“Walls or Windows”

Micah 6:1-8      Matthew 5:1-12
Epiphany 4 – Year A
The Rev. Dr. Dennis B. Calhoun, Senior Minister

I’ll be honest. I titled my remarks for this morning before I had written them. What I’ve got to say has nothing to do with either walls or windows. Nor are they related in any obvious way to our scripture readings for today. I had something in mind to say regarding both, but that will be a sermon for another time.

Nor will I be speaking of my profound discomfort regarding America’s newly announced policy reversing, at least for now, our long-standing commitment to being a nation that welcomes immigrants from around the world. As the father-in-law of an Iranian immigrant, and the grandfather of child whose other grandfather may no longer have the joy of watching him grow up as I will, my heart is simply too full to speak of this now. 

My thoughts this week have been about how to frame the meeting that will follow our worship service this morning, when we convene as a congregation to conduct some of our “business” as a church.

Our “business” as a church…that’s a thought worth pondering for a moment. What is our business as a church? What are we here to do? Just what is the “business” we are in? 

In a different setting, I might pause now and let you think about that, maybe pass through the sanctuary with a microphone to let you offer your thoughts. What is our business as a church? What are we here to do? Just what is the “business” we are in? It would be interesting to hear how you would answer that.

But I’ll leave you to think about that while I tell a little story. It’s a true story. And although it might sound vaguely familiar, it did not happen here at Old North Church. A clergy colleague of mine told the story about the church he was serving back in Connecticut, a church much like Old North Church.

My friend hadn’t served there for very long when a man approached him after worship one Sunday morning. The man was also fairly new to the church and told my colleague that he was hoping to get more involved. It was Communion Sunday and he said he’d noticed that after everyone finished partaking, there was a fair amount of noise as everyone dropped their little glass communion cups into the cup holders in the wooden pew racks. The man said the noise broke his reverie so as people were leaving church he had taken a quick look around the sanctuary and noticed that many of the pew racks were missing the little rubber rings that are supposed to line the cup holders. (They’re called “silencers” by the way.) The man told the pastor that since he was retired he had lots of time on his hands, and he’d be happy to go around the sanctuary and replace any missing or damaged rubber silencers he found. He seemed excited to have a way to offer some of his time and talent in service to his new church. My colleague was delighted too, and said he thought it sounded like a wonderful idea and that he’d mention it to the chairman of the Sanctuary Committee, since they were responsible for the upkeep of the sanctuary. 

So that’s what he did. At coffee hour, my friend talked to the chair of the Sanctuary Committee who said she thought it sounded like a great idea, so she’d add it to the agenda for their next meeting in two weeks.

Two weeks later, after a half hour discussion at the meeting the Sanctuary Committee, they agreed it was a good idea.  But the chair reminded people that the Sanctuary Committee didn’t have their own budget, so they’d need to ask the Trustees to approve of funds to purchase the silencers. She said she’d send a note to the chair of the Trustees. (By then the man had determined it would cost about $200.)

So a request went to the Trustees, who after some discussion, said that they thought they could come up with the $200.  But since it involved Communion, they really needed to get the approval of the Deacons, since they were in charge of Communion. So at their meeting the following month, the Deacons took it up and agreed that replacing the silencers was a good idea. But as one of the older Deacons pointed out, the pew racks had been donated by a widow in memory of her late husband, who had been the Church Moderator for many years. The Deacons discussed it for another half hour and agreed it would be a good idea to check with the widow to see if she had any objection to them replacing the silencers that had been dedicated in her beloved husband’s memory. When that word got back to the Trustees the following month, they decided that in view of all they’d learned, they should probably ask the Church Council to create a joint committee of one Trustee, one Deacon and one member of the Sanctuary Committee to approach the woman, who was now in a nursing home. The Church Council thought that made sense, but wondered if they shouldn’t also ask the Moderator to serve on what they were now calling the ad hoc Pew Rack Silencer Committee, or PRSC.  As it happened, the Moderator wasn’t at the meeting that month, and the Vice Moderator didn’t feel comfortable speaking on his behalf, so they tabled the matter.

