A Farewell to Elms

By J. Donald Waring

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).

Some years ago I had the rare privilege of spending about two hours in a car with Bishop Ken Barham, an Englishman who was the first Bishop of Cyangugu, Rwanda. My own Bishop of Southern Ohio, Herbert Thompson, had invited Bishop Barham to speak to clergy and lay leaders, and try to raise funds for the rebuilding of a shattered country. If you recall, in April of 1994 the long-simmering ethnic hatred between the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda boiled over on a massive scale. Hutu militias began massacring Tutsis and Hutu moderates by the hundreds of thousands. When some measure of peace finally prevailed, nearly 1 million people had died, 600,000 children roamed the streets as orphans, and the country lay in ruins.

Bishop Barham was on a tireless, heroic campaign to replace the infrastructure in his diocese. His goal was to build churches, schools, and hospitals. The day I met him was a Saturday. He was to speak at the diocesan camp and conference center, and Bishop Thompson had called me from a remote region of the diocese to ask if I would drive Bishop Barham there. So it was just the two of us in the car. As we drove, he explained his view of what had happened, and how the Anglican church was working to pick up the pieces. The bishop struck me as a man walking the way of the cross as few dare to do. At great personal cost, and under constant threat to his safety, he presented himself as a living sacrifice to Jesus.

At one point the bishop asked me a direct question: “How do I appeal to Americans to be generous? What do you suggest I say at this meeting?” Right then, as if on cue, a large, new, fully-loaded, SUV with one person in it pulled up alongside us for a moment before speeding ahead. The bishop asked, “How much would you say that car costs?” My guess was about $30,000. The bishop was quiet for a long time, but finally broke the silence to say, “For the cost of that car I can build and equip a new elementary school in Rwanda.” “Tell them that,” I said. “Tell them that.” It was a moment of startling and disturbing contrast between the comforts of the world and the way of the cross.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we’ve heard how the disciples of Jesus, and Peter in particular, struggled with the same contrast between human desires and divine callings. We’ve heard how Jesus repeatedly announced his own divine calling: to go to Jerusalem and confront the ruling religious and political authorities, and be killed. Peter objected: God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.

Peter protested for all sorts of reasons, some of them wrapped up in his Jewish understanding of how the Messiah was to claim the throne. Peter was following Jesus because he believed him to be that figure promised of God who would lead the Jews to world supremacy. Jesus would be King while Peter and the other disciples would sit on his right hand and left. But Peter also objected for reasons that were entirely personal. Peter loved Jesus. Peter, quite understandably, did not want to see Jesus die. What was Jesus’ death going to accomplish, other than leaving his friends and followers bereft and grieving? God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you. I won’t allow it; I won’t allow you to walk this road and lose your life.

It was here that Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Last week we heard Jesus call Peter “the rock” upon which he would build the Church. This week Peter is no foundation stone, but a stumbling stone. By trying to lead Jesus instead of following, by trying to assert his own familiar way, Peter imperiled the mission of Jesus. Imagine: for reasons of love that are understandable and even noble, Peter stepped into the role of Satan: one who frustrates the coming of God’s kingdom.

Jesus then turned the screws even tighter when he said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” To walk the way of Jesus, also known as the way of the cross, always entails loss and painful partings. It would be a grave misrepresentation on my part to commend the Christian faith to you and gloss over, or exclude altogether, the element of loss. Following Jesus into spiritual communion with God will entail observable, measurable, personal sacrifices of worldly goods and comforts. For this reason the Apostle Paul appealed by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

Most commentators agree that the words of Jesus we’ve heard today were meant for insiders — for those already on board with his mission, but struggling still with the effect it would have on their lives. In that vein I want to direct the remainder of this sermon to the insiders of the Grace Church community — to those of you who have already committed yourselves to the mission of Christ through this place and people. Certainly those who are visiting today or just checking us out are welcome to eavesdrop. In fact, I hope you will. You will learn that Grace Church is no haven for saints with halos, but a community of real people who are genuinely trying now, today, in this day and age, to follow Christ along the way of the cross through difficult times.

It’s no secret to anyone on Broadway that we have suffered loss. We have had to bid farewell to the four large, beautiful elm trees that shaded Huntington Close. To be sure, three of the four were not long for the world anyway. Nevertheless, the beautiful canopy of green they provided was a welcome, comfortable oasis, and the corner looks bare without it. Why have we had to say farewell to the elms? An angry caller this week left a voicemail accusing us of greed. Was he right? Do we have our minds too much on earthly things, and not on divine things? Make no mistake, the project is certainly connected to the financial health of Grace Church. But the caller was wrong and rude with his accusation. This has nothing to do with greed, and everything to do with being able, as a church, to follow the call of Jesus.

Allow me to rehearse some history for you, and set the loss of the trees in the proper context. In the year 2000 the endowment of the church reached its peak at approximately $23 million, the income from which was absolutely essential to ministering in this city and preserving this historic building. As the hastily conceived yet highly noticeable sign on the narthex alms box reminds us, it costs $5 every minute of every day, 365 days every year, to keep Grace Church going.

