+ Today, of course, is Stewardship Sunday. I personally sometimes get a little tense about this time of the year. I am a priest who does not like asking people for anything if I don’t have to. I think that’s a good thing to have in your priest.
And luckily, here at St. Stephen’s, we only make appeals like this once a year. And what’s doubly great about St. Stephen’s is that this appeal to consider giving, not only from our financial gifts but also of our time-and-talent, is truly heeded. We don’t have to make appeals throughout the year.
But what I’ve come to enjoy about Stewardship time is the fact that it is a time to celebrate St. Stephen’s. Now, one of my duties as Priest-in-Charge of St. Stephen’s is to be a kind of cheerleader for the congregation. And I love doing it. So, as most of you know, I sent out a letter a few weeks ago doing just that. Most of your received that letter.
For those of you who didn’t get the letter, I simply mentioned this fact that five years ago, the membership of St. Stephen’s was 55 members. The Average Sunday Attendance at that time was 24. Our current membership is 121. Our ASA is now about 45.
As I was writing the letter, I happened to post a Facebook update with those same statistics. Between the Facebook update and the letter (which I should mention, I sent to a few people who are not members of St. Stephen’s), I received many responses. Most were overwhelmingly positive. Numbers like these are very good, and people know the good numbers mean healthy congregation.
But…there were a few grumbling responses, mostly from clergy, who wanted to stress to me that the church is more than just numbers and that unless we are stepping outside the walls of the actual church building, we’re not really doing any ministry at all. And one response was from a person who felt that “bragging” about St. Stephen’s accomplishments while other churches struggle and decline is not being very gracious or Christian.
The fact is, these numbers reflect more than just growth. These numbers reflect life and vitality. And anyone who thinks we don’t do ministry outside these walls, just doesn’t know anything about St. Stephen’s.
I don’t think any of us—myself included—can fully appreciate what is happening here at St. Stephen’s. In a world in which we hear stories of churches losing membership, losing direction, in a world in which we hear of churches alienating people, of ostracizing people, of churches that deny Holy Communion and other sacraments (like Confirmation) to people for their stances on social or political or personal issues, we are a church who is, this morning, celebrating.
We are celebrating our growth. We are celebrating a bright future. We are celebrating who we are as a fully-inclusive, fully-welcoming church. And we are celebrating what God is doing through us.
As I wrote in my letter, when anyone asks me what the “secret” of our success is, I say, two things. First, the Holy Spirit. We do need to give credit where credit is due. And second, it is that we welcome radically and we love radically.
Now, people—people in the CHURCH—are shocked by that. And I, in turn, am shocked that people in the Church are shocked be that. This is not rocket science. This is not quantum physics. This is basic Christianity.
Basic Christianity, as we live it out here at St. Stephen’s, is nothing more than following Jesus in his commandment to love God and love one another as we love ourselves. It’s just that. And what shocks me even more is the Church—the larger Church—just doesn’t get that.
I recently overheard, first hand, at a church gathering, some parishioners at another church sharing with me an almost-snobby attitude about some people who had visited their church recently. What shocked me was the attitude that these church people felt those visitors weren’t good enough for that church. They weren’t liberal enough or conservative enough, they weren’t members of the right political party, they weren’t dressed the right way, or talked the right way or acted the right way. And not long after these responses, they actually wondered aloud why their church wasn’t growing.
I said nothing, and, I’ll be honest with you, I’m happy I didn’t. Because I know that if I had, it wouldn’t have made any difference. They aren’t ready to do at that congregation what Jesus is asking of all of us who follow him.
To love—fully and completely. To love—radically and inclusively.
Here, at the St. Stephen’s it is not a matter of politics (we don’t care what party you belong to), or how you dress (the only one who is expected to dress up here is me—and that’s my own expectation more than anything), or the way you talk (or don’t talk), or what your sexual orientation is, or whatever. Here, it’s just a matter of coming here. Of being here. And of being with us here. And being here as one of us. I don’t see that as all that radical. I see that as fairly basic.
