Text: Mark 10:35-45
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Oct. 18, 2015
“What is it that you want me to do for you?....You don’t know what you are asking....”
It was my first day in college. We were gathered in the chapel to hear our college president address the freshman class. I will never forget his challenge to us. He said: “Start were you are; use what you have, do what you can, and you will be amazed what God will do.” I determined to make this my life’s motto as I approached ministry.
As few weeks ago I opened my sermon by telling you of my experience at my first church after graduating. It was that pink church with yellow doors and the white sign stating that it was the “Assembly of od?” I had the president’s challenge fully in mind as I began. And as I told you I was amazed at what happened, within six months I was thrown out on my ear! Needless to say I have learned a few things since then.
This morning I want to tell you about my last experience in ministry before I came to St. Paul’s. During my first 26 years as an ordained Episcopal Priest, I always had been assigned to a parish is some capacity for weekend ministry. The Diocese of Lexington in Kentucky had a shortage of priests available for part-time assignments. But when I moved to Washington D.C in 2004, I found the area crawling with people like me. The diocese simply did need another.
For five years I felt like I was in the wilderness. Every day I prayed that the Lord would give me a place for ministry. The answer to this prayer arrived in a most unexpected way. I returned to my seminary office from a three-day clergy retreat to find a voice mail message waiting for me. It was from a United Methodist District Superintendent. The message went something like this: “Hello Bill, I'm calling to talk to you about taking a church. I’m not sure I’m interested in you, and when I tell you about the church I am quite sure you won’t be interested in it. However, our Annual Conference is only eight weeks away. By that time all new pastoral appointments must be made. I’m at the bottom of the barrel and I’m desperate. If you think that you might be at all interested, give me a call.”
How could I resist such an intriguing invitation? I called her. This is how she described the church: “They are crazy bunch of charismatic fundamentalists who are as mad as hell. They would leave the United Methodist Church in a minute if they could take their property with them. They can no longer afford a full-time minister and they refuse to be yoked with another congregation. I can’t find any retired minister who is willing to touch them and I wouldn’t dream of assigning the church to a seminary student. This church would tear a student apart in five minutes. Do you think you might be interested?” I felt like asking her: “Is the church painted pink and does it have yellow doors?”
Four weeks later following a half a dozen meetings with various United Methodist officials, several phone calls to my bishop in Kentucky, and a telephone consultation with our Ecumenical Officer in New York, I was ready to meet the congregation. In the interval I had learned that during the five years I had been in Washington, their membership had fallen from 350 to 75 and their average weekly attendance from 250 to 25. They had not paid their apportionments to the conference for the last three years, and the conference had to take over payment of their pastor’s salary for his last six months. They also had a $100,000 mortgage on which they were barely able to make the monthly interest payment. Furthermore, the mortgage was due to be paid in full in 12 months and they had little prospect of the bank renewing it. If they could not, the conference planned to close the church and sell the property. No wonder they were angry!
The day finally arrived when the district superintendent and I met with the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee to finalize my contract. It was clear that all members were deeply suspicious of me. Their questions were barely veiled hostility. Finally, one lady with tears in her eyes said, “Mr. Faupel we have been praying and praying that God would send us the right pastor, and here you are not even a United Methodist!” I threw my head back and laughed. I said, “For five years I have been praying that God would open a place of ministry for me. The last thing in the world I expected was that it would be a United Methodist Church. The way this opportunity has come about is so crazy, I just figure God has to be in it.” The atmosphere was transformed immediately. From that point we engaged in meaningful dialog. On Sunday morning virtually all 75 members greeted me.
The real breakthrough came nine months after I arrived. We had a women’s Bible study which met each Wednesday morning. Over those months from the meeting grew from eight to twenty-six. After Christmas, they chose a book called Women in the Gospel of John as their study guide. In all my ministry, I have never seen a group become so turned on. The depth of sharing which flowed each week was phenomenal. When the study was concluded, I said “What we have experienced together is too precious to keep to ourselves. Would nine of you volunteer to take one of the biblical characters we studied and share with the whole congregation on a Sunday morning? Nine women immediately volunteered. When the chosen Sunday came, each of them told the story of the Biblical character they had studied weaving their personal story into the narrative as well. The effect was incredible. Each lady received a standing ovation. When it was over there was not dry eye in the church. It did not hurt that the district superintendent decided to choose that Sunday to show up unexpectedly to see what this Episcopalian priest was doing to her Methodists.
