I have often heard it said, ” the more things change the more things stay the same.” This is akin to a basic law of the Episcopal Church, “if we’ve always done it that way, why change now.” Both attest to the fact that the basic function of any group, whether a church or a social organization, is to maintain status quo. No group dynamic likes change, or easily adapts to change, even when the desired change is intended to eliminate destructive behaviors within the organization. This simple reality often explains why so many organizations would rather die with bad behavior than disrupt the system that permits it.
This dynamic is clearly at work in this morning’s reading from Acts. Just in case you didn’t notice the issues because of the earthquake, our reading this morning centered around two horrible realities, slavery and demonic possession. Perhaps you didn’t notice the issues because Luke writes about the possessed female in such a matter of fact way, that on first reading, few notice the slave-girl.
Let’s be honest, St. Paul, the great theologian of the ancient church didn’t seem to care about this woman’s plight other than the fact that her outing him every time he walked by got annoying. It was only after he got so annoyed with her carrying on that he finally made the decision to ask God to release her from the demon.
Now one would have thought, even though he healed this woman for the wrong reasons, Paul would have gotten a lot of positive press in the Macedonian News. After all, even back then, freeing someone of demonic possession was not an every day experience. The reaction, however, was quite the opposite. Instead of being lauded with more people joining the Church, Paul and Silas were arrested. Why? Because, when Paul excised the demon the woman became useless to her owner. No one noticed that her owner was unfairly exploiting the woman’s suffering. No one seemed to mind the fact that an individual was being unfairly treated as disposable property. That’s just how things were done. It didn’t matter that it was wrong, or that there was a certain lack of justice for the individual. All that mattered was that this was how the empire functioned and its economy flourished. To change it would only bring catastrophic ruin to everyone, or at least to those who benefitted from it.
Congregations are very adept at looking away from practices that may or may not be right because somehow they benefit the congregation. After interviewing with several different parishes I became acutely aware of what practices had been challenged by the previous Rector or the Interim based on how the questions were being asked.
Sustained conflict occurs when how a system benefits is challenged. At St. Peters this came in the form of how and when weddings were to occur. We, like few other churches, are blessed with both a wonderful location and beautiful building. Narragansett, like so many other seaside communities is a location where many young couples wish to get married and photographed by the beach. During the Raffino years, we were blessed with a rector who enjoyed doing weddings with St. Peter’s being the location where two, possibly three weddings could take place in the course of a weekend. Over time, I have learned, the congregation benefitted from the fees these weddings generated. In private, parishioners have hinted that we should go back into the wedding business because of the income they generate. It is, after all, sound business. We have an asset, and a commodity that people outside the congregation want. Why not capitalize on it?
But here is the problem. While I have no doubt in my mind that Father Rafinno enjoyed performing weddings and did so out of a sense of his ordained ministry, I am not convinced our desire to return to this practice is as pure. Again, by today’s business standards, offering the use of our building and clergy to anyone and everyone who wishes to be married here would create a legitimate income stream for St. Peter’s. It would help alleviate the financial burden that we all carry as members of St. Peter’s.
It would also put us in the same position as the one who exploited the woman’s suffering in this morning’s reading from the Book of Acts. Exploiting the sacraments of the church as a means to pay the electric bill and the staff’s salaries would not speak highly of us as a people of God. This is not to say that I am against fully utilizing our assets to provide greater income for the glory of God. To that end, I will be charging our newly formed finance committee to explore new options in the months ahead.
However, no matter how many revenue streams our finance committee may unearth, the responsibility for sustaining Sunday morning worship, our building and grounds, our music and our greater ministries will always be the responsibility of those who consider themselves members of St. Peter’s.
At our annual meeting in January, our Treasurer, Roxanne Melchiori and I announced that our 2016 budget indicated an operating gap of $43,000. Since January, 11 new households have formalized their financial commitment to St. Peter’s for 2016, 25 households have raised their financial commitment, and five households have given us one time gifts to fill the gap. As of Thursday evening our operating budget was within $7200 of being balanced by sustainable pledges and other resources. This is wonderful news, possibly a miracle. To the forty-one households who have participated in the fill the gap campaign, thank you for your further commitment.
However, as grateful as I am to the 41 households who have stepped up to help fill our gap, I am concerned as well. St. Peter’s is comprised of over 150 households. This means that less than one third of the congregation has stepped up to help out with the gap. We cannot sustain the ministry of St. Peters with out every one’s support. As Christ prayed this morning, “we all need to be one” especially in our commitment to the ministry of St. Peter’s.
For those who are just returning from their winter hiatus’s in the south, it is not too late to help fill the gap. To those who have been filled with good intentions, but have not managed to follow through, it’s not too late to help out. As I said once before, on December 31st, it will become too late to help fill this year’s financial gap. No gift is too much or too little, the key is, is that we all work together to sustain the ministry of St. Peter’s.
What we cannot do is look towards the generosity of a few, or the income from our endowment, or the retail sale of the sacraments as a means for not fulfilling our personal responsibility towards the financial support of St. Peter’s. I know this is often part of the 80/20 rule where 20% of the people carry 80% of the load. I realize this is the way most churches function. I also know this is part of the system we all need to work together to change.
I began this homily with an axiom, “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” I now realize how this axiom is as much a prison for all of us as the physical prison was for Paul and Silas. The good new is that God released them from the prison of the status quo and God released the slave- girl from the prison of her demon. May God release us from shackles which hold us back from a deeper and more sustainable commitment to Christ.