Can I do this? Can we do this? Is it even possible?
My colleague, friend and mentor – Pastor Bill Carter, used to say, “Most of ministry is pushing a big rock up a hill.” We can infer that faith is also like that. Even life can be like that too. What he meant was that to stick with it; to push forward; to look to the future with confidence; is hard work, just like pushing a big rock up a hill is hard work. One slip, and the rock rolls back down the other direction. Vigilance, control, skill and strength are required to keep the rock not only in place, but moving against the very nature of gravity. As Bishop Jim Hazelwood reminded us on Sunday, “When Jesus said, ‘Go make disciples,’ he didn’t say it was going to be easy.” If life, faith, and ministry can be compared to pushing a big rock up a hill – it is no easy task. How do we not get crushed under the load? It begins with how we start to answer these questions:
Can I do this? Can we do this? Is it even possible?
No, I can’t. No, we won’t. No, it isn’t.
Any venture left untried has a 100% failure rate. Yet many live this way. People get discouraged. Faith is abandoned when times get tough. Communities struggle and choose to turn inward and become insular toward the world rather than engage it. It is amazing how many communities of faith in times when the stakes are as high as we have ever faced, crumble under the weight of the big rock before them. Old strategies that have proven over time to be ineffective are tried again. Good old days are nostalgically remembered as being problem free. Energy is spent and squandered running around without direction looking for quick fixes. Blame is passed around. People may be deeply committed. People may be incredibly loyal. People may be sweet, good-natured, generous, lovely human beings that become like family. But when it comes time to risk, to try something new, to take the big rock before them and give a big push – the answer is, “No, I can’t do this, No we won’t do this, No, it isn’t even possible.” Any venture left untried has a 100% failure rate. It may even feel like people are trying to push the rock down the other way. No wonder so many congregations are shrinking. No wonder so many people are spiritual but not religious. No wonder so many people’s lives seem to be spiraling out of control with no end in sight.
Maybe, but only if…
This answer sounds a lot more positive than the first, but ends up in the same place. There may be a desire for change, but the impetus comes from uncontrollable factors, and even looking in the wrong place for solutions. “We would have a bigger Sunday School if families weren’t so busy.” “We would have enough money if only we had more people to support the budget.” “We would have enough leaders to run our structure if only people were more committed.” When we start the conversation from this place we start to measure things like the circumference of the rock and dwell upon its size, we speculate its mass rather than celebrate any forward progress, and we start to wonder how much longer we can hold our ground until this big rock’s weight will run us over. Fear sets in. We start to look at others not as partners but with suspicion, and ultimately the summit of the hill, and the adventure of climbing the hill are replaced by the rock we start to possess as our prize possession. “Can I push this rock up the hill? Can we do this together? Is it even possible?” Why bother? We already have the rock – the object of our affection…
Yes, with the help of God.
“When Jesus said, ‘Go make disciples’ he didn’t say it was going to be easy.” We should expect our lives, faith and the ministry we share to be challenging. We should anticipate adversity.
Jesus promised, “I will be with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20); but he also promised that the Spirit will guide us. We can speculate how the Spirit might be at work in and around the world; but to seek confidence we most clearly understand the Spirit pointing us back to Christ, through his word, in faith.
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:1-6a)
Faith is the confidence to believe that whatever happens to us, we are never forsaken. We will face adversity. The challenge of our calling’s constant weight is ever-present. The hill looms large, and the distance is great. Jesus reminds us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30). Jesus is the way. If God can raise the dead, what are we so worried about? Up the hill we go. We seek confidence not in a mythic past or by our own abilities to keep us going,* but rather by seeking confidence that Paul once proclaimed, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
This weekend we celebrated 50 years of ministry at St. Michael’s. These last five decades have been far from easy. The saints in this place have long struggled and long been fed by the word and promises of God in Christ. The Spirit keeps blowing. Our partnerships keep growing. The hill is still before us. Our Congregation President, Bill Quinn, mentioned in an email to Council on Monday, “Congrats to everyone for making yesterday a terrific celebration. A great job. Period. On to the next thing.” Amen. Let’s be on our way.
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.” (John 14:26-31)
* I believe in the Holy Spirit…
What does this mean?
I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins – mine and of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true. (Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship. [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005], p. 1162.)