Monday, June 12, 2017

“The Necessary, the Possible and the Impossible”
State of the Church Sermon 2017
By Griff Martin
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
For the People of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
June 11, 2017

Incarnate God, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing Resurrected reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God, for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Risen Christ and the Comforter. 

Grace and peace to you this day.

At a recent council meeting one of the members asked me this: “Griff, tell me what you see in this church…” I want you to know that when I see this church the first thing I see is a community that I have fallen in love with so much quicker and deeper than I ever meant to… and I have never said that to a church community before. To me, a church community has always been like falling in love; it takes time and you have to work through some quirks. This has been more like the first time I held Blake and Jude, and the love was instant. I feel like I have always loved this church (and maybe that is because I wanted this job for so long – a fact I am just now confessing). You need to know there is not a time I don’t turn from 5th Street onto Trinity and see our bell tower in the distance that I don’t think I am the luckiest pastor in the world and so blessed to call this home. As I have said before, it’s not only a church I want to pastor, it’s a church where I want to be a member.

And here is what else I see when I look at our church:

-          A community of some of the best souls I have ever met… people who you know will truly make you better, people you want to spend time with, people who are your chosen family.
-          A creative and capable staff; a team that is capable of so much and is willing to work together for something bigger.
-          Lay leadership that is beyond talented… we are abundantly blessed with leadership that knows how to lead.
-          A church that is willing to take huge risks in Jesus-following and is not content with anything except Jesus-following.
-          A church where I desire to plant roots and serve for a long time.
-          Possibility. Immense possibility and potential.

And it’s that possibility and potential that I want to use to orient and anchor the state of the church today, which means that I have to be honest about some other things I see as well:

-          Frustration of lay leadership who want to be more visionary, creative and missional, but get caught in the institutional maintenance of this place; those who are tired of bureaucracy without any missional benefit; those who realize they spend too much time and energy to simply maintain a system.
-          A fear of change – not of change itself, but of “what change do we need to make and how will it impact me and my parts of the church?”
-          A tendency to think in terms of the past and what has worked.
-          A church that loves to say “all people, all people, all people,” and we truly mean that… However, once we welcome you, we sure would prefer you to start acting and thinking like us.
-          A church that has been through quite a bit in the past 3 years. Truly, a lot has happened in and to this community. And there are some who are grieving parts of that, others who are celebrating accomplishments, and there are others that are absent as a result of something that happened in those three years. That means there are a lot of feelings in our community, and at times we might not all be on the same page yet.
-          A church who has been waiting for so long that waiting has become our default position.

And what I deeply believe is that God is doing new things here among us, within us, and around us, and God is calling us to big things. And my goal today is that we will see that and catch that and begin to figure out what our role is in that new thing together.

So what is this “State of the Church” and why do we need a “State of the Church?” Because sometimes I think we just need a family meeting, a time for us to gather together and make sure that we are on the same page, to get our feet under the same table(s)….. because to me, transparency and vulnerability are keys to effective leadership and change, and this venue is the easiest way for me to provide that…. and because this provides a time for us to reflect on who we are, where we are at present and where we are going. My desire is that we would do this meeting once a year (a State of the Church) each Pentecost season and then each fall in late November we would have something similar during which we vote on budget and nominating report together (because those both need our feet under the same table as well, and because those are central to who we are…. Our budget and our committees need to match our mission and ministry.). 

This State of the Church is not just another strategic plan or the Pastor’s To-Do List for the church. This hopefully begins a conversation and discerns the next steps that we are called to take together – but deeper than that, invigorate us to do something new. Then yearly we will gather together to hear what is next, see what worked, what we have let go, what we have wonderfully failed at doing and to once again invigorate us to do something new.

Since this is the summer that we are all reading Chasing Francis, our summer of Saint Francis, it makes sense to let his words guide… words that I have been pondering for the last few months. Saint Francis writes, “Start by doing what is necessary, then do what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” And I think that gives us three categories for what’s next….necessary, possible, and impossible.

