What's Tony Thinking

My November 13 Sermon in San Miguel


Stewards of the Gospel
Luke 21: 5 – 19
November 13, 2022

(If you would prefer to watch the video you can find it at this You Tube link, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NclY7lj5G0)

It was great meeting so many of you last week as we shared in worship together for the first time. I did note that quite a number of folks, after extending words of welcome, said something like, “But I won’t be here next Sunday,” or “I’ll be gone the next two weeks,” or “This is actually the last time you’ll see us, we’re off to . . . “ I get it, this is traveling congregation, no worries.

But it did bring to mind the story of the conductor of the community symphony who was nearly beside himself about the irregular attendance of his musicians at rehearsals. He decided to point, as a positive counter-example to the first violin. Her attendance record for their rehearsals had been perfect. After he finished lauding her, the first violin sheepishly raised her bow and said, “Well, I thought it was the least I could do as I’ll be missing opening night.”

Your Worship Committee asked that I address the topic of stewardship this Sunday, by which they had in mind financial support. I’ll say a word or two along those lines, but as you seem to be quite a generous group already, I’ll take a broader view of the topic, as my sermon title suggests, and consider what it means to be “stewards of the gospel.”

Yet, lest I fail in my charge regarding stewardship in the usual sense, I will speak, at least briefly, of money and giving. President Calvin Coolidge was once asked by reporters what he thought about, “Sin.” The President, famous for his brevity, replied, “I’m against it.”

So on stewardship, giving of the money entrusted to us, I could say, “I’m for it” and leave it at that. But, I am a preacher, so I’ll say just a bit more.

Many churches, most in my experience, have money problems — or, at least, they think they do. They fret about “making their budget.” While I get it, I’ve thought the real point of stewardship, as regards money — which is a subject Jesus talked about more than any other save the Kingdom of God — is to help us face our fears and hang-ups around money (most of us have some), and to learn the spiritual practice of generosity.

Making us generous — as opposed to “making the budget” — seems to me the point.

For Linda and for me, the use of what some call “the modern tithe” has been helpful. The idea there is that you give 5% of your annual income to God’s work through the church, and another 5% through other agencies and programs also doing God’s work. It’s not a legalistic mandate, but a goal and guideline.

For us this modern tithe has been both challenging and helpful. It’s helpful partly because its so easy to figure that even the math-challenged like me can get it. 5% amounts to $1 a week per thousand dollars of annual income.

So if your annual income is, say, $150,000, you give $150 a week to the church and another $150 a week to other causes and charities. That comes out to something over $15,000 a year. We let that be out guide. It has helped me, in particular, for by instinct and up-bringing I am, well, let’s say “ frugal.” The church has helped me to grow in the practice of generosity, for which I am grateful.

That’s what I have to say on that aspect of stewardship. Now, I want to turn to the larger topic of being stewards of the gospel, suggested by today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke.

It’s a challenging reading. One commentary I looked at opened by saying, “Jesus’ speech about the razing of the Temple and the coming of the end-times is not an immediately accessible text for preaching.” I thought, you can say that again!

There’s a section like this, a so-called little apocalypse, in each of the gospels. We will hear from another as Advent begins in two weeks. The word apocalypse means, “a time of revealing, a time when the hidden is made manifest.” “A time of shaking” is the way someone else put it. Here Jesus speaks of such a time.

Let’s try, however, to avoid getting lost in the weeds. What’s going on is this: Jesus is preparing his disciples for a great time of testing that lies ahead. As initially inaccessible as all this may strike us, we do find ourselves — or so it seems to me — living these days in our own time of testing. Whether politically or ecologically, in terms of wars and insurrections, the sources for apprehension are many. Moreover, they are, in my humble opinion, truly alarming.

While we are not being thrown to the lions, or being arrested and hauled before kings and governors to testify, Christians in other parts of the world do face such harsh trials. And beyond that each of us encounters times of testing in our individual lives, crises, moments of truth.

How do we endure in such times? How are faith and hope kept alive when trusted institutions fail and falter, as in the stock market crash of 2008? Or amid the world-wide pandemic, which while diminished, is not yet over? Or in face of the brutal war in Ukraine and the January 6 events in our nation’s capital? Or as we witness fires and floods spoken of as “apocalyptic”?

What then, what now, does it mean to be faithful as stewards of the gospel of Jesus Christ? How do we cope when we face not only breakdowns of order but more than that, evil, or as the New Testament puts it, “The assaults of the evil one?” In our baptisms, we commit ourselves to “resist the powers of evil.” What does that mean?

David French is a journalist who writes for The Atlantic magazine, among other publications, and a Christian, whose work I admire. He wrote recently of his wife, Nancy’s participation in one of the Moth Radio Hour programs, the Moth Main Stage, at New York’s Alice Tully Hall. If you don’t know about it, the Moth is a program where ordinary people tell stories from their own lives on radio and a podcast.

“There were five storytellers,” wrote French, “each captivating and fascinating in their own way. Nancy went first and she was amazing. The final one, however, brought tears to my eyes. An older black woman named Sybil Jordan Hampton walked slowly to the stage and told her story.

“She was one of the first black students to go back to Little Rock Central High School after the famous Little Rock Nine first integrated the school in 1957. Schools were shut down for a year afterwards because of violent racist protests. In 1959 they reopened and Sybil was the only black child in the 10th grade.

“Her story,” continues French, “was harrowing. The first day of school, national guardsmen lined the steps to protect her life. No white student would speak to her. They’d cluster at the edges of the hallway to even avoid getting close to her. But stony silence was the best case scenario. When students spoke to her they’d often hiss the N-word.

