Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 27, Year C).
Today is Stewardship Sunday. This is the day each year when we reflect on what it means to be a steward. A steward is someone who looks after something, protects something. Specific to us, we reflect on what it means to look after this church, and what it means to protect this church. By “church,” we mean certainly the physical structures, care of the buildings, the roof, the furnace, the organ, the windows; we also mean care of the people who worship here; and we also mean protecting and caring for the culture in this church, the “feel” of being here that we often do not notice because it is so obvious, the sense of life, the sense of sacred in this space, the sense of holiness and the active, burning and real presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
No mature or even semi-mature person needs to be told that the care and protection of a church’s physical structures, the people, and sacrality requires an ongoing financial commitment on the part of the members of that church. Later this week you will receive in the mail pledge cards that ask you to tell the treasurer of the church the amount of your pledge for next year, so that the treasurer, along with the Vestry, can make an intelligent budget for our church in the two thousand seventeenth year after the birth of Our Lord.
It is said, of course that we give to the church not only treasure, but also time and talent. This is true, but there is more to it than that. First and foremost, we are to give our prayer. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Our heart must be in our prayer life. Some kind of prayer every day of the week — both using the official prayers of the Church in the daily Offices, and personal prayer through our conversations with God — comes before money in importance to church stewardship. As an aid to healthy prayer, the Church commends the practice of self-sacrifice, of self-denial. We all need activities that bring to us private joy. Yet can we commit or recommit to an activity the sole purpose of which is to give greater glory to God? Attending a weekday service at either of the two churches in this Parish, praying Morning or Evening Prayer at home, finding a godly book to read devotionally, beginning a contemplative or silent prayer practice, are good places to start.
And let us never forget mercy! “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Being merciful is another primary way to practice stewardship. It begins with being kind, forgiving and patient with those in our parish family, and continues of course to those in our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces. The classic “corporate works of mercy” —to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick, to visit the imprisoned, to bury the dead—flow out of our prayer life and flow out of our practice of self-denial.
Our works of mercy, and in fact all of our prayer, sacrifice, and acts of stewardship as I have described, presuppose the virtue of Faith as a growing habit of wanting to learn about the character of God, the nature of Jesus Christ who never abandons us to the power of death, who comes to our help, so that in seeking Him we might find Him. God is a stupendously rich Reality — the alone boundlessly rich Reality. His outward action throughout the Universe — His creation, preservation and direction of the world at large — is immensely rich.
All of this is to say that our works of mercy, our prayer, our sacrifice—our stewardship—very much reflect our sense of Hope. This is true certainly in the common sense of the word, whereby we have trust that goals difficult to achieve can be reached. Can this Parish survive twenty, thirty, fifty more years? It may seem today to be a difficult goal to achieve. Yet Hope in the Christian context, as a theological virtue, as a habit, is based on the conviction that God wants all things to live and is constantly at work to lead us to fulfillment. Hope is the habit of feeling confident in His abiding assistance. If we feel confident of God’s abiding assistance, then we display to some degree a truly Christian Hope. And if we display Christian Hope, then our stewardship—prayer, sacrifice, works of mercy, and, yes, a pledge of money for the next year—is certainly necessary, but also natural, fitting, and joyful. Our stewardship becomes a blessing, because it comes from our love of God, it is filled with God’s Spirit, and received by God to the greater glory of His Holy Name.
In order to underscore the importance of Hope to Christian Stewardship, I want to read a summary of an event that happened one week ago, on Oct 30. This summary comes from the Times of Israel, on their website. The title of the article is “First Mass in Two Years held in Iraq’s Main Christian town”:
A handful of faithful gathered in a burnt out church Sunday for the first mass to be celebrated in two years in Qaraqosh, which was once Iraq’s main Christian town. Iraqi forces retook Qaraqosh from the Islamic State group days earlier, as part of a massive offensive to wrest back the country’s second city Mosul.
Hear the words of Yohanna Petros Mouche, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, who officiated the Mass with four priests: “After two years and three months in exile, I just celebrated the Eucharist in the cathedral of the Immaculate Conception the Islamic State wanted to destroy. But in my heart it was always there.”
In June 2014, IS jihadists took over swathes of Iraq, also taking Mosul where the archbishop was based. He moved to Qaraqosh, a town with a mostly Christian population of around 50,000 that was controlled by Kurdish forces and lies east of Mosul in the Nineveh plain. But a second jihadist sweep towards Kurdish-controlled areas two months later forced around 120,000 Iraqi Christians and members of other minorities to leave their towns and villages. “We had no other choice but to convert or become slaves. We fled to preserve our faith. Now we’re going to need international protection,” a priest said.
Donning a resplendent chasuble and stole, Mouche led mass on an improvised altar in front of a modest congregation. [Let me add photographs suggest a congregation of about three dozen, standing for the entire Mass around a small altar with tea lights for candles; the church itself is in ruins, blackened and grey, full of ashes everywhere. The scene looks post-apocalyptic to say the least.]
“I can’t describe what I’m feeling. This is my land, my church,” said a local militiaman who attended the Mass. “They used everything against us: they shot at us, they sent car bombs, suicide attackers. Despite all this, we’re here.” The bell tower of the church was damaged, statues decapitated and missals and other books strewn across the nave floor, which is still covered in soot from the fire the jihadists lit when they retreated. But some of the crosses have already been replaced and a new icon was laid on the main altar, where the armed militiamen took turns to light candles.
“This church is such a powerful symbol that if we hadn’t found it like this, damaged but still standing, I’m not sure residents would have wanted to come back,” Mouche said. “But the fact that it’s still here gives us hope.”
And the fact that we are still here gives us hope.