Now the story goes on, but I probably don’t need to. When my friend told the story, it was still unfolding, with no action six months after the new guy had approached him to say he had some time and energy on his hands and that he’d be delighted to do something to help around the church. 

Meanwhile, since people in the church had been talking about the silencers for months, more and more of them started to complain to the pastor about how noisy it was at the end of Communion. They hadn’t noticed before, but it was definitely a problem. Someone suggested that until a decision could be reached and action taken, the pastor should put a note in the bulletin telling people to hold on to their communion cups and drop them into the pew racks all at once, which would be a lovely way of expressing their unity in Christ. 

“As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be. World without end. Amen.”

Now enough of you were chuckling to make me think we know it could have happened here at Old North Church. 

Why do churches behave this way?

I’ll hazard a guess. I think it’s because we’re well-meaning people who act out of an abundance of caution about offending others, and a hyper-attentiveness to “the way we’ve always done it” even when we’re not sure why. Regard for one another and respect for our traditions is certainly a good thing. But not when it takes six months to decide if we can spend $200 to replace the silencers in the pew racks. I’m sure you get my drift. 

I’ll tell you another true story, which did happen here at Old North Church. I hope Holly Cameron won’t mind me telling it.

Holly is our soprano soloist and one of our choir section leaders. She joined the church not all that long ago. You’ve heard her sing church music, so you know she’s got a great church music voice. But she can sing the blues too. I mean The Blues – Big Mama Thornton, You-Ain’t-Nothin’-But-a-Hound-Dog kind of blues. And Holly was looking for a way to do something more for the church than just making lovely music on a Sunday morning. So she came up with the idea of the Old North Church House of Blues, a church friend and fund-raiser which actually happened downstairs in Parish Hall just last Saturday night. Holly first ran the idea by Maria, our Minister of Music, who encouraged her to come up with a more detailed plan.  Holly did, then ran it by the Music Committee, who told her to go for it. Holly called the church office to put it on the calendar, then gathered up some helpers – some church members, some not. She reached out to the men’s breakfast and beer brewing group to ask if we’d donate some of our sweet elixir of fun and fellowship – which we did. Then she lined up some musicians, printed up some tickets and put the word out. And last Saturday night the first, but hopefully not the last Old North House of Blues was open for business. The place was packed. And it was rockin’. When all was said and done and the bills were paid, Holly had raised over $2000 for the church. Of course, it’s not just about the funds or the friends that were raised at the House of Blues. It’s about a church member finding a way to channel her talents and passion and energy into the wider ministry of Old North Church. 

The reason I tell that story is because it strikes me as precisely the opposite of what happened at my friend’s church back in Connecticut, where a man with talent and passion and energy found himself butting up against a wall of well-intended but spirit-sapping church bureaucracy meant to function effectively fifty years ago. 

The theologian and author Frederick Buechner has defined Christian vocation as the place where our energy and passion and the world’s needs meet. “Christian vocation” is another way to speak of ministry. Now you know, ministry is not the sole purview of the clergy. In the church, ministry is everybody’s business. Ministry is another name for the place your energy and passion meet the needs of the wider world. And the Church is one of the settings where that can happen. Whether you have a knack for replacing rubber silencers, or singing the blues, or serving at a soup kitchen, or arranging flowers, or drawing up a church budget, or making a crockpot full of chili, or visiting a widow in a nursing home – your ministry is whatever you can do to connect your energy and your passion to the needs of the world through your church. It doesn’t have to mean doing the same thing week after week, year after year. Maybe you have some energy for helping out with a church fair one weekend in the fall, and reading scripture during worship on half a dozen Sundays over the course of a year – why shouldn’t you be able to do both?  Or maybe you wouldn’t mind making a few phone calls during the annual stewardship campaign – but does that mean you have to be on the Stewardship Committee for the next six years? There are lots of ways to live into your Christian vocation, your individual ministry, that place where your passion and your energy meet the world’s needs through your church.

Look. Here’s the point. The role of the church is to empower people to undertake their ministry, to find where their energy and passion meet the needs of the world. You don’t have to be able to raise money by belting out some soul-stirring 12-bar blues. You don’t need to be able to explain a line-by-line description of a $600,000 church budget. You don’t need to be able to move chairs around each week, or be in charge of an annual church fair. But there is something you can do, something you need to do, something you want to do to channel your passion and energy into something greater, something that will contribute to our collective capacity to serve God by serving others. 

