Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:1-19 (modified from the lectionary)
Just about every week, I sit down to write my sermon, and there’s so much I want to talk about with regard to us and what we are facing. And then I look at the Scriptures for the week, and get all excited and wrapped up in them. Seven pages later (often it’s more like 10 pages later, at least three of which have to be cut), I find myself with one page to talk about us and what we are facing.
So today I’m going to be very brief about these fascinating scriptures. Like last week, we again find ourselves presented with different manifestations of apocalyptic: heavily symbolic descriptions of what God has in store for the world at its end. There’s Isaiah’s beautiful and pacific re-creation, and the more ominous omens of the end in Luke 21. This language is very difficult to apply this week. Some people see in President Elect Trump a savior figure: “He’s going to save this country,” said one supporter on the radio, “and probably the whole world.” More people in our area are feeling the opposite side of apocalyptic: a coming time of violence, dissolution, and mayhem. How divided we are! when one man can be both Christ and anti-Christ.
Luke could hardly avoid apocalyptic when he wrote; the Romans were laying waste to Jerusalem and leveling the temple. It certainly looked like the end. But he shows Jesus, like Paul did last week, urging his followers to calm down, even when things look their worst. “Many will come in my name and say, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.” And in our time, our local community will mostly continue as it has, with the same needs and challenges that we can, with resolve, do something about. So I offer this as consoling advice: our sense of purpose and ability to do good will come from persistent, committed action in our community—not from some battle over Washington which won’t affect us personally as much as it feels like it will. We, at least, will likely not be arrested and persecuted, in the way Jesus describes. But we must watch what will happen, and be ready; we may yet be given “an opportunity to testify,” as Jesus says.
And if we do not have to testify, our denominational leaders very likely will. I want to begin today with meditating on our commitment to our shepherding denomination, the United Church of Christ. My sense is that some of us have a very strong sense of affiliation with the UCC, while others are ambivalent or worse. Some see no reason to be affiliated with this or perhaps any denomination. “We’re not getting much bang for the buck,” some might say.
Well, we can talk bang for the buck (does that phrase come from shopping for guns?). We can talk about what we get for our “dues” (I would rather call it our offering or contribution). We are said to owe $20 and change per member, for a total of $3267 for this year. Some years we have paid this; other years we have judged that we are unable. For 2016, we voted to pay half, but then cut the dues out of our budget when our annual pledged income came up shorter than anticipated. I think our support of the UCC should ideally come out of our annual operating fund, because it says something about who we are as a congregation. But it doesn’t have to. You have envelops in your bulletin today. You can individually put money toward our denomination for this year, 2016, at the rate of that $20 per person for this year, or more.
I do think this money is “worth it,” although again that’s a misleading way to think about it. If you don’t go to the meetings–Hampshire Clergy, or Massachusetts Conference, or Annual General UCC—or the workshops—some recent ones on Stewardship, Opioid addiction, Islam, or everything available on Super Saturdays—or the trainings on youth ministry or our own Deacon’s training—then, first, you might consider getting more involved; but second, you are probably unaware of what a mutually vital and giving relationship we have with our denomination. Our denomination is also a vital partner when we must search for a new minister. Like any organization, the UCC is not perfect, but flawed and marked by sin as well as grace. But I just heard about a near-by church without a denominational tie whose pastor ran off with the money they had raised for a new building. I’ll take my denomination, thank you. And when I have been faced with crises in our congregation that must be kept confidential—and yes, I have been—there is no one here I can turn to for advice. But I turned to our Association Minister and found sound, experienced and truly faith-formed advice that saved us in untold ways.
Our denomination also reaches around the world in humanitarian mission in a way we never could do alone. Our UCC Global Missions makes it possible for us to participate in really being witnesses to the ends of the earth. Without them, we could help people in Granby. But we care about people elsewhere; are those in areas of extreme poverty or overwhelming catastrophe to fend for themselves?
