There are two questions that Jesus asks in John’s Gospel that always make me stop and think. The first comes at the beginning of the Gospel when the disciples of John the Baptizer begin following Jesus and Jesus turns to them and asks, “what are you looking for?” In essence, he is really asking them and us, what do we expect to gain by following Jesus.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus asks the paraplegic laying by the pool at Bethsaida the second question, “do you want to be made well.” My first response to this question is always, what a dumb question. Of course he wants to be made well! Why else would he be sitting by the pool waiting for the water to agitate each day?
But then again, maybe he really doesn’t want to get well, but wants everyone to think he does. After all, as the writer tells us, he had been a paraplegic for thirty-eight years. Based on life expectancy for the times, he was probably born paralyzed. This meant his whole identity was that of being disabled . . . his whole experience of life was one of dependency as we are told by his answer, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.” If he were to be healed, his whole way of life would be changed. No longer could he depend on others to house, clothe and feed him. No longer could he look to others to carry him where he needed to go. Instead, he would have to learn to be independent and self-reliant. He would have to find a way to make a living through gainful employment. He would have to come to see himself as whole and not broken.
As I thought about how this man’s life would be altered if he were healed, I came to suspect it would be equivalent to one us winning a multi-million dollar lottery jackpot. How many of us dream of hitting it big . . . convinced that winning all that cash would make our lives easier and happier? I know I do.
In the late 80’s my grandfather would get so mad at me for wasting money on lottery tickets. “You know”, he would say, “it’s a waste of money.” And I would always respond, “but Grandpa, it’s not a waste of money if you don’t expect to win, then it is just cheep entertainment.”
The fact is, the dreams are one thing, the realities are far different as we are seeing over and over again that money does not always buy happiness, but more often than not misery and loss . . . as families crumble and the expectations of friends dramatically change because those around you come to believe that your winnings should be their winnings as well.
This same reality held true for the paraplegic in today’s Gospel, if he were healed, he would face a dramatic change in expectations from family and friends. And I suspect, if he did well in terms of employment, all the family and all the friends who provided for him while he was disabled may come to expect him to pay them back once he was able to.
So Jesus question,” do you want to be made well?” is a legitimate one. If this individual truly wanted to be healed then he would have to be courageous enough to commit to the dramatic changes his life would take on. To merely stand up meant accepting a new center of gravity in his life and a new sense of balance. And then to take his first steps meant trusting that Jesus wouldn’t let him fall as he walked into his new life.
One of the things I have learned through my work with the diocese is that Congregations are like people. They all say they want to grow, but how they expect to grow varies. There are the congregations that are small and mighty. Somehow despite the challenges they face, they are excited about their life together, they are clear about what their mission is and they are not looking to the Bishop’s office to maintain their work. They like the paraplegic who not only picks up his mat, but also commits to walking with Christ.
Then there is the other type of parish. Small, financially struggling, and unrealistic about what the diocese and others can do for them. They exist in fear of the future, knowing they cannot sustain buildings and staff, but unwilling to change while they look to others to somehow magically solve their problems. These are the maintenance parishes, who like the paraplegic sitting beside the pool, wait and wait and wait for someone to carry them into the water. They say they want to grow, they say they want to change, but more often than not, they are not willing to commit to making the changes they need to make.
As I look over the nearly ten years I have been at St. Luke’s, we have done a great amount of growing together. I think back over my first year here, we were saddled with over $300,000 dollars of debt due to the addition, and then quickly found ourselves facing a $30,000 deficit for the year. We were convinced we wanted to be a program parish, because that’s what every parish was supposed to want to be. And just beneath our surface there was division and conflict. I remember us having the contemporary choir and the traditional choir and neither was willing to work with the other. We were truly crippled by our divisions and conflict. We had a beautiful parish hall, and no idea of what to do with it. We had a healthy average Sunday attendance, but were rift with division.
Together, for many years, we were like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. We were not sure where we were going, we tried many things, some worked and some did not. In time, we found our way. We realized we did not want to be a program church, we like the intimacy of being a pastoral church. We found our relationships are important to us. And we are clear, we like being traditional with a smattering of the contemporary.
In so many ways, St. Luke’s as the paraplegic has in recent years picked up it’s mat and is standing tall. But I am not sure we have fully committed to walking with Christ. I believe many of us are making the commitment, but not all of us. I say this based on our stewardship of time, talent and treasure. I say this based on how hard it is for many of us to commit to hosting coffee hour one time a year and how our financial giving has basically been stagnant for the last few years.
Recently I realized, we are not asked to give our time, talent and treasure to an institution, instead, we are asked to give it to each other and the stranger in our midst as we support one another’s walk with Christ. How we give is one of many indicators of our commitment to and willingness to trust in Christ. It speaks to our willingness to believe that God provides in abundance, or scarcity. And for many of us it indicates how we prioritize our relationship with this community over the other demands in our lives.
I hate to measure our commitment solely based on giving, and up until recently I probably would not have gone here. But that was until I had a recent epiphany of my own.
When Maureen and I first arrived here, we were fully committed to St. Luke’s. Between what we gave in our pledge and me turning over my honoraria from funerals and weddings we were giving roughly 5% of our income. And, we were one of the top ten contributing families. That was until we hit college tuitions. We learned early on that colleges and universities do not take into consideration what a family can pay after what they give to charity. So like most, it was easier for us to substantially cut back our pledge than cut back anywhere else.
As a clergy person this was easy to do, we are good at justifying our not tithing. After all, we are not paid what we should be, so therefore our salaries already have our tithe included. Or, I have to pay a lot in self-employment taxes so I should not have to pay a tithe. I can list the excuses for ever. The truth was, our first commitment was to our daughters’ education and our second was to keeping our lifestyle as much in tact while doing so. Our commitment to St. Luke’s/to the Body of Christ was probably third or fourth down the list.
And I was good with this, because as I considered what we “sacrificed” as a clergy family in relationship to my brothers’ lifestyles, our token giving, as Doc Schwarz would call it, seemed okay. That was until I did some simple math after upgrading to smart phones last month. After paying the hidden costs, taxes and extended warrantees, Maureen and I spent almost as much as we pledge to St. Luke’s in one night. Then I began to add up what we give to Verizon and Time Warner each month for technology, and it added up to several times more than our annual pledge. Then I added in the frequency we eat out, or make trips to American Eagle for clothes I do not really need, and I realized its not that we cannot afford to tithe, but that we choose not to.
Maureen and I have already begun to discuss and explore ways we need to cut back on excess spending in order to free up more funds for St. Luke’s. We have begun this conversation because it has come to light in the last few days that 10% of the congregation’s anticipated income will not be received this year in addition to a budget that already contained a $3000 deficit. When we found this out, Maureen and I realized, like each of you, we need to be part of the solution however the finance committee decides to work through it.
In years past, I would have sounded the alarm bells and like Chicken Little declared the sky to be falling. Today, I know we will not let our financial issues cripple us, nor will we allow them to leave us frozen in place. Instead, I know we are ready to seize this opportunity to walk away from our old lives and walk together towards the new life Christ is giving us.