We start by doing the necessary, and some of this work has already begun. The bad news is that a great deal of this is not sexy and fun; it’s the straightening up, cleaning out and organizing phase. It’s getting the house in order, and nothing else can happen until we do this; doing the necessary enables the possible…. This includes:

-          Taking a good look at our financial picture and future. The finance and stewardship committees have been trying to get us to do this to understand the financial needs of this church and the role each of us have in keeping the story going….
-          A better understanding of our missions program… I am not going to repeat my Clarion column from this month once again, but when I got here I heard all about the 1,000 mission programs we had – most of which were just dabbing our toes in the water of programs that had long outlived their shelf life. There was no clear answer to “what is the mission story today?”
-          A clear system of communications… We live in a time and age where we have to communicate on multiple levels – email and snail mail, for instance. Our community requires both; however, we don’t need to communicate every way possible. This includes the move to the Clarion as a monthly outreach tool (which has been widely praised and is doing its job… several tell me each month different columns they share with friends), the weekly E-news as the main source of communication for our community (there is where you know what is going on this week), and then the worship guide. Although we still have work to do here (for instance, I want to find a way the E-News goes to those of you who don’t receive E-email), but we have made progress.
-          A good look at our staffing model…. One of the things I heard early on is that we were overstaffed as a church. I am not sure that I completely agree with that, but I do think we could be better staffed, and we are in the process of doing that… the move from 3 people handling publicity and publications to one person, moving Young Adult Pastor to Pastor of Spiritual and Missional Formation, a Student Pastor who will begin with part-time hours and hopefully soon grow that role into full-time hours, a look at who does what in the office and striving for better efficiency and clearer focus….
-          The need for a better and more clear system of how decisions are made… the need for a system where less time and resources are involved in the maintenance of this institution, and more time and resources are engaged in the ongoing mission work of the church (which, it just so happens, is very popular these days. No young person is joining the church because they want to be the finance chairperson or to serve on a committee; they join because they love the mission and identity and they will serve to maintain that…. but beyond simply being popular, it’s also theological and missional and Scriptural…. Jesus never said, “go and serve on a committee.”)

So we start by doing what is necessary… Which means that some of our immediate actions need to be:

Truly getting the house in order. Just because something worked once does not mean it is working today, and we need to be honest about that. All things have a lifespan and we need to look around and see what has outlived its lifespan. To tell one of my favorite stories again…. An executive from Kodak was once approached about developing digital film in 1975. The president looked at it and said “no, folks like film – we are doing what we need to be doing.” And that company filed for bankruptcy in 2012…. We need to make sure that we are offering what the world needs today and tomorrow, not yesterday. For instance, if all of us sat down today to start a church, what would we want… because if we don’t list it in response to that, we don’t need it any longer.

Creating a new governance structure for our church. The idea was presented at Deacon and Council retreat this winter, and has an active task force hard at work. They have been meeting to create a new governing structure that will allow for less governance and more ministerial and missional involvement while staying true to our baptist roots of priesthood of the believer and leadership from within the community. They will soon be presenting this information in Sunday School classes and town hall meetings so that we can adapt as needed and vote on a new model early fall to be in place starting next January. You will hear more about this in the next few weeks through Sunday School and town halls.

There are several necessary steps in addressing our financial needs, the first of which is a celebration. Because of two large gifts that came in last year (from Sue Jones and Norma Craven), combined with the surplus from operating the garage parking, we are thrilled to be able to present to the congregation a proposal to pay off the garage loans next month. This is paying the loan off 11 years earlier than anticipated and will save us approximately $120,000 interest cost over the life of the loan. Additionally, this will begin to add $700,000 a year to our operating budget. While this does not allow us to rest, it allows us to dream. A formal presentation of this will happen in our lunch together today.

This significantly changes our funding model and we go from being a congregation that relies on tithe alone to tithe+revenue (please note tithe will always be first and foremost). This means next year we can talk about stewardship as dollars you give to fund the mission and ministry of the church and less focus on paying to keep the lights on. Which, speaking of stewardship, it’s time to really talk about it… we will be returning to a Stewardship and Pledge Season each November where we pledge for the next budget year, with stewardship as a priority. Additionally, next fall we are going to present a budget which matches the direction and narrative of the church; our finances will match our vision. We are asking all staff and committees this year to go over their budgets and use the budgets to create visions of their ministry, not simply “this is what we have always turned in each budget cycle” (this is a big important change). We are going to look at sacred cows we need to finally say goodbye to, and new opportunities we need to better fund and allows us to match our funds and resources to our dreams and ministry.

In addition, we are going to begin a conversation on increasing our foundation. The plain and simple truth is, a church with a history like ours should have a considerable larger foundation than what we have. So starting next week you will hear more about the Foundation from Cathy Jones and other members of the Foundation Board.