And that gets to the critical point. Ultimately, we shouldn’t support our denomination because they offer us a good deal. We are not a fast food joint decided whether to affiliate with McDonald’s or Burger King, or go it on our own. Every Christian is a member of the one, holy, universal church. There is one faith, one baptism, and one Lord. It’s just that we don’t act that way. But we are not at liberty to go it alone, as if we in this room are The Church. Our denomination makes-real our participation in the universal church; and the UCC partners with and cooperates with other denominations at a level we cannot, to the glory of Christ who prayed that we might all be one.
I know some of you don’t always agree with the political views of the UCC. I don’t always either, not at least with the way that politics sometimes takes over as a source of identity. But our denominational leaders are not ideologues. Their views are grounded in faith commitments and a reading of Scripture. And yes, they are progressive. Is the world drowning in progressive Christian voices? Most people don’t even know such a thing exists. Many don’t even know that a congregation can be Open and Affirming, as we are. The world needs this witness. So we should support our denomination individually, which you can do today, and we should strive to pledge our all so that we can afford to do so as one body, represented in one budget—because we are the Church universal.
So we are all considering how much we are able to pledge to this church for the coming year. Our operating budget is small–$125,000; 76,000 of that from pledging. It’s amazing we can run the church we do on that. Last year we had 53 pledging families or individuals; nearly 40 pledged $20 or less per week; 18 pledged $10 or less. The other 24 pledged more than $20; 7 pledged 50, 75, or even more than $100 a week. I believe that more of us could move up that scale. But I don’t know how tapped out you are. We all always feel tapped out—I know that Jessica and I do. Ultimately each member or family is left with a very personal and private decision. (God knows what we give, of course; and Ginette, but neither is telling me anything.) I want us to search ourselves to see what we are capable of. But let’s just pause in the heat of a stewardship drive to remember that our pledge amount is no measure of our worth to God. Notice how Jesus praises the widow for the two coins she dedicates, not the wealthy who give much more.
But My job is just to make the case that the money that you dedicate to our church is not just a donation, an amount, but a participation in God’s living, acting presence in the world. / This church has a future. Our community needs this church to have a future. You and your children need this church to have a future. That future rests in God, and we will get there by dedicating ourselves more and more to God, by seeking God in all that we do, and by showing forth God in all that we do. Any serious church knows this and believes this. I think we are unique, though, in that we recognize that the responsibility for seeking, finding, and showing forth God in the life of this church rests on us. As a congregational church, that responsibility, and freedom, rests on us. There is no guarantee that we’ll get it right. And God is so deeply mysterious; getting it right often might mean just knowing when to confess that God is a mystery that eludes us. But we have taken seeking this God upon ourselves, as no one else in Granby has.
While God is deeply mysterious, I think we have a plan for seeking that future. The plan involves us being vessels for God’s Holy Spirit to come, to dwell, and to be poured out in all that we are and all that we do. To be a good vessel is to empty yourself out, just as Jesus tells his disciples to “make up your minds in advance not to prepare your defense [your testimony when you are arrested] in advance; for I will give you a mouth [as the Greek literally has it] and a wisdom.” The world around us and our capacities as a congregation are changing; so we will have to discern together what we need to empty ourselves of, as individuals and as a church, so that we can be all the more filled with the Holy Spirit and show forth God in all that we do.
Beyond your financial calculations of what you can pledge, your task, which will conclude next week at Dedication Sunday, is to determine what you need to empty yourself of in order to be full of the Holy Spirit and show forth God. Let me tell you what that means for me. I must ask myself: Do my sermons really show people God—are they a Christ-shaped vessel of the Holy Spirit? Or are they me trying to prove something to myself? Are they gratifying my ego by showing how clever I am? The answer may not be clear, and I’m quite sure I have not emptied myself. Could my sermons really be trying to stroke your egos, and make you feel good with cheap grace? Well, I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. I don’t think anyone will accuse my sermons of just aiming to please.
