Texts: Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
But some times are simply not joyful. I dare say that this congregation is in the middle of one of those times now. Last week, we voted to extend a call to fill our staff vacancy at Agnus Dei—a vacancy that has itself caused us some grief and hardship. We grieved when Stephanie resigned, even as we were glad that she was following her calling. We have struggled to settle into a new routine. Over the last year, we’ve seen lots of things change, and not always for the better. The uncertainty over what the future holds and how we might still have to adjust to it have made us anxious.
Last week with the vote, we may have expected to rejoice at that we finally had a path forward; but rejoicing is not exactly what happened. In order to call Sr. Ann, we needed 66% to approve; we got 71%. What that means is that there are a number of people in our community who are not content with the outcome, and that makes it hard to celebrate. As we sat in the meeting, discussing amongst ourselves what course of action to take, I heard a lot of anxiety, a lot of uncertainty. Some didn’t think that this candidate was right for us; others worried that now may not be the time to commit to bringing on another staff person; still others believed that the process was not well explained and felt like the vote was being rushed or forced.
It’s not my intention to make excuses or to defend the decisions or actions of committees; I mention all of this simply to point out that throughout this process, there have been flaws, and those flaws have helped contribute to the anxiety that we are collectively feeling over what has happened. These flaws are present because everything that’s been done throughout this process has been done by imperfect people, such as myself; people who make mistakes, but whom our congregation also loves, accepts and trusts.
We have reason to be worried about who we bring onto our staff. As one who’s been here longer than me wisely pointed out, Agnus Dei has not had a great track record with staff people of late. Those who have been here a while know that the last four staff people to leave this congregation (aside from Stephanie) all left under, shall we say, less than ideal conditions. Pr. Maria, Jen, Brit, even Pr. Beigert all faced some controversy. Naturally, remembering the hurt those events caused us, we are collectively a little worried that our new staff person might not work out the way we hope. Perhaps deep down we are also a little worried about whether we as a congregation can ever grow past those experiences to be ready to join the celebration that Jesus is talking about.
It is in this worry and anxiety that we are met and reassured by St. Paul’s letter. He reminds Timothy that he himself was, in his words, “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” the “foremost” of sinners; yet Paul is also the one who has been the most zealous of apostles, and Timothy’s own friend and mentor. A third of the New Testament was written by Paul, and another third was written by people writing in Paul’s name or otherwise affiliated with Paul, like his supposed traveling companions St. Luke and St. Mark. It is because of Paul that we are all sitting here today: Paul is the one who took the message of the gospel to the Gentiles, meaning us.
The Paul who writes to Timothy today was first introduced to us in Acts as the young man who held the coats of the people who executed St. Stephen. Luke recalls in Acts that wherever he went, he “breathed threats and violence” against the first Christians. No one was more zealous in their persecution of the early Church than Paul. Luke and even Paul himself want us to know this about him because Paul becomes the most prolific evangelist not in spite of his past and who he was, but because of it.
Paul’s conversion didn’t change who he was. The zeal with which he persecuted the Church is the same zeal that he later applies to preaching the gospel. The same man who “breathed threats and violence” also dashed off the quick and angry letter to the Galatians, scolding them for turning away from the gospel to follow human laws and customs instead. The very same things about Paul that made him such a terror to early Christians were what made him such a successful evangelist and preacher. God didn’t change Paul on the road to Damascus, God redirected him; God repented him.
The same is true of each and every one of us. We are sinners all; each of us has faults and flaws and ways we fall short. We haven’t been called through baptism to be God’s kingdom in the world in spite of who we are, but because of who we are. You are exactly what God had in mind when God made you, and that person is who God has called to be here in this place at this time: a member of this congregation, and a worker in God’s new creation.
Those of you who have been here longer than me know that even those people who left this congregation under less than ideal circumstances did good while they were here, and they were loved. Things may not have always ended well, but that doesn’t mean that God wasn’t at work during that time. We have made mistakes as a congregation, and we have grown from those mistakes; we have become better and wiser and more capable. We have created policies and committees to make sure that our staff are properly supporting the work of the congregation, and that they are being supported properly by the congregation. Those painful times which we have endured have equipped us to move into the future.
In the midst of all of this, the one thing we sometimes lose in all this is that this congregation is not ours: it is God’s. We are not here for ourselves, and although we have been entrusted with doing the work to keep this congregation running, it is ultimately not any one or any group of us that keeps it going. We can rest comfortably in the knowledge that, though we will make mistakes along the way, God’s work is still being done—not in spite of us, but because of us. Perhaps this is the lost coin for which we are looking.
As an example of what I am talking about, I want to lift up the other thing that happened last weekend. After our somewhat tense vote and its less-than-resounding outcome, we had a lunch of hot dogs and potluck sides and Italian sodas.
If you read the newsletter this month, you already know something about how the twins came up with the idea for the soda stand. They learned that there were children in our community who did not have enough to eat, and they wanted to help. So, they set up an Italian soda stand on their block, where they raised $70 for Food Backpacks 4 Kids, which is a ministry in which this congregation has long and joyfully participated. They enjoyed helping so much, they wanted to do the same here; the donations they collected last weekend went to the same place. Do you know how much they raised? $193.86. And they did it in a single hour.
That tells me a couple of things. First it tells me that Agnus Dei is doing a damn fine job of raising up disciples of Jesus. This congregation is the reason those girls and their parents know what Food Backpacks 4 Kids is; this congregation has provided their parents with a community of support as they parent their children and has helped them instill Christian values in them, and this congregation is a big part of the reason why those girls—as young as they are—even care that kids somewhere else are hungry. We have helped give them the desire, the resources, and the encouragement to make a difference.
It also tells me that God is not done with us yet. As beautiful and profound as it is that those two girls had it in their hearts to set up that stand here, it is the generous support of this congregation that helped make it successful. $200 in an hour tells me that this is a community bursting with individuals who know the kingdom of God when they see it and want more than anything else to participate in it.
This is who Agnus Dei is. This is who we are. We are imperfect, we are scarred, we are fearful, we are sometimes contentious; but we are the sinners that God has found to use in this place and in this time. For that reason, I am excited about what is coming next. I am excited about Sr. Ann’s arrival, and I am excited about what she and Agnus Dei will do together. I am excited because I know that God’s work is being done here because of us, not in spite of us. Because of that, there is rejoicing in heaven among the angels; and I hope that it allows us to rejoice with them.