September 29, 2019
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 29, 2019
Br. Juan Charles Valles, CG
Lessons: Amos 6:1a, 4-7, Psalm 146, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
“There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.”
In the name of God, provider, sustainer, and friend. Amen.
This week’s watchword from Paul’s first letter to Timothy is packed with a message that runs throughout this week’s readings. Wealth is fleeting, and only the fool places his whole trust in something so tenuous. Be happy with what you do have, because in that contentment, godliness and goodness are found. But, how do we begin to cultivate this godliness? As he often does, Paul provides us a list of ways in which we can get a little closer to where God wants us. He encourages us to pursue righteousness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. These traits are what unlocks God-like qualities in us. What’s reassuring is that Paul acknowledges how many of the world’s distractions can make achieving these things tough or nearly impossible.
“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” Let’s be clear, it’s not just the chase after money that Paul is talking about. It’s about obsessively chasing after being the biggest, the best, the most well known. It’s about forgetting about others in the one-track-mindedness that the world’s markers of success require. It’s about chasing after being the most without even pausing to think about what that “most” is. And, it’s not just the chase. It’s jealousy and jonesing after what others have or feeling bad about not doing what it takes to be successful. Our culture and even our theology can impose guilt on us for simply being satisfied.
As an aside, Paul does not condemn wealth. He doesn’t command us to divest ourselves of what we’ve worked to accumulate. He does warn us about how we use that wealth. The true sin lies in hoarding and haughtiness. Gloating over one’s possessions makes no sense in God’s economy: wealth in and of itself is worthless. However, money is useful when shared and used to lift up the entire community of God. And, as Amos and our Gospel lesson remind us, sitting idly by, resting on our laurels, without a modicum of care is just as bad as boasting or smugness.
Bringing this all closer to home, this community was once like the rich man in the Gospel. For those of you who were alive during Downey’s mid-century heyday, you know what I mean. The mainline Protestant congregations were the place to be, and not always because of stirring teachings and moving worship. Social norms expected it: church was simply an outward marker of one’s social standing. Volumes and volumes have been written on the perceived death march of the mainline denominations; more than I could describe in twelve-hundred words. But, suffice it to say that at least here in Downey, the tony country club church is long gone.
We met as a congregation a few weeks ago to talk about our shared visions and values. While I did spend a significant amount of time talking about statistics and figures and such, something really powerful emerged during that brunch meeting. It was clear that this community exists for a particular reason: we welcome, we love, and, more often, we feed. We are bound together by care for one another and our broader world. We gather in this place to know Christ as experienced in worship and community. While we may be cash-poor, we are Spirit-rich, and this community cannot be allowed to die. All this was shared at that meeting, and I think most of us began to really feel the urgency to find a way forward.
We talked about ways of advancing our community: people were asked to think creatively and boldly. While a lot of wonderful ideas were expressed, one theme was abundantly clear. We need a consistent clergy presence; more than that, we need someone to serve as a fully-dedicated leader. Now, we’ve been talking for years about hiring a rector. But, we kept butting up against our financial realities. And, we fell into something of a negative feedback loop. We couldn’t afford a rector, so many congregants left, which left us with less money, which further eroded our ability to hire someone…I think you can see where I’m going. What I can say is that our collective idea of what a head pastor means has changed dramatically in the last few years: a rector is not a messiah. He or she will not save us from ourselves; instead this person would guide us and, most importantly, walk with us toward something amazing. Each person’s unique skills and contributions would be essential on this journey, and the rector would be a part of this system.
Without going into too much detail – most of which you’ve heard before, I want to talk a bit about myself. More accurately, I want to talk about my role here at St. Mark’s. In late 2014, the former diocesan bishop created an ad hoc position for me: lay vicar. No where in the church canons or constitutions does one find mention of a lay person serving in a role normally reserved to ordained clergy. I was to be the head of the parish and orchestrate all things administrative and secular. An associate priest would handle all the spiritual duties of a rector. The position was intended to be temporary: the non-stipendiary role would give St. Mark’s a little more time to figure things out and to save a little money. Five years later, I’m still in this role (that has grown in scope), and our cash reserves are dwindling. As much as I might try, I’m not the rector. I am not ordained, and I have a demanding full-time job and a family. I also live across town.
Back to our August meeting, the consensus was clear: we need to find a way to hire a rector who can help us to dream big and dream boldly. I left the meeting feeling pretty good, but I kept coming back to the question of how we might fund a rector position given our current finances. But then I remembered something we had talked about during that meeting: what are our riches and resources? Unencumbered land came up. It struck me: we have a rectory that has become more of a burden than a blessing. What’s more valuable to us right now and in the years to come? The answer is clear.
You spoke, and we listened. So, after consulting with the Vestry, we now have a plan. Over the next few weeks, two things will be happening. The Vestry will begin to explore the sale of the rectory. Not only that, but we will also be designing a way to hold and use the proceeds from the sale responsibly. The rectory is valued at nearly $690,000: it would be way too easy for us to blow through this money just to make basic ends meet. This money would be used to fund a rector, at least for a few years. This brings up the second part of the plan. We will be gearing up to recruit someone to fill that position. Part of that includes identifying in advance the goals that rector is expected to achieve. The rectory monies will last for only so long, so creativity and growth will be essential. Any candidate will need to be aware of this and will need to have the ideas and energy we will need.
So, where does that leave me? My role will necessarily change as we bring someone on board. My vision is to be a part of the recruitment process and, especially, to assist this new person in his or her transition. However, I must and will make room for this person to assert his or her leadership. Once we have a rector in place, I must step aside and allow this community to thrive in a new way. I have been blessed to walk with you these last five years, but I know that my time will come to an end. To that end, I have tendered my resignation to our current bishop and have so notified the Vestry. I have identified a date of Saturday, February 29, 2020, as my last day in my current capacity. While that date may fluctuate depending on a variety of factors, five months should allow for significant progress toward this plan.
As we move toward a rebirth of St. Mark’s, I am gladdened and reassured by a variety of things. The most apparent ones resound with what today’s readings remind us. This congregation as it exists right now does not seek to be the biggest church around for bigness’ sake. It does not seek to be the sole or loudest prophetic voice. On the other hand, it strives to use its wealth – spiritual and financial – to create a place where spiritual growth happens, injustices are confronted, and lives are lifted. If in the process of doing so it does become a Downey powerhouse, that will serve only to further its mission. I love you, and I love what you will do together and with God. I pray that we keep discerning how to leverage our gifts and riches toward bringing heaven and earth just that much closer, serving one another and God-in-Christ. Amen.