November 17, 2013
Malachi 4.1-2a; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19
+ I do have to admit. I’m always uncomfortable at Stewardship time. I’m uncomfortable because essentially, Stewardship time is a time for us to hear the State of the Union address from your priest. You get it this time, and you get it again in January at our Annual Meeting. I’m uncomfortable doing that. I’m uncomfortable because, as my mother would always say to me, “Don’t count your blessings.”
I never understood that saying. Why shouldn’t we count our blessings? By counting our blessings, aren’t we just being thankful for them? Aren’t we taking account of the many wonderful things God is doing for us?
So, yes, I am, on this Stewardship Sunday, sort of counting the many blessings we have had here at St. Stephen’s. And I am doing so with a grateful and humble gratitude to God for all these things.
As we look back over this past year of 2013 at St. Stephen’s, there’s no denying it: it was an amazing year. There was a lot of work done. We all should be feeling not only exhausted after this past year. We should also feel exhilarated.
+ Two New members Sundays, 30 new members, seven baptism, five weddings, eight funerals (but only one was a member of our congregation—and not an active member at that).
+ Our Average Sunday membership, which at one time was about 22, never dipped below 30 once this year, even during the summer. In fact, the average Sunday attendance has been about 50.
And even this church building is a bit different than it was last year.
+ Beautiful new glass doors into the nave.
+ Beautiful new glass doors in the undercroft.
+ New carpet in the Undercroft.
+ New round tables.
+ New landscaping outside.
+ Beautiful gardens around the church.
2+ new pianos
And ministry has just flourished.
+ A new corps of acolytes, readers, worship leaders,
+ Our continued presence at Pride Weekend.
+ A record number for Sundaes on Sunday
+ The Fiber Arts Festival
+ Every week on Sundays and Wednesdays, beautiful, meaningful liturgies.
+ And incredible music every Sunday, as well as many Wednesdays.
+ We have had an incredible Senior Warden and an incredible Junior Warden, an incredible Vestry, an incredible organist and musician, an incredible congregation of people doing ministry.
Sometimes when we’re in the midst of it all, we don’t realize how amazing these things are. Sometimes we take it all for granted.
But let’s not take for granted what has been happening here. As tired and exhausted as we might be, it not time for us to rest. There is still work to do. There is still so much more ministry to do. What’s even more amazing is that you—the congregation, the ministers of St. Stephen’s—you have truly all stepped up to the plate.
You are doing the ministries here. You are the faces, the lives, the real heart of St. Stephen’s. You have taken this Stewardship time seriously. You have given of yourselves, of your time, of your talents, of your finances, of your very presence this past year.
And that is amazing. As we look around at St. Stephen’s, I don’t think we fully realize what has been happening here. When we look at the growth, at the vitality that has been in this congregation in these past few years, it is amazing. While so many prophets of doom out there talk about how the Church is dying, how congregations are failing, how we need to start living in survival mode, we are dealing with things like considering a second Sunday liturgy. We are dealing with issues like parking and Children’s Chapel and how to be even more welcoming to people. We are looking at ways to improve our church building.
But we are more than these walls, than these pews, than this building. If we think following Jesus means safely ensconcing ourselves in this church building—and I seriously doubt anyone here this morning thinks that—then we are not really following Jesus.
As we, who are members of St Stephen’s know, following Jesus, means following him out there—out in the field, out on the battlefield. It means being out there, being a presence out there, being a radical presence out there. It means shaking things up. It means speaking out—respectfully and in love. It means being an example of a follower of Jesus in all we do outside these walls. It means giving people a new vision of what the Church is.
Although I scoff—and scoff loudly—at the prophets of doom, I can echo to some extent what they are saying. What we are seeing is the death of the old Church. That Church we all knew 20 years, 30 years ago, fifty years—that Church is dying. And, in many ways, you know what? it should be dying.
That Church that prided itself on its privileged attitude—that Church that believed that all one had to do was come to a building on Sunday morning, and give a bit of money here and there and feel content in doing so, and that was all, without having DO anything—that Church is dying. That Church that alienated and marginalized women, and gays, and anyone else who was not “in”—that Church is almost dead. That Church that used its position in the world to side with the powerful against the weak and the poor, to condemn and to hurt and to maim—that Church is in its death throes.
The Church that we, at St. Stephen’s, are—this is the Church of the future. And I’m sure there are many people out there frightened by that! We are a Church that finds it vitality and its strength and its purpose and its meaning in its worship of God, in its love of others, in being radical, in being welcoming, in being out there in the midst of it all—that is the Church that is being resurrected from the ashes of the old church.
Of course, because it is, our job has doubled. Of course we will continue on as we always have, doing what we’ve always done. But we will also now have to help bury that old Church. We will have to sing the Requiem for that old Church. We will now have to be the new face, the new attitude to those people who have been hurt or alienated by the Church. And there are plenty out there.
There are plenty here this morning who have been hurt by the Church. Which is why we are here. We will have to help people change their attitudes about the Church. That mantle is falling upon each of us. And as it does, we realize that the words of this morning’s Gospel are made real in our lives.
To be that new, resurrected Church, we will have to face persecution. We will face people who do not want us—us radicals, us loud-mouths, those of us who make them uncomfortable—they do not want us being that new Church. We will face those people who are angry and uncomfortable over the fact that the old Church is dying. We will be on the receiving end of the anger of those people who are simply refusing to believe that the old Church is crumbling and dying around them. And that the new Church is made up of people like us.
But, none of that is anything to fear. Jesus tell us not to be afraid of them. Nor should any of us. Not a hair of our head will perish to them, he tells us.
Our words, seemingly falling on deaf ears, our example, seemingly lost to the hustle and bustle of it, will bear fruit. And God will be with us through it all. As we look around here, we know—God is here.
God is with us. That Spirit of our living, breathing God dwells with us. And God is being proclaimed in the message we carry within each of us.
When we welcome people radically, when we embrace those no one else will embrace, when we love those who have been hated, when we are hated for loving those who are hated, we know that all we are doing is bringing the Kingdom of God not only closer, but we are birthing it right here in our midst.
And we have nothing to fear, because, as Jesus says today, “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
When we are hated because we do these radical, incredible things in Jesus’ name, we are, in fact, blessed. We are blessed, here at St. Stephen’s. And that is what we are thankful for today.
Paul tells in in his letter to the Thessalonians this morning: “do not be weary in doing what is right.”
Those words are our battle cry for our future here at St. Stephen’s. Those words are the motto for the new Church we represent.
Do not be weary in doing what is right.
Yes, I know. We are weary. We are tired. We have done much work. And there is much work still to do.
But we are doing the work God has given us to do. And we cannot be weary in that work, because we are sustained. We are held up. We are supported by that God. But we must keep on doing so with love and humility and grace.
St. Stephen’s is incredible place. We know it. Others know it. God knows it.
So, let us be thankful. Let us continue our work—our ministries. And as we do, as we revere God’s Holy Name, see what happens.
The Prophet Malachi is right. For those of us who continue our work, who continue to revere God’s holy Name, on us that Sun of Righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. Amen.