Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland, November 12, 2017
Proper 27A: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
This morning, our journey through the Old Testament has entered a completely new chapter. You may recall that three weeks ago we heard of the death of Moses at Mt. Nebo, just outside of Canaan. Today – having skipped a bit of the story because of St. Luke’s and All Saints Days — everything has shifted. Today Joshua takes us into the Promised Land itself. You know the song “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho?”An undefeated military strategist, Joshua fought lots of battles and successfully led the conquest of Canaan. Today the land of Israel is theirs. In our reading, Joshua used his victory speech to tell his people that their moment of decision had come. Joshua knew that they would need a moral compass to keep them headed in the right direction in these new and uncharted seas. With a thundering voice, the general commanded his people to “choose this day whom you will serve.” Notice that Joshua wasn’t asking the people to serve him, or even their new country. Joshua is asking them to choose to serve God. Leading by example, Joshua had his family – and himself – do just that.
This week it has been hard not to put myself in the shoes of another leader, Rev. Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be gone when a shooter opens up on your congregation and kills your 14 year old and 25 others. His wife told reporters “Our church was not comprised of members or parishioners, we were a very close family — we ate together, we laughed together, we cried together and we worshiped together. Now, most of our church family is gone, our building is probably beyond repair and the few of us that are left behind lost tragically yesterday.” When asked what he was going to tell other grieving families, Pastor Pomeroy said he wasn’t sure yet, but that they should “lean into the Lord.” “I don’t understand, but I know my god does,” was his response. That pastor’s grief, the pain of those people, the sense of loss in that town, are all unimaginable. Last Sunday he lost his family, his friends, his livelihood all in an instant. His 14 year old daughter is dead. 25 of his parishioners are dead. His church building has been destroyed. Yet, his faith remains unshaken. His choice to follow God, to trust in God, has never been stronger.
Would we have the same response? The parable of having enough oil in our lamps is about being able to keep our lights burning in the darkest nights of the soul. Do we have the spiritual reserves to do that? Have we built up our prayer muscles enough to keep going when all the roads lead uphill… trees and blown down wires block our way? Over the past couple weeks, many Mainers know what it is like to lose power, to have the batteries on phones and flashlights run out, and fuel in generators run low. This parable is about making sure we keep our spiritual batteries fully charged and our spiritual gas tanks topped off, so when the unthinkable happens, we are ready to act… when the most hopeless happens, we can provide hope… and when the darkness comes, our light – God’s light – keeps shining until that darkness is gone. That’s what St. Luke’s is all about. Did you notice all the people who came through here yesterday? They didn’t just come for a deal. They came for the real deal. They came because this is a place where they have found help and healing, love and support. They came because this is a place they found God. You should have seen the smiles of the five immigrants from the Congo who helped us clean up last night and I walked them to their car. That moment was the last of a day full of moments like that – moments of joy. Whether though worship, music, spiritual formation groups, our care for others, our care for one another, or things like the fair that build friendships, connections, and community, by just being fun, St. Luke’s is a spiritual recharging station, a place to top of your tank, and give you what you need to shine – even though the most challenging and difficult times.
This doesn’t happen automatically. As demonstrated by that congregation in Texas, the church isn’t a building or an institution. It’s a family where each and every person matters – and the participation and contributions of each and every person matters as well. Next Sunday is our stewardship ingathering. You all should have gotten a pledge packet in the mail. If not there are more available at the entrances of the cathedral. The reality is that we are dependent on pledging – on the offerings of time, talent, and yes treasure – to make this place work. After endowment and other income, it costs roughly $474,000 a year to keep our doors open. This equals $9000 a week or $60 a week/person or family unit that attends, the tithe of a combined household income of $31,000/year. If we add $50,000 to reach our goal of bringing on a ½ time Canon Pastor, that amount goes up to $10,000 a week, or $67/family unit. Stewardship, of course, is about time, talent and treasure. What you give is between you and God. The bottom line isn’t about balancing budgets; it is about balancing our spiritual lives. It isn’t about guilt. It isn’t about charity. It’s about giving thanks – and giving in thanks — for what God has given for us. It’s about owning our mission and making that mission real. If we can do that, we won’t need to worry about numbers at all.
The shooting in Texas is a warning, a canary in the coal mine, telling us that this is not just a theoretical speculation. From gun deaths and an epidemic of sexual misconduct to assaults on the environment, the complete loss of a moral foundation in the debates about budgets and taxation, not to mention numerous issues right here at home, our light needed more than ever. Like the Israelites under Joshua, we will be held accountable for what happens in this place we call home. Like the Israelites, we have a great variety of options about which path to take. Like the Israelites, we need to make a choice. As people of hope, we can choose to trust the source of that hope. As people of peace, we can choose to follow the Prince of peace. As people of love and justice, we can choose to be connected to the God embodies both of those things, and who cares the most for the poor. Like the Israelites, we need to make a choice for ourselves and our families. Like the Israelites, we can choose to serve God and use that choice to transform our lives and the world in which we live.
Churches have strange vocabulary. Think for a moment about the word “service” which we use interchangeably with “worship.” In some congregations, the dismissal uses the words “The worship is over, the service begins! The word service reminds us that following Jesus was not just about being healed, fed, loved, and otherwise comforted ourselves. It is about healing, feeding, and loving others. If we are to truly honor veterans on this Veteran’s Day weekend, we need to show them that they didn’t fight in vain. As we remember those who have served, we are reminded that as members of the Jesus Movement here at St. Luke’s, service to others and to God is what we are about. We have to keep our lights shining. The time to fill our tanks and recharge our batteries is now.