The Lord’s Servant

Every spring, it seems, our garden plans become more and more grandiose.  This year we are ripping up the sod in our front yard and putting in a kitchen garden — a garden meant to visit just before supper time to put food on the plate and flowers on the table.  So far the neighbors have not complained.  Perhaps when we get the chickens and the goats . . . .!

Anyway, as a result of our new efforts, my attention was pricked when I read the following story about a church in Seattle.

The Georgetown Gospel Chapel is in the heart of one of Seattle’s most economically challenged neighborhoods, which abuts an active Superfund site and that contains several toxic ‘brownfields.’  Being in this city’s most industrial area, the neighborhood also deals with incessant noise pollution from an adjacent Boeing field.  Despite this compromised context and its own financial difficulties, the Chapel stands as an abundant oasis.

Twenty years ago, the Chapel faced a decision of whether or not to pay two-thousand dollars to repair their lawn’s sprinkler system.  They decided instead to tear out the sprinkler system and the lawn.  They turned the church property into a large garden that could nourish the broader community.  Its beautiful produce is free for the taking, supplementing the diets of the economically stressed neighbors.  The chapel’s rainwater reclamation system helps to water the garden, saves on the utility bills, and prevents storm water from running into the adjacent, salmon bearing Duwamish River, carrying chemicals from lawns, industries, and leaked oil from cars.

Among the many ministries provided, Pastor Hedman offers his skills to the community as a certified master gardner and a composter.  He and Chapel members help build gardens for neighbors and provide them with seeds and gardening/composting training.  They also host a recreation/tutoring/mentoring program for children and youth — one that  introduces dozens of young people to basic Earth-care principles and activities.  The Chapel has ‘adopted’ their street.  Not only do they keep it litter free, but they’ve also distributed hundreds of tree seedlings to residents there.  The trees greatly enhance beauty, air quality, and habitat for other creatures.

Inside, the community is lessening its contribution to global warming.  By changing every light in the sanctuary to an energy efficient compact florescent lightbulb, and investing in better insulation and energy efficient appliances over time it has reduced the amount of energy consumed by 75 percent.  Savings each year are estimated at three to five hundred dollars, not to mention the prevention of sixty thousand pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.  First the Chapel used their savings to reimburse the intial costs of the retrofits.  Now it donates the money to help retrofit a local Christian camp and financially strapped member’s homes and neighbors’ homes.

The Chapel also serves as a repository for publicly accessible documents related to the cleanup of the Superfund site, empowering neighbors to work with government agencies and local business to help carry out the process.

The story seems fitting.  On this first Sunday after Easter, the common lectionary has us reading  Psalm 133 which is acclaimed for the way it redefines the world to an order we know is our better order; to define communities where it is indeed pleasant to live together. The Psalm may be short, but it is powerful because we know that the question for which it is an answer is true: we do not live together as one — but how deep that longing is to live with more green around us, with less noise and groundwater pollution, with more beauty.  We do not live in ways that empower each one, but how deeply we long to live in ways that let each feel an important, contributing member of society.  We do not live simply so that others may live, but how true we know it to be that our insatiable, material wants gained only by the lives of others half way around the world are ultimately unfulfilling.  Here is a church who is living and making the truth of their existence together as a pleasant blessing, like the oil on Aaron’s head running down his beard and in doing so have re-defined their world from a world of economic hardship and ugliness to a world of full of interesting opportunities, hope and good food and good fun.

I do not mention this story because I think that we should dig up our green lawn and plant a garden — though if someone wanted to talk about it, I, for one would not be averse to the conversation.  Make your life a quest, and don’t give up till you find what you’re looking for.  The conversation, in other words, is a conversation about discovering the kingdom of God, again.  About discovering that the goal of the quest is to be on the quest, again and again uncovering and planting God’s New World in the front yards of our lives.

When we hold our Ministry Fair next Sunday we do so, lifting up a major tenet of our life together:  each one of us is the Lord’s servant and that the sphere of each one’s activity is nothing less than obedience to the call to serve the Kingdom of God, to be on the quest for God’s New World.  This basic tenet implies that this New World is a shared responsibility — that the church never departs so utterly from its task as when it teaches that the leaders are the church, drawing distinctions which relieve the great body of people from seeing ways of living together in unity.

