I’ve heard a number of people talk about what they would do if they won the lottery. Most of us have probably given some thought about what we would do if we suddenly had resources most people only dream about. Since December 2007 (the date economists give for the start of the Great Recession), however, most of us have had a real-life experience in what to do with fewer resources. In this brief article I will share some observations from my professional life as Vice President for Advancement at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and my volunteer life as a member of Christ the Mediator Lutheran Church and President of the Lutheran Campus Ministry of Illinois Board.
Let me begin by confessing that Romans is my favorite book and the passage from the twelfth chapter (read by James Middleton at his sister Kate’s wedding to Prince William) is my favorite passage. To put the twelfth chapter in context, however, we need to look at the first chapter, where Paul helps us on our way to an understanding of the “righteousness of God” as a gift with the power to change our whole experience of life. Like the baptismal gown that clothes you as you are welcomed into the family of God, the righteousness of God is forever part of the picture of your life. It is “baked into the cake.”
Luther helped us see the pattern throughout scripture. God gives love, establishes relationship, and then exhorts us to be loving, people of God. “I am the Lord your God” precedes “have no other gods besides me.” “You are my people” precedes all the ways God exhorts us to “be my people.” So it is in Romans, where the first chapters proclaim the indicative (the righteousness of God is gift to us) and finally in the twelfth chapter we get Paul’s exquisite list of imperatives/exhortations: never flag in zeal; be aglow with the spirit; serve the Lord; rejoice in your hope; be patient in tribulation; be constant in prayer; contribute to the needs of the saints; practice hospitality!
So, how has that worked for you during the Great Recession that officially began in December 2007 and ended in June or July of 2009? Like me, most of you are quite certain that the effects of this recession are still very much with us and probably will be for some time. Many of those who have lost their jobs or had their salaries/hours reduced are still struggling, aren’t they? Almost every family, congregation, community, has been touched by very real and sometimes tragic losses. Both day laborers and college educated professionals have been told they are not needed. Many managers have had the very unpleasant task of delivering that message. Sometimes when they have finished delivering that message to company employees, they have then been told by the company that they, too, are no longer needed (sometimes the “company” has been the church or one of its ministry organizations).
Yet, patterns of response have emerged which reflect the glory and promise of people called by God to be people of God in word and deed. Relatively poor people in our congregations have been attentive to those who need understanding, comfort, and encouragement in an economy were there are many applicants for every job opening. Those who still have work or a steady income have cut back on some of their spending so that they can give more to various ministries. Some of the wealthiest among us have significantly increased their giving to help sustain vital ministries in these challenging times. And, at a time when the need/gap might seem too big and my gift might seem too small, effective use has been made of matching/challenge gifts which remind us that by working together we can do great things.
It seems it is precisely when we are tested by a world that tempts us to give up or be selfish that we have the opportunity to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2). Recently, I learned of the death of Professor George Hoyer. I remember being thrown for a loop when he advocated “practicing the presence of God” in a preaching course. That didn’t sound right to my cradle to grave Lutheran ears. Yet, when my children were little I learned to kneel by their bed every night so we could pray together, even on the nights when they were tired and grumpy or I was tempted to think I had more important things to do. And, isn’t there so much more we can learn from the people of God through the ages, who prayed and sang and served, who wrote psalms of highest praise and deepest lament, who set aside hours/paths for prayer, reflection, formation?
What is the mission of the church in the midst of financial recession?
We now know that the Great Recession was deeper, more hurtful, and more unpredictable than any other in the last eighty years. Incomes, investments, savings, endowments, real estate, and cash values all plummeted. Parents, pastors, presidents, and principals all worried about what they could say to the child, congregation, congress, or classroom that was trustworthy and true. Where was the bottom? Would a little bit of recovery be followed by another plunge? What is a “safe” investment in such a time? Can you blame us if we’re afraid of whether or not another shoe might drop—wanting to hold on to anything we still have left?
What is the mission of the church in the midst of financial recession?
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).
Practice the presence of God. Present your bodies as a living sacrifice. Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.
I sometimes tease my older sister who is a physical therapist, saying “I knew you would be good at that because you were tough/mean when we were little!” She replies: “You can’t take no for an answer!! To the person who has just lost the use of a leg or arm because of a stroke or accident the journey of recovery seems impossibly long and impossibly difficult. Afterwards they are grateful you went on the journey with them, whether their recovery is partial or full.”
“We have seen the Lord.” “The disciples recognized him in the breaking of the bread.” “I am the resurrection and the life.”
The mission of the church in the midst of financial recession is to practice the presence of God, gathering together around word and sacrament, trusting that there is power enough in the gift of God’s love to equip us for loving ourselves and our neighbors, trusting that in the offering of ourselves, our time, and our possessions, our hearts will be healed, transformed, and empowered by God’s grace.
Look around you. The people of God have been fashioned for just such a time as this, a time of bearing witness to the mighty acts of God in every life, in every neighborhood, a time of pushing back against all those who call us to care for some and not others, to love some and not others, to fight for justice for some and not others, to extend compassion and mercy to some and not others, because we can’t afford it.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
“Never flag in zeal; be aglow with the spirit; serve the Lord; rejoice in your hope; be patient in tribulation; be constant in prayer; contribute to the needs of the saints; practice hospitality” (Romans 12: 11-13).
You are my people, so be my people. The Old and New Testaments