January 2010

Further Reflections on the Prodigal Son, by Pastor Marty Troyer

I think the marinade is working! As we continue to soak in the amazingly beautiful and complex story of the Prodigal Sons from Luke 15:1-2,11-32, I feel a richness that wasn’t present with the story a few short weeks ago. Today, I’m struck by the resources of the Father in the story. Coupled with the father’s desire to minister to his son was his ability to do it. He didn’t just want to give something to his son, he actually could! Indeed, the man in our story was apparently quite wealthy. He follows an early inheritance with a ring, sandals, robe and party complete with fatted calf.

As a congregation, we are very much like the father in our desires to do good things. We long to be a healthy vibrant worshipping community of Christ followers who push beyond the walls of our own families and church. We desire to do good things for the local community in need (Food Pantry, MAM); the international community in need (Ten Thousand Villages, Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale and Relief Kits); for our partners in ministry (Western District Conference, our sister churches in Houston); and for our own children and people (Sunday school, discretionary crisis fund, worship, etc…). And this is just the beginning! As much as we love and support these ministries, our desire for doing good isn’t limited to them. Recent desires I’ve heard from folks at HMC about doing good have included international service trips, a community garden on our property, adopting a missionary family, working more deeply at local peace and justice initiatives, and perhaps above all spreading the word that we are a gospel-formed community.

So, while we are like the Father in our desire to do good things, are we also as a congregation like the Father in our ability to respond? Do we have the resources we need to be the kind of community with the kind of character we want? It would be hard to find someone in our church’s leadership who could say anything but “No.” For the second year in a row now, we’ve passed a budget where our income falls far short of our expenses. Cuts have been made. In other words, our desire for good ministry exceeds our ability to fund them by tens of thousands of dollars (our 2010 budget has a $25,000 gap between pledged offerings and pledged ministry!).

The reality is that individuals who commit to each other for the common good can accomplish more together than lone individuals. We saw this in 2009 where we received record levels of giving, going past our pledge to each other. This extravagant giving allowed us to unexpectedly address three needs we otherwise would not have. After the congregation empowered church council to give $428 away, council agreed to support the Interfaith Worker Justice Center, East Spring Branch Food Pantry, and to purchase 12 much needed new worship books. Together we did what none of us could have done alone.

For 2010 we’ve covenanted with each other to give even more. Our pledge to one another was $80,000 this year in offerings to be received, or $1,538.00 per week. A 20% increase from 2009. A stretch no doubt. But one that stretches us to become more like the Father: able to do the good things we feel called to do.

I invite you, as individuals and families, to help provide our congregation with the ability to do good. Your financial contributions are power for good in our world! While not possible for everyone, 10% of total income is an ancient standard of giving to the local church. Some of you should give less than this (or nothing), some of you much more. But most of us are capable of a 10% tithe, and would feel a deeper sense of connection to our church and God’s mission by considering giving at this level. While most Christians agree in theory to the 10% standard, in practice the national average is 2.4%. Imagine how Jesus would have had to alter his Prodigal Sons story had the father character not been able to respond as he wished! While it is my policy as your pastor to not see what individuals give (indeed, I have never seen what anyone but my own family gives), I would imagine we are a typical church in that we have families at all giving levels and percents, and that our average is far less than 10% per giving unit. And so again, I invite you to assess your own giving practices and to join us in making our collective desires to do good possible.

Individuals and families who faithfully give to the church enable us to be like the Father in one more key way. You enable us to experience the joy of giving and the joy of ministry! The Father ministered to his son gladly, joyfully, extravagantly. There was no worry about having enough, overextending himself, checking the budget for allowances or where to get money from. No! There was joy and freedom to do so in a non-anxious way.

And so here we are, soaking in the marinade of this gospel story about a Father’s love for his sons. And like any good marinade, it’s transforming, enriching, and enhancing who we are. It’s helping us to become whom we’ve always wanted to be!

Soak even more by praying with us using our daily prayer practice, which you can find at: houstonmennonite.org/worship

By Pastor Marty Troyer

This is a sermon series I did not choose and could not escape. It has spent three years stewing inside my soul, bubbling thoughts and feelings to the surface until finally, this fall, I could no longer ignore its voice in my head. What is the love of God? Is God personal? How does it feel to be loved? What about those times when I don’t feel God’s presence at all?

