“Love, not utility, is the heart of stewardship. Without deep and profound love for the world for which God offered up his only begotten Son, no amount of beating the drum for God and for money will make the least difference.” — from The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age by Douglas John Hall.
Dr. Hall is one of my favorite theologians. And even though I agree that the foundation of good stewardship is love for God and love for the world, we’re still going to “beat the drum” a little for God and for money at Westminster during October, because that’s what we do and because it’s fun!
Our Stewardship leader this year is Cameron Fast, and the themes he has selected are “It’s Giving that Matters” and “Great Things Are Happening Here.” Cameron leads Westminster’s “digital ministries” so this year’s campaign will be different from the recent past:
Estimate of Giving Cards for 2018 will be distributed by postal service mail early in the month. They may be mailed back to the church or placed in the offering plate any Sunday, and preferably by October 29. Plenty of cards will also be available in the Sanctuary and Church Office, should you need an extra.
Beginning with worship on October 8, each Sunday will feature one of Westminster’s ministries so that you can see that YOUR’S is “giving that matters” and that “great things are happening here.” Sunday-by-Sunday themes; October 8 – Digital Ministries; October 15 – Youth Formation; October 22 – Mandarin Ministries; October 29 – Caring Ministries.
Each Sunday will feature brief video presentations projected on a portable screen in the Sanctuary along with short statements by members and friends of Westminster. Even though it violates a core principle of being Presbyterian, sitting closer to the front will make it easier to recognize faces in the videos!
There will be NO all-church Stewardship Brunch this year, but there will be refreshments served and ministry stories shared after worship on October 15 and October 22.
Four years of faithful and increasing financial support has been critical in halting Westminster’s long decline and even making possible new missional initiatives during this transitional time. Please prayerfully consider your estimate of giving for 2018. “It’s giving that matters and great things are happening here!”
When Jesus had something important to say about God, he would make up a story. In a pre-digital, pre-mass media, pre-literate, oral culture, storytelling was the best way to teach. Paint a picture with words. Tell a story that people could relate to, draw them in, and then end the story with a surprising, sometimes even disturbing twist. People went away thinking, talking, debating, re-telling and, most importantly, remembering.
The characters in Jesus’ stories ran the gamut. They were rich and poor, male…female. There were people of different races, nationalities and religions. There were parents and children, day laborers, professionals, widows, businessmen, farmers. These stories were about common experiences. They are accessible for everyone. And the plots are creative, interesting, intriguing… there are lost coins, lost sheep, lost sons, seeds, vineyards, trees that didn’t bear fruit. Oh, and there was a “good” Samaritan…almost as shocking as saying a “good” Muslim in some circles today. In Jesus’ surprise endings, the lost were found, the bad guys turned out to be good guys, the rich were poor in God’s eyes, and the blind could see things that the sighted missed. His stories always provoked reactions. His audiences laughed and hooted, jeered and cheered. The culture’s powerful recognized him as a threat to their status quo. And the masses, the common people, heard in him the voice of God.
It’s no surprise then, is it, that great teachers a thousand years before Jesus would use some of the same techniques? If they had something important to say about God, they would tell a story. The stories show great imagination and creativity. They feature interesting characters, fascinating details. Most importantly, our spiritual ancestors, like Jesus, were always trying to communicate deep spiritual truths in memorable ways.
Even then, thousands of years ago, these teachers realized that humans can’t just be told what to think. We have to think about what we think. We have to discover what we think… through listening and talking and reading and living and reflecting. Only then can we make a spiritual truth our own. For most of us, spiritual growth is a lifetime journey. And so, teaching that is creative, memorable, even controversial sticks best in our busy minds.
The authors of Genesis, the first and perhaps best known book of the Bible, never intended their stories to function as historical journals, scientific textbooks or owners’ manuals. And if we use Genesis that way, we arrogantly make these stories more about OUR truths, our biases, our neediness. If we read INTO them, instead of LISTENING to them, we make them more about our culture’s anxieties and less about the spiritual truths that these great literary artists are trying to teach.
As you read the opening chapters of Genesis, keep asking yourself: Why did ancient Israel tell THIS story? What is it that they wanted us to know about God and about humanity?
It’s been three years since Westminster’s Worship Research Department, which as many of you suspect, is actually just me and a couple of old books, three years since the research department was reminded of the ancient Orthodox Christian tradition of the “Easter Joke.” On the day after Easter, Orthodox congregations would reassemble at their churches to tell jokes and funny stories — as a way of celebrating the BIG joke that God played on Satan on Easter morning.
