Monday, September 20, 2010

Pentecost 17: The Plan B Parable

Plan B. Wednesday dinner at the New England seminary was always Italian Night; pasta, spaghetti, sauces, meatballs, sausage, garlic bread, and the like. It was a real treat, except for two problems. First, the meal always sat heavy, which in and of itself would not have been issue save for the second problem… I had a class to attend from 7:00-10:00 at night. It was held in one of those large, theatre style rooms with comfortable, cushioned seats. The professor, a kindly older man with a white beard, lectured with a soothing, monotone voice as he read from his manuscript without ever looking up at the class. Do you get the picture? It was a real, real struggle to stay awake.

One dark night my friends and I made our way to lecture hall as a nor’easter set it. That the campus sat on an exposed hill north of Boston meant that we could feel the full force of the storm’s fury. We settled into our seats as dinner settled into our stomachs, prepared for yet another three hour torture test to stay conscious. But seventeen minutes into the lecture, the most amazing thing happened. Like a gift from the good Lord above, the storm knocked out the power and the hall was shrouded in near darkness. My friends and I looked at each other with near joy at the prospect of being set free early, at least for this one night. And then, down from the darkened lectern, the voice of the professor – normally soft, but now almost inaudible because the p.a. system was without power – said, “It is always important to have a Plan B.” With that, he pulled from his coat pocket a small pen light and thus commenced to read on – in very hushed tones and to our dismay – with the aid of its slim, focused glow.

Plan B. Sometimes, the situation shifts quickly and dramatically leaving no question but that we must take a new or different approach. Then there are times when the shift occurs over a long period of time and is near unperceivable. Slowly it dawns on us that our tried and true approach is no longer effective. When this happens it is often difficult to figure out what changed, why it changed, and what to do about it.

In today’s Gospel reading we hear one of Jesus’ more curious parables. In it a wealthy man employs a manager to oversee his affairs. When word comes to the boss that his employee has screwed things up he demands an accounting of all the transactions. The manager is in a real jam. What he has been doing over and over and over again no longer works. It is time to come up with a new plan. So he rolls up his sleeves and gets to work the cutting debts of those from whom he collects, so that, if he can no longer be in the graces of his employer, at least he can be in the graces of the debtors. By commending the manager for his shrewdness, Jesus is focusing the parable on the central message of Plan B, of cutting your losses and moving forward in a new world in a new way.

I can’t think of a better parable for the beginning of our Church School year than this one. St. Paul’s began this fiscal year with a balanced budget, but in order to accomplish this we had to make some painful cuts. The most painful was eliminating the position of Christian Education Director. Because we could no longer “dump” this responsibility on a staff person, a team of us came together and began to plan.

We recognized several things:

• While a lot has changed in the world since we were children, the church’s methods of passing of the faith are largely the same and have become ineffective.
• We have very few children attending our program on a consistent basis.
• No matter what curriculum we use, we never seem to be satisfied with the results.
• There is no coordination to the multiple ministries we offer for children and young people.

At the same time we saw signs of hope:

• Our children and young people like our special events, vacation bible school, and music camp.
• We have talented, committed adults who care about our children and want to contribute.
• We, as a parish, have a rich, wonderful way of living out the faith that can give meaning and purpose to young people if we can pass it on.

And so we launched into an attempt to come up with Plan B. The first step was to identify what we are already doing and to figure out ways to support and encourage these existing ministries. Forming a Nursery Committee is just one example and it has done a lot to improve and energize what was already a pretty good ministry.

Next we set out to articulate learning goals. By the time infants baptized at St. Paul’s turn eighteen, what do we want them to know and to have experienced? You received in the last newsletter mailing the fruit of this conversation – a document called “We will, with God’s help.” Organized around the Baptismal Covenant, these goals give us a way to measure how we are doing and are a resource to guide where we want to go.

And today we begin a new adventure in Christian formation here at St. Paul’s. We are creating design teams who will plan lessons around specific themes or ideas, developing programs that run from two to six Sundays. There is no curriculum, only the topic, the story, and the creative energy of the team; who will pass on their faith to the children and young people of the parish. In many cases, the team will have to grow their faith in order to have something to pass on.

This is not a ministry for a few of us, but for all of us. Every person here this morning has some gift, some passion, some interest, some ministry that can be woven into our learning goals. If you are a person of faith then you possess something which needs to be shared with others. I hope and expect that over the course of the next three years or so, each of you will be invited to be a part of a design team, and I trust that your response will be “I will, with God’s help.”

I am half-way through my active life in the ordained ministry. Over the first half of my career I have watched the Episcopal Church decline and its ministry to children and young people diminish significantly. There are so many factors involved in why this is so (many beyond our control) that it is not worth trying to point the finger at any one or two things. So here is what I say… all the changes mean that the Plan A approach to Christian Education is no longer effective. We can cry or curse, we can throw up our hands and throw in the towel, or we can get shrewd… I mean really shrewd. Plan B shrewd.

Many in our church believe that we are in an “Episcopal Moment”: a time when what we do best with the faith meshes with what the culture is seeking…

• Worship that centered on mystery and sacrament as opposed to dispensing moralisms and easy answers.
• A community of people with diverse backgrounds and opinions who come together for respectful conversation and mutual insight.
• A center where ancient and enduring practices are lived and taught.
• A faith which holds new scientific discoveries and artistic expression are a part of God’s ongoing creative activity.
• A spirituality that is life affirming, rather than pleasure denying.

This is just a small part of who we are as Episcopalians. It is a small part of who we are here at St. Paul’s. It is a small part of what I desperately want to pass on over the second half of my career in the ordained ministry. I am ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work. Are you ready to get shrewd? Are you with me?