SERMON TEXT: The Disciple’s Questions
Frederick Law Olmstead was the premier landscape architect in the United States at the end of the 19th century. As a matter of full-nerd disclosure, I am a fan. Olmstead is best known as the one who designed Central Park in Manhattan. Beside this famous park, he designed hundreds of parks, large and small.
One such park, a large park, Thompson Park, is in Watertown, New York. In fact, it was a moment of great excitement that I would be able to enjoy an Olmstead Park when we were getting ready to move to that community many years ago. Imagine my excitement when a few months after arriving I was invited to serve on the board of the Thompson Park Conservancy. My glee was unbounded.
The monthly board meeting was held in the classroom of the zoo. Like Central Park, Thompson Park has a zoo. And we talked about the zoo in the meeting. Talked quite a lot as a matter of fact. My thought after the first meeting was that the board must have specific meetings where they focus on one part of the park. This was the zoo focus as the zoo director spoke, and the collection at the zoo was considered. I learned a good deal about the finances of the zoo and the staff.
At the next meeting, I was quite surprised to find the same focus. Odd we were not speaking about landscaping and signage or the playgrounds or trails in the park, tree planting and so on. In fact everything in the second meeting was like the first; it was about the zoo. And then it hit me. I am not on the park board; I am on the zoo board. Awww man!
I like zoos, zoos are nice. But I am not interested in them the way I am the development of landscape architecture at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. Zoo board. Man, I thought, what am I going to do? I don’t know anything about zoos. Been to a few, but that’s pretty much it. Well, I did what any less than sane person would do, I served on the zoo board for the next eight years. I served for eight years and loved it. Even after I was off the board I was roped into a number of initiatives and events to help the zoo. Loved the zoo.
In those eight years I learned a lot. Only, my learning was not about zoos. I learned about transition. The zoo at Thompson Park was a disaster for decades until a group of enthusiastic citizens raised the capital and acquired the grants to transform it from an embarrassment to an accredited organization. What I learned for those eight years was what it meant for an organization to go from a capital phase to a sustaining phase.
With great fanfare and hard work many leaders raised a lot of capital to transform cages into habitats. There was a beautiful welcome center built, an aquarium for local fish was added, and so much more. The effort was amazing and it took much of a decade and a lot of meetings. The capital phase was just ending as I arrived. Now the zoo at Thompson Park was facing a daunting challenge that was just starting to come clear. Building a new building, renovating an old building and finding the funds and direction to do such is one thing, sustaining and developing what you built quite another.
What I became a part of was a fascinating question: how do you sustain what you built, how to go from a capital effort to a sustaining direction? You built it, can you keep it growing?
The big lesson for me was this: it takes just as much effort and determination to build as it does to sustain. And while it may not seem likely, sustaining is actually more challenging than building. With building you get the very tangible and clear sign of progress. You have an end in sight. There are bricks and mortar. With the sustaining, the goals get fuzzy, the projects can be everywhere and everything. Most daunting is this possibility: the momentum of the capital phase can become inertia in a heartbeat.
As I sat in the stewardship meeting a few weeks ago, I felt like I was having a flashback. Now, mind you I knew I was signing up for a pastorate here, but the challenge of making the shift from capital to sustaining was not as completely clear until that evening with the stewardship committee. All of sudden I could see your beginnings in 2008, the conversations, the dreams, the prospects. And then the leap of faith. 2008 was not a banner year financially, not an obvious moment for financial risk.
And then, the plans, the campaigns, two campaigns ending in 2017. Listening to the committee I got excited. This is a great challenge, true; but a great opportunity as well. You did a great thing and you are already seeing the great fruit of the effort. The church is going in the right direction: you have a vibrant preschool, the community gardens, the food pantry, the community dinners, and a social center that is used every day by just about everybody in Metuchen. You built it and they came. And they are still coming. The challenge/opportunity, and it is a big one, can we sustain what you built?