In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus saying, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.” These words of Jesus are especially poignant for us on Stewardship Sunday as we look at our own future as a congregation in a larger Church that is often at war—at war with its own parishioners and at war with itself to some extent. But Jesus uses a very interesting description of these fears and pains—images of war and their rumors. He calls them “birth pangs.”
And I think “Pang” is the right word to be using here, for us and for the larger Church. Those of us who are here—who have experienced pain inflicted on us by the Church, who have been on the receiving end of those church people who believe we don’t belong, we who have a love-hate relationship with this human organization called the Church, we know what pangs are.
So…what is a pang? Well, a pang is more than an ache. It is a pain. It a deep down, excruciating pang.
When else do we hear that word, “pang” used? It is used to describe hunger. When we’re hungry we have hunger pangs. But Jesus uses it appropriately here. He talks of birth pangs.
I have heard many women tell me that there is nothing quite as painful as the pangs of giving birth. I remember my mother saying that, when she went through it for the first time at age eighteen, with little or no preparation for what she was going through, she said, she thought she was going to die. She said that the words that went through her mind as she experienced those birth pangs were, “I will walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” But the question I used to always have for her was this: “If it was so terrible, why did you go through it three more times?” She said to me, “Well, when the baby arrives and you’re holding this little precious being in your arms, you just sort of forget it. You forget the pain you went through…until the next time.”
Jesus uses the right image here to describe what we are going through now and in the future. Yes, there will be wars and rumors of wars. Yes, there will be moments when church leaders and church attendees will say and do hurtful, war-like things.
But the words we cling to—that we hold on to and find our strength in to bear those pangs—is in the words “do not be alarmed.” Jesus is being honest with us. We will suffer pangs. But there is a calmness to his words.
“Do not be alarmed,” he says. This is all part of our birth into new life.
As you have heard me say many, many times from this pulpit: The Church is changing. This Church is just going through major birth pangs. But that is not something to despair over. Rather, be assured. Take comfort. Yes, we are going through the pangs, but once we have weathered these pains, once we have gone through them, we will have something precious in our midst.
We will have a Church more along the lines of what Jesus intended the Church to be—a place in which everyone, no matter who they or what they are is not only welcomed, but loved. Loved, fully and completely. And this is why we do not have to be alarmed.
If we allow these fears to reign in our lives, if we allow the pain to triumph, then we all lose. If we live with our pangs and do not outlive them, then the words of Jesus to us—those words of “do not be alarmed”—are in vain.
In the face of these things, do not be alarmed, he is saying to us. Why? Because in the end, God will triumph. If we place our trust—our confidence—in God, we will be all right.
Yes, we will suffer birth pangs, but look what comes after them. It is a loving and gracious God who calms our fears amidst calamity and rumors of calamity. Our job is simply to live as fully as we can. Our job is to simply do what we’ve always been doing here at St. Stephen’s. To welcome, to accept, to love.
We have this moment. This moment was given to us by our loving and gracious God. We must live it without fear or malice. We must live it fully and completely.
So, let us do just that. Let us live this moment fully. Let us LOVE boldly. People are going to say: St. Stephen’s is just that rebellious church that keeps pushing the boundaries. So be it. We are. We ARE pushing the boundaries. We are pushing the boundaries of love and acceptance. We are pushing the boundaries of what the Church should be and could be. And we are all doing it together—not just here in church on Sundays or Wednesdays, but in the very lives we are living in the world throughout the rest of our week.
So, let us, on this Stewardship Sunday, continue to do what we’ve been doing. Let us welcome radically and love radically. Let us, in our following of Jesus, continue to strive to be a powerful and visible conduit of the Kingdom of God in our midst.
It’s already happening. Right now. Right here. In our midst. It is truly a time in which to be grateful and joyous.