Luke 21:5-19; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
It’s no great insight to say that we come together this morning in an anxious time. Maybe “fearful” is more accurate. That certainly applies to our national life. Now that the election is over, we’re left to figure out how to govern ourselves in a climate of anxious division. The divides are almost too many to name – race, class, gender, educational background, national origin. Identity politics seem to be our only politics anymore, as people fear their voices won’t be heard any other way.
But anxiety and fear slither among us in other contexts, too. Last weekend, several of us were in Springfield for the convention of the Diocese of West Missouri, the “annual meeting” of the Episcopal congregations in the western half of this state. This, too, will come as no surprise, but much of the conversation there had to do with money and our fears about it for the future. Many West Missouri congregations are not growing, and several are shrinking. In fact, 28 of the 48 congregations in West Missouri had smaller operating budgets in 2015 than in 2014. That affects the diocese as a whole because the amount of money that congregations pay to the diocese each year is based on their operating income. (And just to say it out loud: All congregations, including St. Andrew’s, pay money to the diocese; only a few receive grants from the diocese – definitely not including St. Andrew’s.) It’s a familiar story, and one guaranteed to raise anxiety: Diocesan revenue is declining while the need for ministry only grows. So we have to assess ministries, prioritize them, celebrate what God provides, and steward the money as faithfully as possible.
It’s tempting for us to allow all our divisions and anxieties and fears to spill over into our life together here, in our congregation, where we live out our faith day by day, week by week. It’s tempting to think, “We’ve never faced times as challenging as these before” and then stress about what the future will look like.
But in times like these, we have some friends we can turn to. One of those friends is a sense of history. It’s easy to say that our nation has never been this divided, and that’s probably true in terms of my lifetime. But do today’s divisions really compare with the conflict over slavery, and a Civil War, and military occupation of the South, and decades of segregation and terror against black Americans? I don’t think so. It’s easy to say that our Episcopal Church is on its last legs because of declining resources and our reticence to share the good news of God’s activity in our lives. But do today’s challenges really compare with nearly being extinguished as “the king’s church” after the American Revolution, or being called to resurrect ourselves and go out in mission across a new nation? I don’t think so.
A second friend we have in this time fear and anxiety is Scripture. Today’s Gospel reading comes from a part of the story called the “little apocalypse,” which shows up in all three of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The part we heard today is just the first section, describing the coming destruction of the Temple. After this, in Luke’s version, Jesus goes on to talk about the impending destruction of Jerusalem and, after that, the coming of the Son of Man to usher in the end of the age. This kind of writing is called apocalyptic, which means to reveal something – and, for the people hearing it, to encourage them and exhort them to vigilance in their faith, even in deeply challenging times. Encouragement and vigilance in our faith – yeah, that sounds about right for us, too.
So, in the reading this morning, Jesus not only encourages his followers and exhorts them to vigilance; he also surprises them with the claim that the world’s challenging times bring us an unexpected benefit – the opportunity to serve as witnesses. Yes, Jesus tells his followers, you’re going to face tough times that will challenge your faith and maybe even shake your confidence in the things you’ve known. But, he says, “this will give you the opportunity to testify … and I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:13,15). The other reading this morning, from Second Thessalonians, picks up a similar theme, arguing that we can’t just sit on the sidelines and wait for Jesus to get on with the Second Coming; we have to get off our backsides, and attend to our work, and “not be weary in doing what is right” (3:13). You bet life will be challenging, Jesus says – and you will rise to the challenge. “By your endurance, you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:19).
So, in a challenging time like this, we find a third friend, one that also might come as a surprise: our congregation’s stewardship campaign. Yes, you heard me right, the stewardship pledge campaign is your friend. Today, we’re concluding our stewardship season and blessing the pledges you’ve offered so far. Pledges will continue to come in between now and the end of the year. As they do, we’ll make a budget for 2017, giving great thanks for what you will have provided as an outward and visible sign of God’s blessings to you. I try to live by the conviction that what God gives us is sufficient, and abundant, and extraordinarily generous – and we will receive your pledges that way. We will give thanks for the “enough” that God provides. So stewardship is our friend in that sense, absolutely: It helps us see that everything we have is on loan from God; and the practice of giving back bends our hearts heavenward, helping us remember who and whose we are.
But the call to stewardship in challenging times is also our friend in another way. The call to be a steward is the call to be a witness. The call to steward God’s blessings is the call to testify to those blessings. Over the past few months, you’ve heard testimony from our own cloud of witnesses. In the Messenger, you’ve read profiles of people who change lives through their work in the community. You’ve read about ministries here that reveal the kingdom of God among us by forming us as Christians, by serving the world’s needs, and by worshiping the God who loves us more than we can imagine. You’ve seen little, red and green sacraments of thanksgiving, the examples of our gratitude hanging on the apple tree in the entryway. And you’ve heard the testimony of witnesses during worship. You heard Oliver Carnes tell you why he serves as an acolyte and helps lead younger teens in youth ministry. You heard Jean Kiene tell you how God has called her to serve and how Outreach work changes lives as it feeds her soul. You heard Mary Brink tell you how our four weekly worship opportunities bring us into community with God and with each other. And today, you heard Blake Hodges testify about why he offers his time, and talent, and treasure to God at St. Andrew’s.
Now, you have to know that Blake isn’t just someone who tells his story well. He is part of the quartet of witnesses who have given countless hours to expanding St. Andrew’s ability to reach the people around us through the Gather & Grow initiative. Blake and Megan Hodges, and Sean and Sarah Murray – if any of us has the right to stand up here in frustration about the roadblocks Gather & Grow has hit, and tell us we might as well just turn this place into a lovely restaurant, it’s Blake and Megan and Sean and Sarah. But that’s not what you heard from Blake. In a time of anxiety, after literally years of work to hear God’s voice and realize God’s call to grow our capacity for mission – in a time of one blasted challenge after another – you heard Blake proclaiming gratitude, and confidence, and hope, just as you heard from our other witnesses. It is Jesus’ call to faithful endurance and the endurance of faith. And that call is not easy. It’s no coincidence that in Greek, the word for “witness” is “martyr.” The world will not tell us we are right when we proclaim gratitude, and confidence, and hope. It will shoot us down every time. And still: “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”
So, in the midst of all the anxiety, how is Jesus calling you to be a witness? I believe it boils down to this: Jesus is calling you to know, and name, and live your faith. At a men’s group meeting last week, we tossed around this really rich question: If a Martian came to earth, and sat down next to you, and asked you what you believe – what would you say? How would you name what you know and feel about God? And then comes the next question: Given what you know and feel about God, how does your life embody it? How are you a witness?
That’s actually what a pledge card is all about. It helps us testify. It helps us answer the question, “How does my life embody what I believe?” Jesus asks us to honor God’s loving sovereignty over us by remembering it in word and deed, across the compartments of our lives, through offerings of time and talent and treasure. Your pledge is a pledge to act. And, more specifically, it’s a pledge to act as a witness to the truths that the world will always deny: the truth that unity conquers division, the truth that hope conquers despair, the truth that love conquers fear. These are the divine realities the world seeks to silence. But we must not let it be so. We are Christ’s witnesses, so we must testify. We must live God’s light, and live God’s love, out loud.