Of that endowment figure, the vestry converted $8 million from stocks and bonds into the bricks and mortar of the Loft Building on the corner of 4th Avenue and 10th Street. Ultimately, the Loft Building will prove to be a wise investment, but for reasons that are too complicated for our purposes today, the income stream it was designed to produce is only coming online now. After the $8 million reallocation, nearly $3 million more went for long-deferred building maintenance and renovation, air-conditioning the nave, and putting an elevator in Grace House. 

Then in 2002, after the economic effects of 9/11 and the market correction, the vestry needed to take $2 million out of the endowment just to balance the budget. Suddenly, the $23 million endowment was $10 million, and with a $2 million annual hemorrhage, it didn’t take a math major to figure out it wasn’t going to last long.

If the economic challenges weren’t enough, in these years Grace Church underwent unpleasant clergy leadership transitions. My predecessor — the 13th Rector — and the parish parted company controversially in 1998. Soon after came the departure of a clergy associate, and a highly publicized lawsuit followed in her wake. I think it’s fair to say that parishioners were angry and disillusioned. But if congregational strife and financial pressure weren’t enough, the great gothic spire began to lean precariously, and the nave aisle roofs leak profusely. 

What could be done? Severe reductions in staff and program left the church closed except for Sunday services. Outreach dollars went away entirely. Beyond these expected responses, however, Grace Church had a choice. It was the same choice that faced the Apostle Peter: either be a stumbling stone that impeded the way of Jesus, or find the means to be once again the foundation rock that Christ calls this church to be. I believe Grace Church chose the latter — to be a rock of Christ against which the gates of hell cannot prevail.

When I came on board in the summer of 2004, I had the distinct impression that I was getting in the car with Bishop Barham all over again. I found the same spirit at work here that was at work in Bishop Barham. Rather than throwing up hands in despair, the response was to listen for the call of Jesus, and then faithfully follow it to the best of our hearing, whatever the cost might be. In consultation with parishioners, vestry members had said their prayers and embarked on a plan that could turn Grace Church around. I believe that through this plan, Christ himself opened a door that will lead not only to life, but to deeper service and new commitment.

And yet, the calling involves loss — loss on a scale that has caused some, out of love like Peter’s, to say, “God forbid! This shall never happen.” But remember the words of our Lord Jesus: Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The plan called for granting legal independence to Grace Church School, and then selling it the Fourth Avenue buildings on a 110-year ground lease. 

The diocese agreed to the sale of these buildings only if we placed the proceeds in a protected pocket of the endowment, held in trust by the diocese, that cannot be spent down. The restriction means that the income, or a 5 percent annual draw, of $8 million will always be available for Grace Church to preserve this magnificent house of the Lord, and use it for God’s glory.

What does all this have to do with the elms? A separate piece of the plan is an agreement with the school to allow it to build a new gymnasium underneath Huntington Close. The school needs the new gym for its 400 students, and we need the new gym for our 200 at-risk, public school, GO Project students. In exchange for the disruption that construction will cause in Huntington Close, the school will not only beautifully re-landscape the yard when the project is completed, but it is also paying the church $1 million. If we hold ourselves to a responsible 5 percent draw on these proceeds, that means $50,000 each year that we could devote to the work of Jesus, to outreach. Imagine, we could build Bishop Barham nearly two new, fully equipped elementary schools per year, if that’s what we believed Christ was calling us to do.

So yes, of course all of this is about the financial health of Grace Church. Of course it is, and I won’t insult your intelligence by trying to tell you otherwise. But it’s also about being ready when Christ calls us into the next great chapter of ministry in the history of this parish. Christ’s Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens (Matt. 25:1-13) comes to mind. If you recall, ten bridesmaids went out to meet the bridegroom. Five had enough oil for their lamps, and the five who were foolish didn’t. When the bridegroom finally came, the maidens whose oil had run out did not have the means to fulfill their calling. But those who had oil in their lamps were ready to greet the One for whom they waited — and not just greet him, but to light his way.

I really love Grace Church. I know that you do too, and I believe that God does also. I love the spirit of this place and people, the glorious architecture, the strategic location, the track record of calling people into communion with God through Jesus, and the rich history of leaders who have served beneath the cross atop the spire. One of those leaders was William Reed Huntington, the sixth rector of Grace Church, from whom Huntington Close takes its name. In January of 1903, Huntington wrote his annual report on the state of the parish. After summing up financial affairs and appealing for missionary funds, he closed with words as applicable to us today as they were 102 years ago. He wrote:

Let me end these Prefatory Notes with something better than talk about money. What we want in Grace Church is not more money, but more inspiration, more impulse, more insight, more eagerness, more love for God and man. Ampler facilities for divine service, whether by that phrase we understand worship or work, it would be unreasonable to ask. The wheels are here in plenty, pray we God for such influx of his breath as shall set them one and all in swiftest motion.

The Rev. J. Donald Waring is rector of Grace Church in New York.


Online Archives