March 2023 Lectionary Preview: Liminal times and stewardship

February 17, 2023 by Anna Pinckney Straight

Genesis 12:1
Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house
to the land that I will show you.

Psalm 121:1
I lift up my eyes to the hills– from where will my help come?

John 3:9
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

March kicks off with mystery and uncertainty — just look at the lectionary excerpts above.

And mystery and uncertainty are things that I don’t particularly care for when it comes to Stewardship.

One of the reasons I love stewardship is that it allows me to spend time in spreadsheets studying the numbers and distilling them into trends, allowing me to be confident about the future because I understand the patterns of the past.

Many years ago, I worked with a phenomenal Clerk of Session who, at each Session meeting, would give us a rundown on our current giving numbers. It would go a little something like this:

At the end of June, we had received 45% of pledges. But don’t worry, because we’re 2% ahead of where we are, on average, at this time of year. In 40% of the last 20 years when we’ve been 45% or higher at the end of June, we’ve ended the year even, and 60% of the time we’ve ended the year with a surplus that could then be transferred to Outreach.

There is no exaggeration — not even a little — in telling you that I loved this information and have spent much of my ministry trying to follow his example, suggesting what’s going to happen with giving by studying what has already happened.

But the last three years have forced me to give up on this historical data. The worshipping and giving patterns during Covid have severed the connection. The two years of data since that break is not yet enough to discern patterns. I miss it. We’re not at the new normal yet, we’re still in the in-between time.

And that is uncomfortable.  But don’t worry. It’s supposed to be.

Abram followed where God was going to send him, but it wasn’t going to be a direct path. And we know Abram is going to have moments when he hedges his bets. But still, he goes – a tremendous act of faith.

The Psalmist isn’t sure how he (they) is going to make it over the hills on their pilgrimage, and the hills seem awfully daunting.

And Nicodemus is doomed to history for being the one who did not understand metaphor and was mystified by Jesus’ teachings.

While I’m grieving not having the same grasp on giving numbers and trends, I’m also trying to embrace this season of uncertainty, to learn what it has to teach me.

Which has led to some important questions:

  • How often have I allowed preference for predictability keep the Holy Spirit at bay?
  • Have I chosen statistics and number-filled grids over God’s command to go?

One of the quotes that has propped me up in my leaning places during this uncertain season is from Susan Beaumont, who has written powerfully about this being a liminal season. (Her book, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, was published a few short months before the pandemic.)

The simplest way to describe liminality is to say that it’s a threshold moment. Liminality is the in-between space when you are neither here nor there, and it’s a very rich time organizationally and institutionally for an organization to rediscover a lot about itself and to become highly creative.”

She’s also written that this is not the season to soothe with false certainty- it’s healthier to acknowledge the whirlwind. “Leaders who keep things calm unwittingly promote organizational failure. Instead, effective leaders modulate the level of disturbance.” We don’t always know the path to where we are going or how we are going to get there- but we can trust that in Abram, Sarai, Psalmist, Nicodemus, we are in good company. VERY good company.

So maybe this isn’t the season for reassurances but “I wonders” and “what ifs?”

Which makes March a wonderful time to talk stewardship – the pledge drive (if you still do one) is months away. When you don’t have a pledge card on the pulpit, I find there’s freedom to stretch a bit, and to remember that God did not leave us with only uncertainty.

God also tells Abram about the nation that is to come and later will give him stars and sand to hold onto.

The Psalmist knows where they are going, just not how they will get there.

And Nicodemus? Jesus does not give up on him but gave him a teaching to chew on for a season and more. Nicodemus continues to ask questions and then shows up to care for Jesus’ body in preparation for the tomb that could not hold our Lord.

Being in uncertainty doesn’t mean we leave the challenges to the side and put everything on hold. Abram and Sarai WENT. The Psalmist trusted they WOULD MAKE IT over the hills. Nicodemus KEPT SEEKING the truth to which Jesus pointed.

The same Clerk of Session who would reassure us with the giving trends at each Stewardship meeting also made sure I knew that, as a pastor, it was my job to challenge people to take steps of faith- and I must not be afraid to do so. “People aren’t here,” he told me “because they want you to help them take their faith less seriously, they want you to help them grow, which means you need to challenge them in their giving just as you do with their prayer and study and service.”

In this liminal season, it might just be the challenges of discipleship (and stewardship) that carry us through to the solid ground we cannot, right now, see or feel.

March 5 not the day you can reach for this? Liminality is available to you in each of the Sundays of March.

On March 12 the Israelites are thirsty in the wilderness and wondering if God is with them or not (Exodus 17). The woman is at the well and she talks with Jesus about what can be known and what cannot be known (John 4), and the first evangelist for Jesus is a woman, who leads Samaritans to believe in him.

March 19 asks questions of seeing and understanding and how the eyes can fool us – we should not be so sure we are the ones who see (John 9).

And March 26 tells us that life can spring forth where there should not be life (Ezekiel 37 and John 11). If you, like me, will be preaching the John 11 story that has no Martha and lots more Mary (highlighting the work of Elizabeth Schrader I found by way of Diana Butler Bass’ sermon) you have a powerful example of what we lose when the goal is keeping the status quo present and calm rather than letting the mystery be.

Wherever you go, I pray it is a journey imbued with hope, even if you aren’t certain where it will take you.

Rev. Dr. Anna Pinckney Straight is the pastor and Head of Staff of First Presbyterian Church in New Bern, N.C. A native of Charleston, S.C., she’s served congregations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and now (for the second time) North Carolina. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College, Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and Wesley Theological Seminary.