Since we don’t gather on Mondays, yet still wanting to honor at least one ancient ecclesiastical tradition, I began modestly by including one Easter joke in my 2014 Easter sermon. This proved so popular that in 2015 I told two jokes and, then, in 2016, three. After worship last Easter, several of you suggested that I should just stop after the jokes, which I thought was pretty funny, but then I realized you weren’t joking.
Nevertheless, in continuing deference to the Orthodox Christian tradition, and at the risk of whatever remains of my respectability, I’ve decided to begin again with the Easter Joke, or two or three…
* I read this week about an all-church revival which was held in a small, rural Kentucky town, outside of Louisville. In the middle of the week-long revival, the town’s three ministers got together for a cup of coffee and to compare notes.
The Southern Baptist minister was effusive. “The Lord has blessed us mightily,” he said. “We had ten conversions last night.”
The Methodist minister, with equal enthusiasm said, “the Lord has blessed us, too. We received five new members.”
The Presbyterian minister, much more reserved, said, “God has been good to us, too. We lost fifteen of the worst members our church ever had.”
* The minister was preoccupied with thoughts of how he was going to ask the congregation to come up with more money than they were expecting for repairs to the church building. The minister became more anxious when he learned that the regular organist had called in sick and a sub was brought in at the last minute. The substitute wanted to know what to play and when to play.
So, the minister hurriedly gave the organist a copy of the bulletin, and said as they were entering the Sanctuary: “You’ll have to think of something to play after I’ve made my emergency appeal for additional funds.”
During the service, the minister took a deep breath and made his appeal, “Brothers and sisters, we are in great difficulty; the roof repairs cost twice as much as we expected and we need $15,000 more. Any of you who can pledge $500 or more, I invite you to stand up.”…… It was at that moment, that the substitute organist played “The Star Spangled Banner.”……And that is how the substitute organist became the regular organist!
* A Sunday school teacher decided to have a church etiquette reminder with her class just before she dismissed them to go to worship. She asked: “Why is it necessary for kids to be quiet in church?”
The Old Testament Book of Isaiah had multiple authors and
was written over hundreds of years. Some parts go all the way back to
the 8th century B.C. when Assyria dominated the Middle East,
The most recent bully of the middle east had been Babylon. In 587 B.C., the
Babylonian army swept through Jerusalem. The brutality, the suffering, the loss of life was terrible. And it didn’t end for the Jews when the battle was lost. In an ancient version of ethnic cleansing, the Babylonians force-marched the Jews back to Babylon for a life in captivity and economic subjugation. It’s all well-documented in the Old Testament. One verse poignantly reads: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, as we remembered Jerusalem.”
The Jews’ answer to prayer came 50 years later when the Babylonian Empire fell to King Cyrus of Persia. Within days, the new King issued an “executive order” setting all the slaves free; telling the Jews to go home, to return to their historic and spiritual homeland. And home they went, telling everyone that King Cyrus was God’s agent of deliverance.
At first, for awhile, life back in Jerusalem was just a big party. Like a gigantic family reunion. But soon enough, reality began to set in. They began to realize the enormity of the tasks before them: rebuilding infrastructure; restoring institutions, reclaiming the good things about their history prior to the Babylonian exile. Restoration was a HUGE task. And it wasn’t easy.
Within decades issues arose. Imagine this: there was hypocrisy in organized religion, evidence of political corruption, and systemic injustice in the culture. In Isaiah’s language, darkness re-emerged — threatening the nation’s sustainability — just like the bad old days before the Babylonians invaded.
But on the surface, everything looked great. If you just took into account the standard measures of church vitality, you could conclude that Isaiah didn’t realize how good he had it. His people could hardly wait to get out of bed on the Sabbath and come to church. In Isaiah’s day, going to church on the Sabbath was the thing to do. In Isaiah’s day, at the Temple in Jerusalem, it was standing room only. They sang psalms — mostly old ones, occasionally a new one. They prayed, they gave their offerings. They were faithful to all the trappings of their religion.
BUT, God says, they never made the connections between their religion and their daily lives. Their religious practices were less than “skin” deep! They were sinking back into their old patterns. God says to Isaiah, tell them they are a bunch of hypocrites. Tell them their country is going to hell. Perhaps Isaiah was an “Interim” prophet!
It may have been a new day in Israel, but the people and the nation were afflicted by the same old sins… greed, violence, the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few, and, economic exploitation of the rest.
Same sins, same remedies offered by God’s prophets in every era. And just showing up for church won’t save your hide. On God’s behalf, Isaiah told anyone willing to listen: Here’s how God wants to clean up this mess….
Turn toward God! Turn away from your idols, your addictions, your sins. Center your life in God. Not just the morning of the Sabbath, but every day. This is how I will know that you’re on my team, says God. You’ll live lives of compassion. You’ll work for social justice. Let freedom ring! Give everyone a chance. Take care of the vulnerable. Be kind to the hurting…
If you do these things… your light will shine in the darkness. The world will be a better place. People will know that you are mine. The Kingdom of God will be here, on earth. And you and your nation will be so blessed!
