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Back on the last Saturday in October your pastors and two elders attended the 93rd stated meeting of the Presbytery of New Hope. There are five presbyteries - our regional governing body - in North Carolina, covering 126 congregations in 27 counties from Efland to the Outer Banks. At this good meeting I heard two stories in particular that inspired me. The first was about an initiative to bring small churches together. The presbytery has organized a couple of gatherings - one around Rocky Mount and Wilson and one around Goldsboro, for Presbyterians in small membership churches to eat and pray, to hear stories of the great ministry they are doing, to think about ways they can better partner in service. We heard of one small church that has seven members. Seven. And while it is hard for them to see much of a future as an institution, they continue to serve. Every Tuesday all seven of their members get together, prepare a meal, and feed hungry people in their area out of their church. Every week. All seven of them. Instead of sitting around and bemoaning what seems to be their inevitable closing, even as they wait, they reach forward with hope.
A.J. Jacobs is in many ways very different from us. A self-described secular Jew, he lives in Manhattan, writes for Vanity Fair, has published a handful of successful memoirs. A couple of years ago he set out to explore issues of faith. Inspired by an uncle, he wanted to try and understand the role of law in the bible, of rules, of things the text says, at some point, you HAVE to do to be faithful. He began by making a list of all hard and fast rules, prescribed rituals, or other guidelines made out in the bible as integral to daily living. Then, one by one, he tries to follow: obscure laws on not shaving, wearing white clothes, eating or avoiding certain foods. He immerses himself in the biblical world, does his homework, goes and meets people who can help explain things, from orthodox rabbis to fundamentalist Christians. He is surprised by how the ritual of prayer shapes him, even when he’s not entirely sure to whom he is praying.1 Jacob’s book, while sometimes silly, explores important questions about faith and rules: when do certain structures help the community, and when does legalism make faith little more than a game of checking off the boxes? When does faith become more about avoiding breaking the rules than letting them guide a faithful life?
In my first weeks of teaching second grade, I posted our class rules on the wall - as any teacher would do. I, however, in all my wisdom thought it would be best if I had only two rules - two easy to understand, easy to remember, easy to follow rules: work hard and be nice. Those first weeks, I continued to point to that colorful, gorgeous poster with the words "work hard" and "be nice" scrolled across it. Turns out, most of my kids could barely read and all of my kids needed more guidance than my two-rule solution could provide. Two rules too few.
The idea for our stewardship brochure came from a document our Communications Coordinator Kara Pearce discovered from an Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. They did a lot of wonderful things, but it was the framing of weekly devotions, of exploring a text in our homes, that really struck us. The one other idea we stole from them was that of the bar chart. We rather dramatically toned down our version in what I think is still a provocative chart - one that, and I really hope you'll do the exercise in there this week - calls us to think deeply about what we value. In our chart we have a handful of expenses listed - $180 for a cellphone plan for two, cable and internet for $135, $525 for leisure and entertainment, $400 for a car payment, $300 for utilities. Your personal expenses might be more or less than those. The question is what is important - how do these expenses stack up to what you pledge to the church?
You would think that the wedding of someone of such prominence would be all people would be talking about. About 23 million Americans got up at 6am in April three years ago to watch the royal wedding of William and Kate.1 There were 5000 street parties throughout the United Kingdom, a million people on the route from the church to Buckingham Palace. With all of this attention, how many of millions worldwide would have jumped at the chance to be one of the 1900 people in Westminster Abbey, 600 at a luncheon hosted by the queen, or the privileged 300 people at the dinner reception?