See, you are a minister by virtue of your call to follow Jesus, which is the call of every Christian. You are a minister by virtue of your baptism into this community of souls we call the Body of Christ. The question is, does the church help us discover and do our ministry, or does it get in our way?

Does the church help us discover and do our ministry, or does it get in our way? In some form or another, that is the question the Organizational Structure Review Team has been asking of you and of ourselves for the past 8 months. It has guided our listening, our thinking, our collaborating, and now our recommendation.

Following the service this morning, after we’ve had a chance to consider and approve the budget for the coming year, the Organizational Structure and Review Team (or OSRT) will ask you to approve a proposal for a new organizational model for Old North Church. Put simply, the proposal is intended as a starting point for transitioning to a more nimble and streamlined way of organizing ourselves to find and do the ministry we share.

It starts with a very basic assumption: that the ministry of Old North Church belongs to us all. That means, everyone needs to contribute the passion and energy we have to meet the needs of the world around us. No exemptions. No free passes. Bud Wilkerson, long-time head coach of the Oklahoma University football team was once asked if he thought watching football helped raise consciousness about the need for physical fitness. He laughed and said he didn’t see how watching 22 finely-tuned athletes in desperate need of rest could possibly be of any benefit to 30,000 spectators in desperate need of exercise.  Something like that applies to the church. Watching a small group of people do all the heavy lifting is not going to deepen your religious experience. Being a Christian is not a spectator sport. You won’t discover your ministry by watching someone else do hers or his. 

On the other hand, nothing stunts our growth as Christians more than having the door closed on us when we step up with passion and energy, only to discover we need to weave our way through an organizational labyrinth that seems designed for another age.

Our other assumption is that the energy and passion in a church need to move back and forth, not up and down. If you are accustomed to thinking in terms of an organizational hierarchy, we hope you will quit looking at it that way and start thinking in terms of organizational rings. Instead of Committees “reporting to” some consolidated and renamed Boards, we want you to think of individuals and committees and boards “collaborating with” one another, with energy and ideas and communication moving back and forth instead of up and down. And instead of thinking that volunteer opportunities at Old North Church are limited by our organizational structure, we want you to think of our organizational structure as simply a means of coordinating and facilitating the ministry of those who want to find ways to do what Jesus asks. When questioned about his disciples gathering wheat one Sabbath, whether that wasn’t a violation of the law, Jesus responded by telling the strict rule-abiders that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man made for the Sabbath” which sounds to me like another way of saying that the organizational structure of a religious community exists for the benefit of those who are part of it, not the other way around.

So is what we are proposing a radical departure from what we’re already doing? Not really. I already shared the story of Old North Church House of Blues. I could have given any number of other examples of people stepping forward with ideas to open our doors and extend our reach and our ministry into the community: the Burns Night Supper, the Annual Church Fair, the upcoming River of Life Concert, the resettlement effort we’ve undertaken with St. Andrew’s Church and Temple Emanu-el. All of these are the result of people who have stepped forward with ideas about how to channel passion and energy to meet the world’s needs. And all of them are bearing witness to what we believe the church looks like in the world today. Our proposal doesn’t change our organizational structure so much as it  renames and redefines some of the relationships between the various groups of people that minister together. And it reduces the number of people we need to elect to specific ministries each year so that we can create more opportunities for people to minister in a variety of ways. It does not complicate our life together by adding more structure. It simplifies it by freeing more of us up to serve where and when and for as long as we feel called.

Will this proposal put an end to all our challenges as a congregation? No. Of course not. But we believe it will open new avenues and opportunities to the Spirit of God to be at work in and among us through us. Is it a finished product? No. It is a starting place that takes seriously the need to be constantly assessing how we are living into the vision we have for who we are and what we are called to do and be.

Our proposal is built around our shared assumption that the business of the church is to empower people to find their ministry, and then remove any institutional barriers to them joining with others in getting it done.

It is our hope and our prayer that our efforts will bear fruit for the realm God is building in this needy world of ours.

Amen.