Excerpt from Hal Murry’s Sermon on 2/5/17, based on Isaiah 58:1-12
As a young adult, I must have watched journalist Bill Moyers’ 6-part series of 90 minute television interviews with Joseph Campbell a half a dozen times. That’s a LOT of TV, not to mention the snacks!
For some years every fund raiser for our local PBS station in Columbus, Ohio, featured those interviews. And so year after year, I was re-hooked.
Joseph Campbell was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and in his day was one of the world’s premier authorities on comparative mythology and religion. He did groundbreaking research to identify archetypal stories found in cultures around the world. And despite today’s emphasis on differences and divisions, Campbell’s work showed that the foundational stories of most of the world’s cultures have much in common.
In his best known book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he discusses the spiritual journey of the archetypal hero found in many of the world’s religions.
Campbell observes that typically, in the lives of religious heroes, there occurs a clearly demarcated “beginning moment” which Campbell refers to as a “Call to Adventure.” He writes, “Everything changes from that moment. Destiny summons the hero and deepens his spiritual center of gravity. He begins to call others to join him.”
Just such a moment, just such a “Call To Adventure” occurs for Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospel of Mark. Mark dates the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry to the arrest of his spiritual mentor John the Baptist. Only after John had been arrested, did Jesus then emerge over a hundred miles away, up north in the territory of Galilee, where he began proclaiming “the Kingdom of God.”
In Mark, the first time Jesus speaks is in Chapter 1, verse 15. It’s been called Jesus’ “inaugural address”, because in it, he proclaims the central message of his ministry. In just a single verse, he summarizes the heart of the Christian message, and sets the stage for all of his ministry that follows.
“NOW is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” — Mark 1:15
Some members and friends of Westminster have expressed curiosity about the decision-making process for weather-related cancellations of Sunday worship. Recently, the writer of Hotline (Hal Murry) sat down for an interview with Westminster’s Interim Pastor (also Hal Murry) to learn about the cancellation process.
Editor: How frequently is Sunday worship canceled at Westminster?
Pastor: Not often. Since 2010, the average has been once-a-winter. There have been two winters when worship was canceled twice and two when there were no cancellations.
Editor: Who makes the decision? Is there a special Weather Task Force or an exclusive committee of weather scientists and highway engineers that meets to gather data and discern weather patterns? Do we consult with other churches?
Pastor: No, it’s just me.
Editor: Do you feel burdened by this responsibility?
Pastor: It is a tough job, but somebody has to do it.
Editor: How do you make the decision to cancel?
Pastor: I use simple and consistent criteria. If the National Weather Service has issued a Blizzard, Winter Storm or Ice Storm WARNING effective during our time of worship, I cancel.
Editor: Simple as that?
Pastor: I don’t lose sleep over this and I don’t try to outguess the National Weather Service.
Editor: How about a Winter Storm “Watch” or a Winter Weather “Advisory” or a Wind Chill “Advisory”? Will you cancel for them?
Pastor: No, no and no. But that doesn’t mean everyone should try to make it to church on those days. The highest priority is to be safe. We don’t want to lose ANY Presbyterians on the highway!
Editor: How about a Wind Chill Warning?
Pastor: I don’t cancel for cold, as long as the church is heated. Again, that doesn’t mean that everyone should be out in that weather.
Editor: What makes Winter Storm, Blizzard and Ice Storm WARNINGS so special?
Pastor: Because when those warnings are in effect, the Weather Service advises only emergency travel. And I don’t consider going to church to worship to be an emergency.
Editor: What if there is a budget shortfall, would you still cancel?
Pastor: Yes. Anyone who wishes may mail in their offering or bring it next week.
Editor: What if the Weather Service is wrong?
Pastor: Give thanks to God and enjoy the “day off.” We’re all about forgiveness.
Editor: How do you get word of cancellations out?
Pastor: We send a mass email; we put it on the church website and Facebook page; and we tell local media outlets, though some aren’t well-staffed on Sunday mornings. We try to get the word out as early as possible to prevent any unnecessary travel.
Editor: Do you sleep in when worship is canceled?
Pastor: Depends. Sometimes I watch TV or read the paper. Often I’m shoveling my driveway. After that I drink hot chocolate.
