by Louise Browner Blanchard, Rector
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22)
Earlier this week, at the request of some of the people who participate in our pastoral care team ministry, I had a training to review some of the fundamentals of pastoral care. As many of you know, in the 18 months that they have been in existence, our pastoral care teams have become a mainstay of St. Mary’s common life and have modeled how we care for one another. Each of the four teams meets monthly to coordinate care and make sure that we’re aware of each other’s needs. Parishioners who are homebound or otherwise in need of a special touch receive visits, notes, birthday cards, communion, and prayer shawls knitted by fellow St. Mary’s parishioners. The pastoral care teams have become our ears and eyes and hearts in the community.
And most of you have noticed. Many of you have received a special touch from one of the pastoral care teams. Many of you have also noticed how the attentiveness of the pastoral care teams has raised the level at which we all care for one another. We seem to be not only more aware of Jesus‘s commandment to love one another as he loves us, but also more aware of our responsibility to do so. During the spring discernment process, the pastoral care ministry was repeatedly held up as a model for the way we might live more fully into where God is calling St. Mary’s to be.
It’s almost always a good idea to review the basics, so I was happy to hold the training session, but I was a little surprised when the pastoral care team members said they had forgotten some of what they had learned and perhaps wanted to learn more. To me, they just seem to be doing pastoral care better and better all the time: cultivating the quality of empathy and the skill of listening by doing what Jesus commanded us to do…love one another. They’ve gotten better not by learning more facts about pastoral care (which is simply how we care for one another), but by doing pastoral care more often. And that was the primary point of our training—just do it.
That is pretty much Jesus’s primary point to the disciples who ask him to increase their faith. He has just reminded them of the importance of constant forgiveness, among other things. Forgiveness is a hard topic for many of us, so the disciples’ anxiety is understandable, but Jesus responds to their plea by telling them that they already have what they need, that faith the size of a mustard seed is enough. The important point is what they do with it. They’ve witnessed healings and heard Jesus preach the good news of God’s love for all people. They’ve joined him in eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. They’ve heard the sermon that includes: “Blessed are the poor…the hungry…and those who weep…Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…Do not judge, and you will not be judged…Forgive, and you will be forgiven…” He’s taught them how to pray and revealed to them a God who is generous, compassionate, caring, and has acted faithfully on their behalf. His message to them is “Go and do likewise.” The disciples—and we—just have to learn how to live into what we’ve already been given, or, as Paul says in his letter to Timothy, “to rekindle the gift of the God that is within [us].”
Jesus illustrates his point in a way that is jarring to our ears because he speaks in terms of slavery. But Jesus of Nazareth was a particular man who lived in a particular place at a particular time, and certain people who lived in Judea during Jesus’ time owned slaves. The disciples would have understood how ludicrous it would be for a slave to expect to be served or even thanked. They would have understood that the point of the story was not to condone or uphold slavery, but to consider how we live our lives faithfully within the context of our roles. Employees don’t get bonus points for fulfilling their job description, but doing one’s job conscientiously and well often brings a satisfaction that extends well beyond bringing home a paycheck. Being faithful Christians means following in Jesus’s footsteps and doing what Jesus has shown us to do.
All of this comes in the context of today’s kickoff of St. Mary’s annual giving stewardship campaign. In the words of the Episcopal Church website, “Stewardship is about being grateful, responsible stewards of the gifts we receive from God…stewardship [is] more than simply contributing money to the church; it’s also about contributing time and talents, and volunteering for ministry and mission. It’s about reaching out to build relationships from a perspective of abundance instead of scarcity.” In other words, stewardship is something that we do based on what we have learned from following in the footsteps of Jesus and doing what he has taught us to do: leaning into and living into an active life of faith.
In 2016, we are the disciples whom Jesus reminds that faith the size of a mustard seed is enough. We have witnessed the remarkable effect of pastoral care on our common life. We’ve also witnessed greater involvement in all aspects of our worship services from attendance to the number of people serving in such roles as acolytes, Eucharistic ministers, oblation bearers, and more, and we continue to be inspired by our choirs and musicians. We’ve experienced marked growth in our children’s and youth ministries, including but not limited to record attendance at Vacation Bible School this past summer, an enthusiastic and ever-growing middle school youth group, and newly active high school participation. We’ve witnessed a desire for greater participation in our outreach ministries and mission trips for all ages. We’ve recognized the importance of hospitality with our new greeter ministry and the expansion of fellowship opportunities to include not only our signature parish breakfasts and suppers, but also Sunday gatherings from Lemonade on the Lawn in the summer to the monthly birthday celebrations that begin today.
There is plenty more. The point is: We are the disciples, and we are learning how to increase our faith. Just do it.