The answer is yes. How we get to the yes, well, that is the hard work, the focus, the plans, the energy to sustain. Sustaining exceeds what it takes to build. As we move forward there two key things to keep in mind. The first is the recognition of challenge. It is really easy when you transition from a capital phase to a sustaining phase, that the focus gets lost, the momentum fades, the completion of the building is not seen as a beginning, but an ending. Nothing could be worse than to miss the great beginning happening we can have.
The second key we need to keep in mind is in our readings today. At the heart of each reading are questions. The first question is Nicodemus’: how can we be born anew? The second question is the one that lies behind the debate on the way: who can be great or who is the greatest?
Let’s start with Nicodemus. How can you be born anew?
This question is the great mystery of our faith. You only keep what you give away. If you want to save your life, you must lose it. You must die in order to live.
All true but a bit esoteric and paradoxical. Let me bring it down a bit. Ten years ago you had a moment when you could have circled the wagons, played it safe, been willing to “do more with less” as a church. Ten years ago you could have chosen a modest path and done something sensible. But you didn’t. You took the risk at the heart of being born anew: you risked your life as a congregation to find life anew. You gave away the certainty of your life together for the unknown. Would it work out? Would it fail? It was a question, not a certainty.
Whenever you uproot your life, whenever you take a step of profound risk, whenever you say, “I’m in” when it would be much easier to say, “thanks, but no thanks,” you have an opportunity to be born anew. Being born anew is the joy of finding a new day in life. Becoming a parent, becoming a grandparent: you have a chance to be born anew. You may not enjoy it; you may make a hash of it. There are no guarantees with opportunities. But when you step up and say “let’s go; let’s try,”, you have a chance to be born anew.
You did that and now you have a whole new set of possibilities, a new path. The good news is that you didn’t confuse a new path with losing your identity. That is the profound part of Nicodemus’ question. We can become something else than who we are. Tragedy, loss, heartbreak, disease, addiction: these can make us something else, something far less. Nicodemus wants to know how can you be new without becoming other, without a loss of self? You can tell Nicodemus, you risk your life in a leap of faith; you find new life as an historic church.
The second question is similar to the first. How are we to be great? Jesus says, if you want to be first, you must be last. If you want to great, you must become the servant of all. Reading over your strategic planning effort, and listening to member after member introduce themselves, I want to say, you know the answer to how we may sustain a great church. How do you sustain a great church? You give it away. You serve the community in humility. You open the doors people would rather close.
This is just as risky as the first leap of faith. Now you have something to lose, something grand and vibrant. Now risk isn’t millions of dollars, but a question: will you find the courage to live as Jesus lived?
One of the charges I give at weddings is this. Today you are married; today you are married to each other. Many, many people are married, lot of married people out there. But a lot of married people really don’t have a marriage. Have a marriage I tell the newly wed. Be more than married, have a marriage. They accomplished the capital phase, but will they find the energy to sustain what they built? Weddings are tough, crazy, costly events. But they are nothing compared to marriage.
I stayed on the zoo board for eight years for one reason: it was fun. Hard questions, great challenge, many moments of dread and confusion. It was not boring. Moving from the capital to the sustaining is probably the hardest path. Every year you need to succeed.
This is not a zoo. A menagerie maybe, but not a zoo. What worked for a zoo probably won’t work here. Different answers, but the same question: how do you sustain the new life you made, you found? How do you sustain a great accomplishment? For a church I believe the answer is this: you must continue to give away your life. The path you found is not at an end; we are at a beginning.
Right now the stewardship campaign is lagging. That is the best way to describe it. And I am glad. If were not, then the challenge might not be as clear. It might be more difficult for me to convince you: this is a truly important moment in the life of this congregation. How you choose to sustain, to grow, to give? These questions are as important, maybe more, than the first question: should we build up the church or batten down the hatches?
Please consider this stewardship campaign as one of the most important. It is the moment when you will reach out, sustain and support a vibrant path or you will step back. Consider your pledge this year as the first step toward a vibrant future, a great future. You’ve made it; now we need to sustain it.
If you have never pledged, please consider this as the best moment to begin. For it is always best to begin at the beginning. And we are in a moment of great possibility. The path is just beginning. Amen.
- John 3:1 - 4
- Mark 9:33 - 37