the intellectual superiors of the others. Paul, however, is not terribly impressed. In fact, he sees them as inferior in that they are more worldly than spiritual.
He explains: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.”
He even goes so far as to say that the things of the Spirit are all but unintelligible to those without the Spirit, yes, even among these high-minded, self-appointed leaders within the Corinthian church.
What passes for truth in worldly affairs, in other words, is often antithetical to the godly truths revealed in and through the Holy Spirit.
Tony Robinson, whose name you certainly should know by now, illustrates a common scenario in our churches. First, we begin our meetings, he says, by putting on our “prayer hats.” Then, after the opening prayer, we take off these “prayer hats” and put on our “business hats.”
This betrays the unconscious assumption that the two arenas, prayer and business, the things of the Spirit and the things of the world, have absolutely nothing to do with one another. So the moderator at Mark’s church is guilty only of openly voicing an otherwise widely-shared sentiment.
Perhaps the greatest problem with separating the Spirit from the business life of the church is how it affects our understanding of our finances. To wit, the secular approach assumes our primary task is to invest our resources rather than fund ministries. (Burying our talents?)
This seems especially wise and prudent given the steady decline of so many mainline churches over the last 50 years. A crisis mentality has been the inevitable result, one based, not surprisingly, on fear. Such fear requires we hunker down and prepare for the looming, inescapable “rainy days” to come. The underlying assumption is inexorable decline. Thus, if we hope to be here in 20 or 30 years, we’d better steal away every last penny.
The problem is that this effectively denies God, what God seeks to do in and through us. It asks us to trust, if not worship, the budget, rather than in the new thing God wishes to do among us. We actually can come to believe, if but unconsciously, that the purpose of the budget is to perpetuate the institution. Or, put only slightly differently, that the purpose of the church is merely to perpetuate itself!
Yet what is the point of perpetuating the church if it ignores that which God desires? Which raises the question: if we don’t exist in 20 or 30 years, could it be that we don’t really deserve to? What’s the point?
I once served as interim pastor of a downtown church with an endowment of over $14 million. There were 40 or 50 people in the pews in a sanctuary that can hold 700. The church no doubt will continue to exist, but to what purpose?
The competing logic is to say that the budget and our financial resources exist solely to fund ministry! Helping people identify and use their God-given spiritual gifts, and to get excited about pursuing them, is what gives vitality and, yes, growth to any church. When we pursue God’s purposes, we will prosper. Simply having lots of money in the bank simply won’t cut it.
No, what makes the church the church is its commitment to its people and ministries. Prioritizing financial concerns over people and ministries, therefore, is a huge mistake, one Mark, at least, appears to understand. Amen.