"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
~ Luke 12:32
I say goodbye this Sunday to the little church for whom I've been doing pulpit supply this summer.
I am aware that to anyone in this community, this is not a "little" church. They are considered one of the "big three" downtown churches. They inhabit an enormous, architecturally significant building in a prominent and historic location. They have a sizeable endowment. (I just heard echoes of a character from the film "Return to Me," a well-intentioned blowhard talking to someone about "my sizeable donation" to his pet charitable cause.)
There were 22 people in church on Sunday. The sanctuary was built to accomodate 1000.
The last pastorate of any length ended five years ago (it was a five year pastorate). Before that they had the Minister of Beloved Memory who served them for nearly 20 years. Since then they've had two intentional and one unintentional interim. (They fired one individual while she was on vacation.)
They have fought one another and their pastors for at least the last 10 years, but it is hard to believe it all started then. The five year pastor was what some describe as a "fresh breeze" blowing through the church, staring programs such as Jazz Vespers and Habitat building committees. Though he is gone (to a wonderful job at the denominational level) these programs, interestingly, remain in place.
They are looking for a pastor. (I withdrew my name from consideration when I was offered the position I have accepted; I preach for the call at the end of this month). They believe that this is their last chance, that if they don't have a successful pastorate now, they probably will be closing their doors before too long. They are scared.
And yet... and yet. "Do not be afraid, little flock." That is what I want to say to them. I want to encourage them to take an imaginative leap, beyond this place of seeming staleness and stalemate. I want them to believe that it is indeed God's good pleasure to open the divine hands and let shower the kingdom upon them.
Is that just cruel?
Besomami posted a link to this story last week, about a Presbyterian congregation that sold its building and physical assets, and moved into a retirement community. They invested a part of the proceeds of the sale into mission projects for racial/ ethnic congregations. Stories like this... and this is not the first I've heard of its kind... make it clear to me that there are churches who "get it," that mission and ministry are not all about heating enormous buildings and keeping the doors open at all costs. So... how does one walk with a congregation that isn't there yet... that hasn't "gotten it"?
I think the clue might lie in the rest of the text, Jesus' parables on preparedness. God doesn't ask us to give up on ministry. God does ask us to be ready to do ministry in ways we might not expect. In all cases, God remains open-handed, with the kingdom there for the taking.
I want to say good bye to this church in a way that honors the good that is there: the faithfulness, the desire to start fresh and move forward. I want to tell them, do not fear, little flock. It is God's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Truly.