March 1, 2011
This sermon was originally preached in Spanish. The lessons were Exodus 39:42-43; Ps 27; 1Thess 5:11-13,16; Matt 24:14-30.
Well, I haven’t been able to figure out why these readings were chosen, unless somebody wanted to put the fear of God into all of us. Exodus seems to exhort us to “do as God commands if you want blessings.” The Psalm wants us to remember that being in the presence of God is the goal of existence, and Matthew’s apocalypse is about the second coming and the chaos and suffering that will precede Jesus’ return. Maybe the message in our context is that the world as we know it is going to be overturned before we know some real peace. That is probably accurate at all times and in all contexts, yet we can’t live all our lives in that state of urgent readiness.
I should probably start by saying that I don’t expect the Executive Council or the next General Convention to make radical budget cuts to the grants that come to Province IX or to our covenant partners. We certainly didn’t expect the radical budget cuts of the last General Convention six months ahead of time. Yet, as the economic situation throughout the world began to worsen in early 2009, and we began to understand something of how that would be reflected in significantly lowered diocesan giving, our treasurer and finance department began to warn us of the necessity of significant changes to the budget. It fell to the Program, Budget, and Finance committee at General Convention to make the extremely difficult decisions about how to make a balanced budget out of much lower income.
As the impacts of those budget cuts became evident, many people thought that the end of the world was coming. There was a great deal of gnashing of teeth, and these words in Matthew were pretty descriptive, “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.” We had to tell more than 40 churchwide staff right at General Convention, that they were going to lose their jobs, we eliminated entire programs from the budget, and you all know that significant cuts were made to the grants you relied on. All I can say is that I wish we had had more warning, or greater ability to explain the necessity and help everyone to plan for this. I can only apologize for the pain that resulted.
Yet at the same time, I think we have all had an opportunity to recognize the presence of God in the midst of our suffering and chaos. It’s a reminder of where creation begins in the first story in Genesis, with the wind or spirit of God moving over the storms of chaos. Where have you prayed with the psalmist and found God in the midst of this experience?
This very gathering is one of the creative responses to that storm of chaos. How can we partner with God and one another to create a system of greater possibility? How can we serve God’s world more effectively?
Perhaps the response begins in the willingness to gather, to support one another and build each other up. The body of Christ has many parts, with differing gifts, and that is part of what we’re here to discover. As I’ve traveled around the church in recent months, I’ve been holding up this conference as a hopeful sign of what the US part of the church can learn from you. Many of the English-speaking dioceses have not yet recognized the urgency which has been forced on many of you, yet the situations are very similar. Lots of US dioceses have relied for too long on the generosity of a few large congregations, and on the income from endowments. Both sources of income went down significantly in the aftermath of this economic crisis. Congregations in many places are not growing, and many of them are not engaging their surrounding communities as effectively as they could. Yet there is also a growing understanding of our interconnectedness, and several of the dioceses represented here know of growing partnerships and mutual engagement in mission. Jesus is walking around among us and between us and bringing new life.
The way forward is filled with hope, yet it’s also going to need new skills and behavior. Paul’s words to the Christians in Thessalonica are just as urgently directed to us: “encourage one another, build each other up, respect the labor and ministry of others, be at peace among yourselves, and rejoice in all things and at all times.” If we can manage that, we will discover that fear, competition, and anxiety are things of the past.
God is doing a new thing here, and the gifts of this community gathered can expand and grow in ways we couldn’t have predicted even a few years ago. We’re all being asked to welcome ‘the son of man coming with power and great glory’ even though it’s happening in a way we didn’t seek out, or expect, or want. Yet we can rejoice at the new energy that’s being unleashed around here, and the new partnerships. We can celebrate the growth in skills, commitment, and effectiveness toward God’s mission. We can join Jesus on the road, willing to risk all we have and all we are in order to follow him. We are a people, and a Body, with great hope and faith.
As Paul taught us, and also his student, Roland Allen in the 19th century, our work is to build a church that is self-governing, self-propagating, and self-sustaining. That church is a sign of a adulthood or maturity, which can give life to others. It’s also a sign of abundant life. We can fully live that abundant life if we’re willing to follow Jesus. May God bless our road.