Pay attention and file this under, "Coming soon to a neighborhood near you."
Some of us have been lulled into a trance induced by the mantra, "Money follows mission." It's been offered as an anxious prayer - a 'silver bullet' - to ward off the Evil Spirits of decline induced by an inward-focused, 'maintenance-minded' ecclesiology.
That could not be said about St. Paul's, Paterson. Here's what they say about themselves:
St. Paul's Episcopal Church is a gathered community of "all sorts and conditions" of people who are committed to the Christian life and witness in the urban setting of Paterson. We are Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian. We are native born and newcomers from many lands. We are young, old, and in-between. We live in cities and suburbs. We are gay and straight, married and single. Some of us dress up for church, and others don't.And, they mean it. Take a look around their web page and you'll see what I mean. Their services are vital, alive and innovative, with good music and preaching. And, they are fully engaged in God's mission in the world.
Through worship, outreach, education, parish life, pastoral care, and stewardship, our diverse community seeks to celebrate and proclaim God's justice and mercy; to live out the good news of God's kingdom for all people, and to be a healing sign that the things which divide us from each other may be overcome in the oneness of God.
Check out the link to St. Paul's CDC. They go beyond soup kitchens and food pantries and homeless shelters to address systemic issues of poverty. Some of their programs are Housing and Neighborhood Development, Next Steps, and AmeriCorps.
And yet, this recent article in the NJ Star Ledger truly makes the heart sad.
An anonymous, 'private collector' has offered the church $2 million dollars to purchase their 12 priceless Tiffany stained glass windows.
The window frames are rotting and it would cost an estimated $520,000 to repair them. However, the roof also needs to be replaced, stone work needs to be done on the exterior of the church, and work needs to be done in the Parish Hall.
Mind you, I have not spoken to the rector or any member of that congregation. All I know is what I read in the papers. It sounds to me as if most of the profits earned from the sale of the windows would go right back into the maintenance of the building.
Which leads me to ask, "Really?"
Granted, lots of wonderful, indeed amazing, ministry and mission happens from that building, but it does beg lots of questions about what we call 'stewardship' of the building, especially as that issue comes into tension with the rest of the mission and ministry of the church.
As a rector who has been consumed by "property issues" for the last eight years of my tenure, and now confronts a church building which needs a new roof and renovations to insure that the entire building is handicap accessible, I tremble when I realize that we have spent more of our time, resources and money on the 'stewardship' of the building than on either mission or ministry.
The dollar amounts spent on 'bricks and mortar' are staggering, but when I compare that to the amounts we have spent on mission, I feel a total and complete failure in terms of my responsibility for both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.
In my most despairing moments, I lament that I went to seminary and finally, after 10 years, freed myself of the enormous debt that incurred for me and my family, to become a missionary for Jesus, an evangelist of His gospel, a minister of His Word and a priest of His Sacraments - not a general contractor for building projects or a caretaker of a Museum of Liturgical Arts that is only used 4-5 hours, once a week.
In my most hopeful moments, I rejoice that 'generations of generations' will praise the name of God in that place and pray that it will become a portal - a gateway - to even greater opportunities for evangelism, mission and ministry in the sacred name of Jesus through the particular inspiring liturgy and music of The Episcopal Church.
Faithfulness has often looked like foolishness, and vice versa, n'est pas?
At least, that's what I tell myself when I look in the mirror in the morning.
There are lots and lots of other, compelling aspects of this complicated and complex issue, none the least of which is the whole bureaucratic structure of the church with layers of hierarchy of priests and bishops.
That bureaucratic structure and hierarchy have become Very Expensive - more than most congregations can afford. Indeed, I think most of us have been unable to afford the lifestyle we've been living and enjoying for a very long time. As my sainted grandmother would say, "You've been drinking champagne on a beer budget."
At about this point, all the "anonymous" readers who write me hateful comments - and expect me to actually post them - are laughing up their sleeves about 'what do you expect' and 'Episcopal covens' and blahdity, blah, blah apostasy and heresy.
Spare me, okay?
I'm not going to publish your cowardly anonymous statements. Indeed, I've come to find great pleasure in hitting 'reject' when such hateful, toxic waste appears on my screen.
What's interesting about the news that Saddleback Church received $2.5 million in its call to fill a $900,000 budget deficit is that everyone is marveling at the $2.5 million response - which is, admittedly, pretty marvelous.
However, don't miss the subtext: Even Saddleback Church had a $900,000 budget deficit. They of the "walk right, talk right, think right do right" evangelical, so-called orthodox faith. They won't talk about it, but even their Average Sunday Attendance is significantly down.
The theology that maintains that outward prosperity is a sign of God's favor and that poverty is a sign of God's judgment is, in actuality, an outward and visible sign of spiritual bankruptcy.
So, what is going on? How are we to make sense and understand all these things?
I do believe that "God is doing a new thing" in the church. God always has - always is - always will. We're always 'catching up' to where God is - and has been - and is going next.
I believe we are called to the struggle to understand what it is God is - has been - calling us to do and to be. The answer, I believe, is in the struggle - not in easy answers and quick fixes.
The world is too dark and broken a place, and God's people are in too much need, for us to play simplistic theological games with one another.
I don't have any answers, but I know we've got to start struggling with the questions. Not so we can find the answers, necessarily, but in order to deepen and enrich our faith.
I only know this much to be true: You can't know the fullness of Easter joy without a Good Friday walk through Calvary.