When we voted last January to try out  newly developed by-laws, what we actually voted into place was not so much different from this basic tenet according to which we were already operating.  What I mean is that we had already moved away from the old model of church life where committees or departments met on a regular basis and made sure that everybody knew what the leaders were doing.

Over time, we have seen our departments meet less, regularly and we have seen the numbers of people engaged in these departments decrease.  As I have witnessed that decreast, I have asked myself:  “Do people want to join this church because they are excited about meeting for business on the first Tuesday of the month?  Or do people come to this church because they experience a need to share in the beauty of worshipand to reflect on how their lives intersect with God’s call be on a quest for a beloved community?  So, what happens if, for you that quest has to do with community gardening?  Then what?  Tuesday night meetings are going to cut it.

Our newly designed by-laws aim to encourage us to identify our various quests.  The by-laws state that we recognize that “God calls its members to use their gifts in ministry to the world.”  A few comments about possible wrong turns this  statement could lead us to make.

First — some have worried that the call to identify our ministries and engage them, might be off-putting for some who “just wants to come to church and worship.” Clearly a valid concern.  It is a concern, however, that is based on the old civic religion model of church where the people who knew the stories, who ‘had faith’ and position came to discuss how best they could give back to the community.  “The church, in this view functioned as a conduit:  it received resources from the most fotunate and directed them toward those in need. ” Insofar as the good is partially served, I have no problem with this model.  But the worry, I think derives from the fact that we have no other theological language around membership that accounts for the longing that drives people here.  The new by-laws want to make a theological statement about our worship life — so much more is at stake than our being a Christian social service agency.

Can we instead see that worship and the world are not so split from each other — that the longing to worship is just this longing to see one’s life in the context of the whole?  To worship, in other words, is ministry.  So,   Does everyone have a ministry?  To the extent that you have walked through those doors more than once, yes — yes, because the longing for God, is a the beginning of your quest, the acknowledgement that are are looking for something, that there is a purpose and that there is a point for you in that purpose.

Secondly — does this mean that we’ll have a hundred different ministries going on?  Yes and No.

Again to the extent that each of us have our own relationships with God and with the journey to understand God and please God, and to the extent that we are Christ’s ambassadors where ever we are — yes — a hundred different ministries.  And I take that seriously.  So seriously, in fact that it made sense to me to incorporate that in our by-laws — that members of this church would be people who professed their ministry in the world.  the Master Gardner, for example, would promise to the gathered on Sunday morning to carry out her ministry as a Master Gardner, to the best of her abilities.  I lost that argument — and can see why.  But it is still important to remember — still important to remember that we come her on Sunday morning as part of our mission and ministry.  We come here to receive the impetus and the inspiration and the encouragement to carry on in our minstries, not just to give our special gifts to the ones needing them.

But of course, we are a church, with a budget and with a public face, and therefore with a variety of ministries that need to be met, day in and day out.  To the extent that your sense of call, your quest puts you here, we now also ask how can your gifts become ministries to the church and to its ministries?  Every year, at annual meeting we vote in a budget.  That budget is more than a spread-sheet with a bottom line on it.  It is our statement of ministry.  These certain things happen here, we say, and therefore we need to pay for them.  The best example I can think of right now, is that we have a budget this year that relies on a certain amount of fundraising.  While our board of finances will tackle the big picture and say we need to hold our traditional strawberry supper fundraiser, we also need to hold several others.  This year two should suffice.  We’ll have our barbeque because that event is important to the community and we see that someday the Stowe Street Arts Festival may be a big, important thing for Waterbury, and we’ll have our tag sale, because we really need another $5K in fundraising after that, and that’s all that will make that kind of money.  Four people cannot do all of this work.  And so they are actively seeking people to be responsible for each of these fundraisers.  Big jobs, yes, but jobs that need to be shared among us over time as we feel called.  Not all are good organizers — but some are fine grunt laborers.  Both are needed.

So next week, we’ll have a chance to review, with the few responsible for the governance of the church, what our responsibilities are.  We also hope that the board members will have a chance to review with you, dreams you might have.  For each of us is the Lord’s servant and our spheres of responsibility are no less than God’s work, here and now.  Amen.

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