Necessary work is also being done in our Missions area. As you have read, we are going to three main mission offerings each year: a Pentecost offering titled “All Peoples” that will go to a global issue and missionary working in that area, a World Hunger Offering on World Communion Sunday to be split between Bread for the World and Texas Hunger Initiative and then Advent Conspiracy which will go to a local project.

In addition we are focusing on one missional area, currently homelessness, with the goal of this being a project where we go all in. We are looking for ways to highlight other work done by individuals in the church, but as a church we will have one primary missional story. We are also looking at new ways of engaging our advocacy work and strengthening our denominational identity.

And that is what is necessary for us, and since so much of that is already being done or in the works, we can then start to consider what is possible… and instead of trying to whittle down my dreams, I want to share all the things we could consider and dream together:

Can we dream of the church as a resource to be used way beyond Sunday morning gathering…? For instance, these are some of the possibilities we can consider:
-          How about reopening our Childcare Center? There is a real need for that downtown – and what if we did that as a missional opportunity where we charged 50-75% of the parents’ full downtown premium tuition but we saved at the very least 25% of our spots for families who can’t afford good childcare (those who work hourly wage jobs downtown), and we created a childcare center that was diverse and truly all peoples?
-          What if we cleaned out one of the best parts of this building – the storage on the 4th floor – and entered into a conversation about an art/meditation/yoga space that could be used by our downtown neighbors?
-          What if we looked at the classrooms on the third floor that are no longer in use and asked if we could repurpose them for non-profits who would love an office space close to the capital and gave us more missional opportunities?
-          What if we talked about becoming an emergency shelter for our homeless neighbors during extreme weather?
-          What if we joined with the city in trying to figure out what is next for Austin’s homeless, with the 7th and Trinity block transforming, and some of the recent issues with drugs? What do we need to be offering to our homeless community downtown? How are we their voice today?
-          What if we moved the entryway to the church further out so that we were no longer hidden, and we created a larger narthex for greeting and gathering?

How do we dream about worship, what does it look like to continue to allow multiple voices to lead our Sunday morning worship? We will continue to share this pulpit with voices that will further engage us and call us to more while maintaining our tradition of a strong pulpit. We will continue to use the rich variety of musical talent we have in our own community and city. We will use elements of Chapel and Taize along with our choral program to create meaningful worship experiences for us all.

What about our mission dream, if we really dove into this missional concept and we became a congregation that was known for our generosity to issues and our advocacy and work with Austin’s homeless through programs like IHN, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, ARCH, Habitat, the work we do with arts and homeless residents, being a people who truly cared for the least of these, who sleep on our doorsteps? What if we learned what it meant to really engage our homeless visitors and to bring them into our community? What if we asked what it would be like to be part of restoration for this community – not a handout ministry, but a dignity and wholeness ministry? What if we became known as the church with a progressive, thoughtful, compassionate approach to social justice? A church like that could change the city and the world.

What if we looked at our Sunday morning education and community gatherings? What are our dreams? I keep hearing rumors about this… that folks want more. We have some of the most gifted teachers and leaders here – what if we looked at what new things we could do on Sunday morning to better and more fully spiritually develop us? What if on Sunday morning, instead of the class you have always gone to, you had the chance to attend a six week lesson on discernment models, the Enneagram, a deep study on Revelation or a reading group on the theology of John Steinbeck or Stranger Things? What if we created a way to build community and also educate and discuss…? Something that looks like a college course catalogue; it seems our world needs these opportunities.

What about our dream of all people? What if we continued our conversation on all peoples? What does that look like? How do we further reach out to our LBGTQ population? We have certainly become a church that welcomes and accepts gay and lesbian individuals, but diversity does not stop there. For instance, how do we deal with our white problem, which if you don’t know, just look around, we look way too much alike to truly reflect the Kingdom of God? How do we continue to follow what we truly believe is the call of God but don’t get labeled that“conservative/liberal/etc. church,” but be the church for all people? How do we find unity in disagreement (because if we could model that for the world, we truly could change the world)?

How do we continue to reach people using the arts? How do we dream there? I love our music ministry. I love Trinity Street Players. But I truly think that is just the beginning. Austin has lots of artists who need a home. How do we allow them to continue to use this space to tell and share their truths? How do we invite them to guide us deeper in worship? How do we allow them to teach us? And maybe, most importantly, how do we allow them to make artists of all of us?

