How Are We Doing?

Passage: Luke 4:14-21
Date: January 27, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

How are we doing, Westminster? It’s a good question to ask at least once a year. So, how are we doing?

We can answer that question by looking at numbers, for those of you who appreciate facts and figures more than poetry. This year we received 18 new members and lost, through death, transfer, or removal from the rolls, 44 members. That’s a net loss of 26 members. In 2013, our membership was 725 and at the end of 2018 our official membership was 648. Over five years, that’s a net loss of 77 members. 

Last year we received in paid pledges, in loose offering, in members giving who did not pledge, and in non-member giving, a total of $873,224. With 648 members, that’s an average gift of $1,347.56 per member, but bear in mind that we have many active and generous folks in our community who are not on the official roll.

In 2018 we budgeted and gave away $112,000 to local, national, and international organizations that help carry out the work we feel we are called to do. That number does not reflect monies collected for the four denominational offerings, which was just shy of $13,000. We also collected and gave monies for Heifer International, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and for the Angel Tree, and we collected food for Northeast Emergency Food Program and Mainspring. We supported mission through the capital campaign and gave $14,000 each to Living Cully, the microloan project in Guatemala, and the solar energy project in Ethiopia. Through the Pastor’s Discretionary Fund we spend almost $12,000 helping individuals with things like rent and utility bills.

This year the Nominating Committee worked very hard to find seven elders, twelve deacons, four trustees, and three at-large committee members. They were not successful in filling all the slots, and we’ve learned that many of our active, present folks choose not to drive at night, feel that their time on boards here at the church is done, or are simply too busy with work and family to commit to serving at this time.

Melissa Olmsted, our faithful director of Children’s Ministries, had some of her longtime teachers retire and is still looking to fill some vacancies in working with our precious children. Our choirs flourish but seasonal illness and travel affect who is able to sing or ring on a Sunday morning.

Worship continues to be lively here, and our worship attendance is strong. In 2013, our average Sunday worship attendance was 242; in 2018, it was 249. So we’re holding steady there.

There are other facts and figures I could throw at you this morning, but I think all of this paints a picture. We’re strong, but in some ways, we’re not as big as we used to be, and we’re getting older. To continue to do the ministry we are called to, we will need to do it differently, in a way that utilizes the resources that we have, that encourages people to use their God-given gifts, without burning folks out and sending them running for the door.

But facts and figures don’t always tell the whole of a story, do they? Our membership number doesn’t reflect the active Presbyterian clergy in our congregation, who can’t be members of a church, or the many folks who choose not to join but are active in mission and choir and adult education and who are faithful in worship.

Facts and figures don’t tell the story of our wonderful deacons who spend time with our homebound members or the story of Stephen Ministers who listen thoughtfully and quietly to those going through a hard time. They don’t tell the story of early-morning prayers in pre-surgical waiting rooms or of gracious folks offering coffee and cookies at a memorial reception. They don’t tell the story of youth going to serve in mission to learn about the real-life, on-the-ground situation of those at the border.

They don’t tell the story of people showing up at Grace Episcopal Church on a Friday night to prepare and serve a meal to folks who might otherwise go hungry. They don’t tell the story of a trip to Guatemala and being blown away by the joy people choose to have even when in material terms they have so little. Facts and figures don’t tell the story of unceasing prayer going to God in faith and with urgency.

How are we doing? It depends on what we use as our measure. If mere facts and figures were our measure, I would say we’re doing so-so. If “people reached”was our measure, I would say we’re doing better than average. I think, though, the right measure might be this text from Luke that I read earlier.

To give a little background: Since the last time we heard about Jesus in Luke’s gospel, we’ve jumped ahead about eighteen years. He is now an adult. He has been baptized and passed the test of the temptation in the wilderness. He returns home to preach to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth. He unrolls the scroll of Isaiah and reads these strong words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That will be his mission, his ministry: to attend to the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed, and to announce jubilee – the forgiveness of all debts. Is that our mission and ministry as well?

I think it is. So much of what we do here is prologue or prelude; so much of what we do is building up the scaffolding upon which our ministry will rest. Taking care of this building, taking care of our staffing, our administrative functions – those are not ministry; they are tools for ministry.

So are we caring for the poor? Are we offering release to those who are in some kind of captivity? Are we helping people to see? Are we doing what we can to lift the burden from oppressed people? And do we really believe in forgiving our debtors?

I’m really proud of the work the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty is accomplishing, and I want to give a big shout-out to co-chairs Carol Turner and David Groff, who are tireless in keeping the Alliance’s focus strong. Those of us involved with the Alliance have learned so much about root causes of poverty, about structural impediments to getting out of poverty, and about the need for strong advocacy at all levels of government to change things.

Our relationship with Presbyterians in Guatemala has allowed us to be part of changing the lives of the women involved in the micro-loan program, as well as the lives of women and men desiring to change the reality of a machismo culture that often results in domestic violence and the oppression of women. 

Feeding people – by taking around a wagon of grilled cheese sandwiches to a homeless camp or joining friends to prepare Grace Meals or bringing in food donations to the big red tubs at the entrance – feeding people is holy work. Thank you.

Most of you don’t see the efforts of folks who are working toward freedom from addiction or chronic health issues, but it’s happening, and it is hard, hard work. Members like Sid Birt and Kate Thompson and Gloria Tuma have done so much to help me and others see the perniciousness of racism right here in Portland and are more than gently nudging us to do more.

And none of us really knows the individual work that all of us are doing in practicing the foundations of faith: forgiveness, grace, kindness.I get glimpses of you all engaging in those practices sometimes, and it takes my breath away. A few weeks ago the highlight of worship for me came during the prelude, as Evan returned to his pew after acolyting and gave Vern Kerstein a big hug.

Gregg and Laurie and I feel that it is such a tremendous privilege to serve here as your pastors; we really do. That doesn’t mean we’re ready to coast. That doesn’t mean we don’t think that God continues to call us to the same work and to new work as we live life at Westminster with fewer and different resources than we had in the past. We’re so grateful to have strong leaders here who will engage with us in this work.

And I hope – no, I more than hope – I pray that you have a deep sense of gratitude or fulfillment or faith about being a part of this Westminster community. For whatever reason God led you here, that was a good thing. I won’t pretend we’re perfect, far from it. But on the whole, I think we try to love well here, and we try to be mindful of who around us needs the love of Jesus right now, and we try to learn more deeply about our faith so that we can respond to the world in faith.

For those of you who regret not having a State of the Union address on Tuesday, your consolation prize has been this “state of the church” address. I want to thank you all for the thousands of ways you support the ministry and mission we are all called to. Thank you for the generosity of your time, talent, and treasure. Let’s have a great year together. And may the word of God be fulfilled, at least a little, in what we’re about here at Westminster.

To the glory of God.