The more you empty yourself of what does not show God, the deeper a vessel you will become to imbibe the Holy Spirit here in this place. I don’t know if that works for money. But I know it works for participation. I just quit my drum lessons. Not because God would begrudge me having some fun drumming. God wants us to enjoy the good fruits of creation. But I realized that the deeper joys in my life come from what I do here and as a scholar and theologian of the church; these are my first fruits, and I want to give them to God. And by the way, I decided to add that $15 a week for drum lessons to my pledge.
Take a look at the Pledge of Participation card. We call this a pledge; the Bible calls this a covenant. I am asking you to covenant to participate in these activities that will move this church closer to the church God wants us to be. And we in leadership are working to see that the time you give to the church is fulfilling and joyful time, not just taxing and cheerless duty.
Take the Deacons. The deaconate is short-staffed, and was feeling drained. So we had a Deacon’s Training that went very well, praise God. And so now we are cultivating spiritual practices to help make the deacons’ tasks spiritually enriching. We are developing prayers to be recited during worship duties, including communion bread making. We are going to devote the first 20 minutes of deacon meetings to spiritual study, which I will lead. We are going to consecrate our new class of deacons in worship with the biblical tradition of laying on of hands. The Deacons will each keep watch over a portion of the congregation as their shepherding group, so that they can help me provide pastoral care. We are going to make being a Deacon into a spiritually enriching form of service as it has never been here.
And you can be a part of that. Take a look at the pledge card under “Board of Deacons.” You can become a Deacon, and join this spiritual vanguard. You can assist in visitations. (It’s the most rewarding part of my job; and I’ve heard Sandy and Brenda rave about the joy of visiting people in our congregation.) You can provide rides, or meals, or phone calls. And no matter what your limitations, you can be on a list to offer prayer. You can help with worship as a greeter or by offering your musical talent, or join our fellowship crew. Or at the bottom, you can offer ideas we haven’t yet thought of. If you want to join our revived bread ministry—baking communion bread and taking it to neighbors and those in need—write that under “other.”
Look next at the Board of Missions. Marion will speak for Missions directly in a few minutes. While the Deacons provide care within our church body, Missions extends that care beyond our body. Missions is also considering ways that all of us can participate which will be spiritually nourishing, besides also providing aid for those in need. When you take part in Cathedral in the Night, or Habitat for Humanity building houses for the poor, you experience and join in solidarity with the poor in their struggles as well as the special grace God sheds on them. I am excited by plans for other forms of direct, personal involvement with those in need, including helping Syrian Refugees in a program being led by Catholic Charities, as well as our own brainstormed programs to help people coming out of prison, those with substance abuse problems, and veterans. Beside helping those in need, Missions is also where we can share the gospel in a public way, making use of our prominent location to shape the consciousness of Granby. And again, share your own ideas at the bottom.
The Board of Trustees needs a good stewardship campaign more than anything, and you can all help with that! But what will also make their jobs of shepherding our budget easier is if we can all come closer and closer to a shared understanding and vision of what this church is here to do. All our boards need to see themselves as the many members of the one body, not as hands, eyes, and feet each doing their own thing.
The Women of the Church do so much and work so hard. They need women to help do this good work, and they welcome men to partner in this work as well!
Christian Education is a good team, and you heard Gloria describe their ideas last week. You’ll see listed opportunities to teach Sunday school for a short term, be a driver for an event or assist with family events, and teach an adult education class. Our next confirmation class will begin in just a few weeks; be a mentor for a teen confirmand. And several of you previously offered to help begin a monthly dinner and discussion series that would combine fellowship with adult education; we need people to plan, advertise, and organize this event, which I think will draw in new members. Indicate your interest in a dinner and discussion series under “other.”
The measure of what you give is the measure that shall come back to you. Fill out this card, and bring it next week to deposit during worship. Or leave it in the narthex today. But this is my promise and also my pledge to you: the time you give to the church will come back to you as joyous participation in God’s eternal life.