That afternoon I got a call from a parishioner who lived across the street from the church asking me to come over. Cliff was on oxygen and had a disease that was slowly suffocating him. When I arrived he and his wife were waiting for me. With tears in his eyes, he said, Pastor Bill, after this morning’s service, I’m convinced God has called you here and that He is giving our church one last chance to have a future. I wish I was young so that I could help you but my life is almost over. However, there is a way that I can help. I talked with the wife and she agreed, we will match dollar for dollar up to $50,000 to pay off the debt.
When I made that announcement the next Sunday, the congregation was stunned. Three months later when the loan came due, the debt was paid in full. We celebrated as we burned the mortgage. By this time everybody believed that their little church did have a future. We read books on how to revitalize dying congregations. We had small group meetings setting new goals. We developed strategies to meet these goals. We formed teams to implement the new initiatives. Everybody from the youngest to the oldest got involved. Excitement grew as the church began to grow. Four years later when I left to come to Naples that “crazy bunch of charismatic fundamentalists,” and I were still on our honeymoon.
“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” All those things are important. But it is the last line that is the key. “You will be amazed at what God will do.” No one more realized than I that what had happened was not the result of my activity. God and God alone had transformed that situation.
In today’s gospel and James and John came to Jesus and said, “Lord, we want you to grant us whatever we ask of you.” It was a pretty opened ended question. Jesus rightly replied, “What is it that you want me to do for you?” When they told him what they wanted, he then said, “You don’t know what you are asking.” He then goes on to point out all the implications of their request.
I had just read this passage a few weeks ago as I began to prepare for today’s sermon when I got a call from our senior warden asking if he and our treasurer could drop by to see me. I knew they were coming to ask me to sign a contract to become your priest-in-charge. However, at that time, we had not yet had an opportunity to discuss what they wanted me to do.
Having today’s Gospel in mind when they arrived, I asked them Jesus' first question; “What is it that you want me to do for you?” They could have responded in any number of ways. I fully expected them to respond by saying, “Fr. Bill we want you to hold things together, until we can call a new Rector.”
But that was not their response. Instead, our treasurer answered, Fr. Bill we want you to change the model of ministry at St. Paul’s. First and foremost, we want you to be our pastor. We want you to get out among us and get to know us. In order to give you the time to be able to do this, we want you to give the vestry the responsibility to carry out the bulk of the administrative work of the church.”
In response, I felt like changing Jesus’s second statement to James and John into a question. “Do you really know what you are asking?” Instead, we talked about some of the implications of this model and I agreed to take on their assignment. This morning I’m here to spell out to you and the vestry some of the implications what they are asking me to implement.
Over the past two years as I have observed Fr. Tara at work, I think it is safe to say that close to sixty percent of her time was involved with administrative tasks. Seventy-five percent of my time has been taken up by these activities. Is the vestry really willing to commit that kind of time to church administration? There are twelve of them, but this still translates at least ten percent of a work week for each one. Most of them have been elected to the vestry because they are already deeply involved in other ministries of the church. Are they really willing to give that much of their time to a volunteer endeavor?
The answer is, of course not! What they will be taking on is the administrative oversight of the various areas of church life. They will be recruiting teams to actually carry out the work. That means that the vestry will be asking many of us to become more involved than we currently are. This will not happen overnight. The vestry will keep you informed each step of the way.
We will get started now. I have been asked to present to the vestry this Wednesday night the beginnings of the new structure and to assign each one an area for administrative oversight. Will such a plan work? I don’t know. By the end of season we will know. If it doesn’t work, the vestry may thank me for “giving it a good try, or more likely send me packing like I was from that “pink church with yellow doors!”
But, when I think of what happens each Saturday morning when men and women gather together in Christ’s name to pull off something called “Farmers' Market,” or when a group of men and women gather together in Christ name on Thursday mornings to pull off something called “God’s Gardeners, or when a group of women gather together in Christ’s name to do the countless things that are accomplished through ECW, I can’t help but feel encouraged. I believe that, when given the opportunity, the people of St. Paul’s will respond to this new challenge. I dare to believe that in the not too distant future, one of the newly formed teams will have gathered and, in the midst of sharing ideas of what can be accomplished, will experience a fresh awareness of God’s presence. Like Moses, someone will hear an inner voice saying “take off your shoes for the ground on which you are standing is holy.” And another will say “what we have experienced today is too precious to keep to ourselves we must share it with the whole congregation.” When that happens, God alone knows what He will do at St. Paul’s!
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I challenge us all to embrace our vestry’s vision. As we begin a new chapter in our life together, let us start where we are, let us use what we have, and let us do what we can. Then let’s step back, take a breath and see what God will do! Amen.