These are the questions that linger. And these are the questions that collided in summer of 2009 with an idea for a series of sermons: to preach the same text every week for a month. This collision brought me to a simple story I’ve known since my flannel-graph days: the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). It’s a story of the boundless love of one father for his two sons, and their journey to both throw off and embrace that same love. It is to this story that I invite you over the next month. Read it this weekend before church and see what new thoughts creep up since the last time you encountered it.

But know that when you do, it is a much richer story than I ever before imagined! For instance, I find it to be a perfect story for HMC at this time. Why? Because it, like Epiphany 2 weeks ago, tells the simple story of someone coming, and the host community’s response to having new people around. And this is, at least as we’ve expressed it, our goal for 2010 and beyond. Remember, we’ve said as one of our core Transformation values that “We want to grow numerically.”

And so a story that tells about people coming, and some rejoicing with celebration while others mope with bitterness and longing for the way things used to be is a story fit for a congregation in the throngs of church growth. Because the truth is, that right now whether we ever wanted to grow or not, whether we’ve done anything to make it happen or not- we are growing! Did you notice Sunday that we had 7 more new visitors, and over 70 in total attendance? Did you watch as people searched for an open seat, set up new chairs, and had to reach to share song books? Did you notice how each one of our visitors took communion, engaged the service with a smile, and stuck around afterwards to chat? Did you notice a parking lot spilling over into the grass? Most of them enquired about connecting more in the future. Folks, the wise men are coming (like in Epiphany)! The prodigal is coming home!

And, like the compassionate father in this story there are things we need to do to welcome those who come. Short of killing the fatted calf, what might these changes be? I see them in two categories: things we can do right now, and things we need to plan for in the not-to-far-off future.

Right now things to do:

·         Welcome those around you and celebrate that they are here. Tell them your name, ask them theirs, and help them to feel at home.

·         Invite them to something, anything. Find some upcoming event in the bulletin to invite them to, or adult SS, or next week’s worship, or be gracious and invite them to lunch.

·         Make room for everyone! If things start getting full, scoot in, make sure everyone has a song book, and help people find what they need.

·         Pray for our visitors! Thank God for them, ask God to help them find a spiritual home, and ask God to help us embrace the new culture that visitors create us to be.

·         Expand our seating: we need more seats! So starting Sunday you will see more rows of seats placed in the overflow. Since we have two Sunday school classes that meet in the overflow, this will require some quick changeover of space. We will need help to make this happen, please connect with Gerald Gehman if you want to help with this. Thanks!

·         Parking: our parking issue has not gotten any better. Let me repeat what I’ve said before in the fall: please try to reserve parking along the building for visitors and those with disabilities, lots to carry, and young families. We need 5-10 cars who volunteer each week to park in Terrace United Methodist parking lot, and walk through our path. I park there every week, it’s a nice little walk.

In-the-near-future things to do:

·         Rearrange our current seating arrangement to larger capacity. Feedback on our current arrangement has been nothing but positive. So we’re looking for ways to retain the current “feel” and intimacy while at the same time gaining more chairs.

·         Solidify a team of greeters who also act as ushers, helping people find seats when things get tight.

·         Expand our parking lot to add more spaces.

·         Visit area churches with eyes to see how others welcome (or don’t welcome!) newcomers. Equally important to learn is how it feels to be a new person. Report back to the group with findings.

·         Remodel/renovate our current building to give us more sanctuary space and a larger welcome entrance.

Choose to be the Father

Finally, the most important thing for us to do is make a choice. Will we choose to be like the elder son? Who groaned and complained about someone coming, revealing inside himself an overflowing fear, distrust, and bitterness. His actions remind me of my sister’s church in Oregon. They recently experienced deep conflict and finally a split over the presence of new people (who, gasp, weren’t ethnic Mennonites!!) whose presence many resented because it threatened “our identity.” And so they grumbled and complained; but even worse, their actions unconsciously excluded anyone but the pure. Their subversive actions, like the elder sons, undermined their own ability to embrace the love of God for themselves. Their subversive acts also unfortunately revealed that their “identity” did not mirror that of the welcoming compassionate Father!

Or, will we choose to be the father, who runs with open arms to greet those coming down the road? Or course welcoming his prodigal son would change things! Of course it would cost him money, demand his time, change how he lived his life and interacted with the rest of his family! Of course everything would be different. But different, apparently, is exactly what the father wanted! Paul says that when we are in the will of God, “Behold, there is a new creation!” The Father embraced the new gift of God, the son rejected it. Ultimately, ours is the same choice. To  accept our identity as a transformed people as good news, or to reject it entirely and with bitterness pine for the days of old. The choice is yours.