[This sermon was preached by the Reverend Renee LiaBraaten, the weekend of October 19-20, 2019. Pastor Renee is the consultant for the Capital Campaign being conducted by this congregation]
“In Our Hands”
On my refrigerator I have a magnet that says, “When I count my blessings, I count you twice.” That little magnet pretty much sums up my feelings about the people of St. James. Working with all of you has been such a joy-filled experience for me. A stranger may enter your doors, but I don’t believe a stranger ever leaves, and I want to thank you for making me feel so welcome.
This weekend we are celebrating the vision that the Holy Spirit has created among you. It is a vision of addressing some important repairs and updates so that this treasure of a building can continue to be a place that strengthens your ability to live and love like Jesus. Three weeks from now, it will be Commitment Weekend, when you will all have the opportunity during worship to commit your financial support to making this vision a reality.
I love the theme that your leaders chose for our Capital Campaign: “Renewing God’s House to Share God’s Love.” As I have gotten to know your congregation, I feel that his theme really captures the essence of who you are. At the core of everything you do at St. James is the strong desire to help everyone experience God’s unconditional love.
So, I brought something to show you this morning. I thought we’d have an object lesson. I know this looks like an ordinary strand of pearls to you. But, these pearls tell a story—a love story. It’s a love story that makes these pearls very precious to me and my family.
During WWII, my father purchased these pearls in Okinawa. My father was only 19 years old at the time and his heart was filled with hope.
He hoped the war would end soon.
He hoped he would survive the war.
He hoped that a certain young lady named Lucille would be waiting for him when he returned home from the war.
He hoped that she would accept his proposal of marriage. And, he hoped that she would wear these pearls on their wedding day.
My father’s hopes all came to fruition. But, what my father could never have imagined when he purchased these pearls, was that 70 years later his grand-daughters would wear these pearls on their wedding days, as a way of remembering and honoring the love their grandparents had shared not only with each other, but with each of their granddaughters.
Being the eldest child, I am now the keeper of the pearls, but at some point in the future, I will be passing these pearls on to my eldest daughter, entrusting her to care for them and to carry their love story to the next generation.
This church is a lot like this strand of pearls. For anyone driving by, St. James Lutheran Church is simply another beautiful, historic church building. But this church has a story to tell—a love story—a love story that makes this church very precious to each of you. Not only is it a story of the love and commitment of several generations who have kept the light of Christ shining in and through this congregation for over two centuries. This church is also the bearer of the greatest love story ever written. “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son.”
You are now the keepers of this church. But in the not too distant future, you will be passing this church and God’s love story on to the next generation. The task before all of us today is to ensure that what we are doing now will equip the next generation to be the keepers of God’s church and to carry God’s love story to generations that are yet unborn.
Now, I must admit that I have a vested interest in the outcome of your renewal project. You see, I love God’s church. Like many of you, I was raised in the church. My faith was nurtured, supported and shaped by countless, precious church people. The deepest friendships and the most meaningful experiences of my life have come to me through the church. The church has been there to rejoice with me in the happiest moments of my life, to guide me through the difficult times, and to comfort me as I have grieved the death of those dearest to me. I am who I am today because of the church.
But this church that I love is slowly becoming an endangered species in America. We’ve seen the statistics showing the decline in our mainline denominations. We’ve read the stories of church closures. This church that we love is finding it difficult to connect with younger generations, struggling to draw them into the community of faith that has been so life-giving and life-transforming for us.
And that brings me to the alarming words of Paul in his letter to Timothy, “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth.”
And those sobering words of Jesus in our Gospel text for today: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Several years ago I attended a seminar at which the brilliant theologian and writer, The Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor, was the keynote speaker. She shared a story about hiking with a group of students in southern Turkey. They turned a bend in the path and there, looming in front of them, was the outline of a ruined Christian cathedral. The façade was crumbling. When she went inside this once magnificent church, she discovered that it was filled with litter and weeds were growing up between the mosaic tiles of the floor. On the walls were these faded and cracked frescoes where you could still recognize fragments of the Lamb of God, the last supper and figures of saints and prophets. In summarizing this experience, Dr. Taylor said: “Talking about the post-Christian era is a very different thing than actually walking around in it. Christianity died in Turkey. The land that gave birth to Paul. The land of Galatia, Ephesus and Collossia. We simply cannot take our church or our faith fore granted. We must bring all our best gifts to the work of strengthening the church and passing on our faith, or we may end up selling tickets to museums.”
This is what your Capital Campaign is all about. It is about bringing all our best gifts to the work of strengthening this church and passing on our faith to the next generations so that God’s love story can continue. It’s about harnessing the power of our money and putting it to work for God.
It never ceases to amaze me that God has entrusted us with the message of his love. For better or worse, God has placed his message in our hands. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “And so we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” There is no Plan B. The future of the church is up to us. God cannot preserve the church without our help.
Dr. Paul Brand, the famous leprosy specialist, tells a powerful story in his book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made. After WWII a group of German students volunteered to help rebuild a cathedral in England that had been badly damaged in the bombings. But the students and parishioners could not figure out how to restore a large statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched and bearing the familiar inscription: “Come Unto Me.” Careful patching could repair all the damage to the statue except for Christ’s hands, which had been totally destroyed. Finally they reached a decision that still stands today. The statue of Jesus has no hands, but the inscription now reads: “Christ Has No Hands But Ours.”
In the parable about the persistent widow, Jesus reminds us that what we do makes a difference. Our efforts to work for justice, to show mercy, to share God’s love have an impact. When it comes to dealing with the unjust powers and principalities, living and loving like Jesus is truly our only hope. To quote the Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.”
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Remember the words of that old gospel song, “He’s got the whole world in his hands?” It’s true. God does have the whole world in His hands. But God has placed the care of His world in our hands.
The precious gift of God’s creation—It’s in our hands.
The message of salvation—of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ—it’s in our hands.
And the future of the church—that’s in our hands, too.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, may God bless the work of our hands, so that 70 years from now, pearls of faith will adorn the lives of the grand children of this congregation and all those who come after them. May we never lose heart. May we never give up, but persistently work to pass on the story of God’s great love—this pearl of great price–that has been placed in our hands. Amen.