November 17, 2019 / 23rd Sunday after Pentecost / Richard E. Holmer
First Reading: Malachi 4:1-2a; Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Gospel: Luke 21:5-19
The Long Haul
I recall a meeting ten years ago with Jennifer Grumhaus where she described the vision for North Chicago Community Partners to a group of pastors. She explained that the Gorter Family Foundation had decided to concentrate their philanthropic efforts in the city of North Chicago. Their goal was to improve the lives of students and families by partnering with the school district in developing a community school model. Using the schools as a base, the plan was to enrich lives and strengthen the sense of community through an extended web of programs and services, both in and beyond the schools. What impressed me was the emphasis that Jennifer made on this being a long term proposition.
The reality is: North Chicago is the second poorest city in the state. Only 50% of students were graduating from high school. She invited our participation and support – with one caveat: she said we need you to be in it for the long haul. North Chicago Community Partners began with a $20,000 grant and two employees. Today, 10 years later, there are 40 employees, 3,000 volunteers, 50 partner organizations, and a $2,000,000 budget. Real progress has been made – and there is still a long way to go.
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As a church, we also need to be realistic about our mission. As we seek to engage new members, it can be tempting to minimize expectations: “We’re a friendly church – make yourself at home. We won’t put pressure on you. Try to find what works for you.” Setting such a low bar may be attractive to some, but it isn’t true to our mission.
Jesus is a lot more honest and direct: when he speaks about becoming his followers, he talks about denying yourself and taking up a cross. He describes the way that leads to life as narrow and hard. Today Jesus warns of the future calamities and trials in store for the faithful: wars and insurrections, natural disasters, persecutions and betrayals, hatred and resentment. Jesus keeps it real. He doesn’t sugar coat the demands of discipleship. He presents it as a long term struggle.
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Christianity is indeed a long term enterprise. It’s been going for 20 centuries and counting. For each of us, discipleship begins at baptism and continues until our final breath. There is no early retirement for Christians. Faith is a lifelong proposition, a way of life. I have always appreciated Eugene Peterson’s memorable description of the life to which God calls us:
“A long obedience in the same direction.”
A pilgrimage is a useful metaphor for the faithful life. A pilgrimage has a clear destination, and you keep going until you get there. You keep on keeping on. You don’t let anything or anyone turn you around or stop you. Of course we have a heavenly destination – yet that’s not all. Our goal is also to be found faithful, to be useful, to be a light as long as we’re in this world.
Along our way of following Christ, we will encounter hard times and disappointments. There will be hills and valleys, joys and sorrows, triumphs and defeats. We can expect to get tired and discouraged. No one knew this better than St. Paul. Over the years he experienced all kinds of hardships and setbacks. Some of the challenges were his personally. Many had to do with the churches Paul planted. The motivation behind many of Paul’s letters is addressing conflicts and controversies that have arisen in those churches. Today we hear about a conflict among the church members at Thessalonika. Resentment had grown between the devoted workers and the sluggards who were “living in idleness.” There was frustration with “mere busybodies not doing any work.” This problem crops up in many congregations. You will hear people make reference to the 80/20 rule: 20% of the members end up doing 80% of the work. Paul has some stern words for the slackers, including: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Yet his advice to the faithful is just as important: “do not be weary in doing what is right.” That is: don’t let the shirkers get you down and keep you from staying faithful. In other words: PERSEVERE!
Christians are called to stay faithful, even when others are not, even when things are falling apart all around them. A church was built in the heart of England in the middle of the 17th century – a tumultuous time of civil war between royalists and protestants. King Charles the first was beheaded, and Oliver Cromwell ruled for a brief time. That church is still standing, and on an inside wall there is a plaque installed by the builder:
In the year 1653
When all things sacred were
throughout the nation
Either demolished or profaned
Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet
Founded this church
Whose singular praise it is
To have done the best things
In the worst times, and
Hoped them in the most calamitous.
Those words express what St. Paul would want for all his churches: to do the best in the worst of times, and hope for the best in the most calamitous. St. James only dates as far back as 1962, yet our history is a record of PERSEVERANCE. Consider:
Three major building programs
A mortgage debt retired
Millions of dollars given in offerings
A significant share of those offerings dedicated to benevolent outreach
And even more significantly:
Gathering faithfully for worship each Sunday for 57 years.
Good news has been proclaimed, sins have been forgiven, praises sung
Holy Communion has been celebrated
Children have been baptized and confirmed
Faithful saints have been laid to rest