Most of you have lived long enough to know that there have been occasions in history when the institutional church has failed to hear God’s voice — has been unable to proclaim God’s word. Most of these “catastrophic failures” — allying with Hitler in Nazi Germany, support for the institution of slavery in America, providing theological justification for apartheid in South Africa, to name just three of many — most of these “catastrophic failures” involve both a loss of vision and a loss of courage. But always, always, when the church fails God, God finds other ways to communicate. Oh, to be sure, the church keeps talking, but God’s people lose interest. Hope is found on the margins. In the midst of injustice, violence and political demagoguery, when even the church has been compromised, spiritual people look to the margins for a word from God. Time and again, it’s been someone from the margins — outside of political power; outside of religious leadership, who rises up to speak for God– who articulates God’s vision; who embodies God’s character. We call these people “prophets.” In their lifetimes, they’re hard to take. Because they are edgy and driven, never satisfied. Impatient. Even angry. Once their message catches on, they are viewed as a threat by the “establishment.” The “establishment” always benefits the few at the expense of the many. And prophets remind us THAT is NOT God’s vision for the world. And then, typically, once we’ve killed them, we think about what they said, we remember what they did, and then we realize it was God who was in them. It was God working through them to make the world a better place. It was God in them calling us to be transformed, for God’s sake. Jesus of Nazareth had his first recorded experience of God while listening to just such a prophet. Around the age of 30, Jesus left his family, his business, his hometown. He walked miles to join a protest and spiritual renewal movement being led by the controversial John the Baptist. At one point, Jesus stepped forward, with scores of others, to receive John’s baptism in the Jordan River. His experience of God in that moment propelled him into his own ministries of teaching and preaching and healing. Months later, on receiving news of his spiritual mentor’s execution, Jesus said this about John the Baptist: “I assure you that no one who has ever been born, is greater than John the Baptist.” Then Jesus withdrew to a deserted place to be alone.
Back in 2007, someone sent me a clipping from the Chicago Tribune to “put in your stewardship file.” It’s been patiently waiting there to be used at an opportune time. My sense is that time is now with the Chicago Cubs moving forward in the baseball playoffs and Cubs fans everywhere celebrating. The clipping is from a Tribune interview with Cubs Manager Lou Pinella, whose team on June 23, 2007, had a losing record and was eight games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs had just lost another tough one to the Texas Rangers and the press found Lou to be in a reflective mood after the game. He said: “Being the manager is not an easy job. I’ve learned a lot… Obviously you’re going to get frustrated at times — but we have a good chance to get better. And you know what?” There’s nothing wrong with going to church and putting a little more in the collection box.” Thus ends the “lesson from Lou!” The Cubs surprised everyone and went on to become National League Central Division Champions that year. Perhaps a little more in the offering plate just might help YOUR team’s win-loss record, and who knows what else? We know it will help your church!
“Praise God with the Loot (lute)!” is our Stewardship Theme this year. Stewardship Sunday is October 23rd. We hope that all Westminster members and friends will be present at worship that day to estimate their level of financial support for the church in 2017. A free Fellowship Brunch for all follows worship. Brunch reservations will be received during worship on October 9 and 16. — Hal Murry
During August our leading candidates for President of the United States both released their economic plans. Reactions to those plans followed predictable political fault lines.
Economic plans seem especially important in this election year because of the well-documented and widening “wealth-gap” in America. Huge majorities of Americans in both political parties think moneyed interests have too much power in setting public policy. Fed Chair Janet Yellin told Congress: “There is no question that we have a trend toward growing inequality. This trend can shape the ability of different groups to participate equally in our democracy and have grave effects on social stability over time.”
A recent study by researchers at Princeton and Northwestern Universities concludes that government policies reflect the desires of the wealthy and that the vast majority of American citizens have a “minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy. When even a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, the majority generally loses.”
Our social scientists tell us that most of the people in the world who live in poverty (and that would be MOST of the people) are not poor because they aren’t willing to work hard. They are poor because of systemic factors largely or completely beyond their control, including the way that particular economic systems operate.
Ever since large-scale concentrations of population began about five thousand years ago, the powerful and wealthy have consistently set up economic systems primarily to serve their own self-interests. Surprise! Surprise!
Much of the Bible, including the Old Testament, is a critique, in the name of God, of unjust economic systems. In fact if you take the Bible as a whole, economic injustice and war are the two primary sources of unnecessary human misery.
God’s vision, over against our economic systems, is for a world in which everyone has enough of the basic necessities of life, and no one has to live in fear of violence.
So be aware, politicians. And be assured voters. Our leaders may assume they work for the rich and powerful, but Amos says ultimately they are accountable to God. God’s “plumb line” in the book of Amos is economic justice (see Amos 7:7-17). Systemic injustice justified by wrong-headed religion is like faulty construction. It can’t last. So it’s got to come down. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” — Amos 5:24
Note: Hal Murry’s sermons during August were based on passages from Old Testament prophets
Amos and Hosea. Here is an excerpt from 8/14/16.