by Pastor Sarah Stadler
On the bookcase in my office is taped a piece of six year old scratch paper with a quote from Renee the second year she served as treasurer of Grace. “We can never adequately plan for how good God is to us,” she said. That January, our revenue exceeded our expenses for the first time in such a long time that no one could remember the last time we had balanced the books at Grace. I recall the moment I skimmed the year-end financials just sent to us by our then-bookkeeper Louise. As one of the fiscally responsible agents of Grace Lutheran Church, I honestly open financial statements with a certain amount of dread. But my expectations were dashed when, at the bottom of the page, the number appeared not in a parenthesis meaning in the red, in the negative, but right there by itself indicating we were in the black. I got up from my desk and rushed to asked Stephanie sitting at her desk in the outer office: Is this right? I think we balanced the budget! This is actually a miracle!
A year later, Jim and John and Ken came to me and said: We need more people to help with the weekly task of mowing the church lawn, trimming the edges, and other landscaping tasks. Ken and I sat down with pen and paper and charted the various landscaping tasks and the approximate time required to complete them. Then, we slotted our current volunteers in the chart and calculated that we could reasonably expect our current volunteers to cover two weeks each month. Ken and I left my office with a plan to recruit enough people to help with landscaping the other two weeks of the month. At the same time, I had been waiting for a church community to call and ask if they could use our beautiful, often empty sanctuary for worship. And one day about a week after Ken and I drafted the plan to recruit more landscaping volunteers, two pastors showed up in my office: Rev. Latu and Rev. Ofa from New Life in Christ Fellowship. They were looking for a space for their small church to worship, they said, but they didn’t have money to pay rent. Instead, Rev. Latu said, several men in their community had extensive experience with landscaping, and of course, they would be delighted to care for our lawn two weekends a month—in exchange for worshiping in the sanctuary each Sunday afternoon.
Last April while reading the Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest newsletter, I noticed they were looking for congregations to provide respite care for foster kids. Providing respite care helps alleviate the stress of parents which means kids stay in foster homes longer and avoid the trauma of moving from home to home. The next time I saw Margie, the chair of the Faith Formation team, I said: “We could do this!” Margie hesitated and told me she would ask the other Faith Formation team members what they thought. Each one turned the opportunity down. But later in August, something possessed Margie to ask the Faith Formation team members again: What do you think about providing respite care for foster kids? And each team member said yes. Overwhelmingly so. So many people said yes, and so many people spoke about the ministry to others that people from other congregations and friends of Grace who aren’t involved in any church got excited. And the necessary items materialized. And the basement was lovingly cleaned and extraneous items given away or disposed of to make way for a newly organized space. And suddenly, all in a matter of a few months, more than 30 people are involved in the ministry of Grace Buddies.
I could go on and on. God is at work here! Through us, for sure! In us, absolutely! But the work that is celebrated is not ours but God’s.
Today, the disciples have been fishing all night but have caught nothing. Their nets are empty. Likely tired and maybe a bit despondent, when Jesus tells them to let down their nets yet again, Simon Peter says: “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” If you say so, Simon Peter says. Peter is not confident that those nets will fill with fish. They fished all night with nothing to show for it. Peter and his friends can do nothing to fix this situation. The only reason Peter lets down the nets is that Jesus tells him to do so, and then, the fish come. The fish come so abundantly that the nets begin to break and, when loaded with the fish, the boats begin to sink. The disciples who go a whole night without catching any fish, I imagine they tried everything in their bag of tricks. In that time and place, people usually followed in the footsteps of their parents when choosing their work. Accordingly, these men likely came from a long line of fishermen who freely shared the art and business of fishing with their family. Still, the disciples failed to catch fish that night. But whatever obstacle made their work impossible that night was not impossible for God.
Like Peter and the other fishermen, we too do God’s work with our hands. We would not have balanced the budget if it were not for each one of us who gave generously and faithfully. We would not have come into partnership with New Life in Christ Fellowship unless we were open to them and especially unless those who tend to our landscaping were willing to work with New Life’s crew. We would not have begun the Grace Buddies program without Margie’s leadership and the open hearts and diligent hands of many, many people. But why would we open our hearts and offer our hands and give generously to these ministries in the first place? God works among us.
We easily forget that God works among us. When we are at the end of our rope, when we are overwhelmed by many and various challenges, when we don’t know where to turn, we can get lured into the belief that we are alone, that everything rests on us, that if we can’t think of a solution, a solution doesn’t exist. But we are not alone. Not everything rests on us. And when we can’t divine a solution, sometimes, God works in ways we could never have anticipated. When I first came to Grace, I had to do many things I had never done before, things like hiring and firing staff, navigating legal challenges, and working with many people struggling with serious mental illness. I remember having to remind myself: God is at work here. I remember a council member saying: You’re not alone, so tell us when you need help. I remember many hours at the table in my office with Ken, the council president at the time, praying through difficult situations. Now that I look back on it, I wonder if those situations were really so difficult—or if I simply have come to more fully trust that God is at work.
The nets full of fish proclaim not that Peter was a rockstar fisherman. The nets full of fish proclaim the good news that God works among us. In whatever situations arise, in difficulties that seem unsolvable, in challenges beyond our capacity to meet, God works. Thanks be to God! Amen.