What is the dream when it comes to our ministry at Still Waters? How do we use the Peace Trail that is being created out there to build better relationships with our Muslim and Jewish siblings? How do we make sure that project becomes more than just a project – but a new community, a new way of doing life together? How do we use Still Waters as part of our contemplation ministry, to give our membership space to simply be in the midst of a very busy city? What would it look like to talk about building an interfaith chapel there, or an Artist Colony? What if we provided space in the Live Music Capital for those song writers creating music that matters? We have the land – what is the dream God is giving us there?

For me, all of those are exciting conversations and give me energy. And I think as soon as we start to complete what is necessary, we will begin doing what is possible, and suddenly we will be doing the impossible. And I am not exactly sure what that looks like, but I am seeing a picture.

It’s a picture of a church that follows the Great Command and the Great Commission. A church that takes Jesus-following seriously. A church that is not worried about dying but is giving life to the community around it.

I have a vision for a church that fully embraces the words that have become so popular recently: contemplation and action. Sadly though, churches tend to be one or the other; we are a church that does contemplation really well or we are a church that does social justice really well, but if you only do one you are missing half. It takes both to do both, action and contemplation. And I deeply believe our church can do both and that is the true vision I have for 901 Trinity… a church that is about being and doing. Being Beloved Children of God and Doing the Work of God.

A few weeks ago in Chapel I talked about one of the big misunderstandings of faith: see, for many of us here at church, what we have been taught is that God – love – however you define God – is this pitcher, and you are the cup and you are filled and then you go out to give and once you are empty you come back to be filled and then this continues again and again, you are empty and you head back to be filled and then you empty yourself out again and then you head back to be filled…. Often this is how the church has taught faithful living, this repetition of emptying and filling, emptying and filling, emptying and filling. And I don’t think that is it.

What if faithful living looks differently than a cup and pitcher and the routine of emptying and filling? What if faithful living looks more like a champagne tower, where beautiful vessels are all grouped together so that each one overflows into the other and then into the others…? So that you fill one another up but always from a place of abundance and never a place of emptiness.

And that champagne tower is the perfect picture of being and doing church; a church that breathes in the fullness and love of God, and then breathes it out into the world. A place that restores you and at the same time calls you out to a place of sending… a church that transforms the world because we are a transformed people, a community of restoration – restored souls restoring the world.

That is who I think we are on our way to becoming.

And I think all this is more than possible. So what does that church look like?

For us to become a church, a community that loves sharing life together, a church that welcomes all people and advocates for all people, a church that gets along even when we disagree, a church that takes seriously the risk of Christ-following, a church that actively engages their neighbors even if that makes them uncomfortable, a church that is willing to let go of what worked yesterday for what might work tomorrow, a church where you go to be filled and to be still and to hear God, a church where you go to be called to something deeper in our world – into Kingdom building, a church more interested in following than programming, a church that is in use as many hours a day as possible, a church that continues to ask the real questions, a church that has the option of taking big risks and following dreams, a church that is willing to fail, a church that adapts to God’s call this day….

I don’t know how to put that in a cute and clever vision statement, I just know that feels like abundance to me, and that seems like the church Austin needs – that is the church we need.

So where do we go from here? That is a great question. I think we start by having a conversation. We are providing time to do this today and Sunday School next week, and we will see what rises in those conversations. All those dreams take years and they might be nothing more than the start of a conversation that will change and transform; adaptability and active dialogue are critical to Kingdom-building and Christ-following. I am not asking us to create a bunch of new action teams; we have the structure to follow through and make these changes if we are willing to let go of some things. It’s the question our discernment team is asking: what needs to die so something new can bloom?

One final image to close us today… another from our Francis…. At one point early on in his ministry, Francis felt the call to build a church in San Damiano. He literally heard the voice of God tell him: “Francis, rebuild my church, which as you see is falling down.” So you know what Francis did… he went out and he started gathering stones and he rebuilt a church. I wonder if it was in that building phase he realized, “you start with what is necessary, then you do what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

And now it’s time to put into play the words of our Lectionary text this day: “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

I think that is our calling…. Put things in order, live in peace, do what is necessary – possible and impossible – brick by brick and stone by stone….  and I am glad to be in this with each of you. Grace and peace.  Amen and Amen.


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