“The only time she really spoke, she said, was when it was her turn to read the Bible in the morning. She’d always read the same words from Psalm 121: ‘I lift up my eyes toward the mountains. Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

French went on to note a painful irony. “Christianity was so well accepted in the halls of power that the government mandated Scripture readings in public school. But here was a young Christian girl facing an avalanche of hatred in the heart of the Bible Belt, and the atmosphere of intimidation was so pervasive that no white students felt comfortable even being kind to her.”

The Civil Rights era was a time of testing for our nation, and for people — including children — like Sybil Jordan Hampton. Her antagonists feared that the temple, we might say, of Jim Crow segregation was being torn down. They reacted by clinging desperately and hatefully to that source of their identity.

Sybil Jordan Hampton clung to the Lord. “Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

And this is exactly what Jesus tells his disciples — tells us — to do in times of trial. Cling to him. Our instinct is to cling to the human temples in which we have found our identity and security. By the age most of us are now, we have seen some of the temples in which we found meaning and identity crumble. For me, the mainline Protestant church of today is a far cry from that of my youth. That temple has crumbled. You’ve experienced the crumbling of other temples. Sometimes, perhaps especially for men, retirement is a kind of crumbling of a temple, the loss of a source of identity and meaning.

These days, some are so afraid that the human enterprise, or their corner of it, is crumbling that their instinct is to hole up, to build a bunker and create their own stockpile to survive a feared apocalypse. “Survivalism,” so-called, is a thing now-a-days. Should we withdraw and hole up?

Jesus counsels just the opposite. In fact, he says, don’t prepare in advance. “Make up your mind,” he said, “not to worry how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” Trust in me. Cling to me and no other. Picture young Sybil, surrounded by such hatred, reading Psalm 121. This week at our Seekers group several of you shared that the 23rd Psalm sustained you in times of trial. “I fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

Perhaps not so dramatic as Sybil Jordan Hampton, we too do face times of testing, and if we are faithful stewards of the gospel, we should expect to do so.

We may be struggling with what to do about a case of unfair treatment in a work place. Or perhaps we are at odds with members of our own family, struggling to find reconciliation with one of our children or a sibling? Someone else wonders how long I should “go-along to get-along”? Or whether to speak up, to bear witness to Jesus Christ, in the face of racism or anti-Semitism, or plain old ordinary cynicism?

Last week I shared a story from my first church. Here’s another, this one from my second call church. I apparently had a knack for going to conflicted congregations. I liked to say, perhaps vainly, “I like a challenge.” Be careful, as the saying goes, what you wish for.

After nearly two decades of conflict that congregation had shrunk in membership from over 700 to under 200. I guess it qualified as “a challenge.”

I worked my tail off in my first year at this effort of church re-building, expecting more or less instant results — all according to my timetable. Turns out God’s timetable was different than mine. What a surprise! And while I really did enjoy wide support in the congregation, I also had detractors, even antagonists, who questioned my motives and impugned my character. And there’s a funny thing with us clergy, though maybe not just clergy, we hear the few negative voices so much more loudly than the many positive ones.

A clergy friend came to town. We went out for breakast. I poured out my soul, lamenting what to me, were the incomprehensible and unfair attacks of some of my new congregation.

My friend looked at me and said, “If you aren’t making some enemies, you’re probably not doing your job.” Wham. It hit me like the slap of a Zen master. Who did I think I was? Was I so special that I, while claiming to follow a crucified Lord, would be universally liked and acclaimed? What part of the cross did I not get?

In each of our lives, and in the life of each community of faith, there will — Jesus tells us — come times of testing, of crisis, our own apocalyptic moments. Perhaps relatively small and personal, though no less important for that, or perhaps great and historic. Possibly we are facing such a moment now? Will we, will the church, be found faithful? It has often failed. In Nazi Germany only a small number of Christians risked arrest and imprisonment to oppose Hitler. Most of the church caved in.

I was a Boy Scout, as I am sure were some others of you men were as well. You may recall the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.” Jesus wanted his disciples and us to be prepared for hard times, for times of testing, but not by stuffing our worldly backpacks to overflowing, but by putting our faith and trust in him.

Let me return, in concluding to my beginning point, where I did speak of stewardship in the more usual sense. Linda and I adopted that modern tithe at our first church when the church had a capital drive to update and enlarge the building. Our fund-raising consultant introduced this idea of percentage giving. We gulped.

At the time, we didn’t have much money. My salary was less than $9,000 a year, our only income. We had two small children. It was a stretch. We didn’t see how it would be possible. But we started keeping a budget and closely monitoring our expenses. To our surprise, we were able to do what we had promised. But I think, at least to some extent, it wasn’t we who were doing it. It was God doing it through us. Have you had that experience?

I kind of think that’s why Jesus urged his disciples not to prepare in advance and not to worry about what they would say when put on the spot, but to rely on him and on his presence and strength to uphold them.

It’s not about our own strength alone. It’s about trusting in the strength of the Lord to see us through, especially in difficult times, in times of testing. You discover, sometimes only in hindsight, that you weren’t alone. You discover that there is Another who is at work in you and through you. I have the sense that you, Community Church, have had this experience as you have transformed what was a dingy grey warehouse into this lovely sanctuary, and as you have practiced such generosity in your outreach to the community. God is at work in our midst.

Perhaps you know this story?

In a dream, I walked on the beach with Jesus. Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to me and one to the Lord.

When the last scene of my life shot before me I looked back at the footprints in the sand. There was only one set of footprints. I realized that this was at the lowest and saddest times of my life. This bothered me and I questioned God about it.

“Lord, You told me when I decided to follow You, You would walk and talk with me all the way. But during the most troublesome times of my life there is only one set of footprints. I just don’t understand why, when I needed You most, You left me.”
“My precious child,” said the Lord, “I love you and will never leave you, never, ever, during your trials and testings. When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”










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