Text:Isaiah 43:1-3a, 15-21
You know, people generally are not clamoring to be on the Stewardship Committee. Well to be fair, most people are generally not tripping over each other trying to get on committees, period. But there is something about stewardship.
I think it is because we all have a certain uneasiness with talking about money. It’s just easier to get excited about the Worship Committee or the Social Committee.
Of course, as most of us know, stewardship is not really about money. At least, it is not the heart of it. Stewardship is about the way we use what God has given us – the time, the talents, the abilities, the influence, the care, the concern, and yes, the resources. Stewardship is the way we respond to God’s gracious gifts. Basically, stewardship is about living as a follower of Jesus.
At any rate, our stewardship committee met a while back and we talked about how we might go about our stewardship campaign this fall. Last year, of course, we were completely online. So things were quite a bit different. This year, we are roughly half-online.
We talked about stewardship moments and the mailing we would send out, and we talked about a theme. And as we thought about what the last 20 months have been like, the theme we arrived at – I think Joyce suggested it - was “Sustained through Challenge, Challenged for Possibility.”
It is a perfect theme for where we find ourselves. I don’t need to go into detail about how this time has been challenging. I could talk about school or family or mental health or being unable to travel or economic challenges, along with terrible losses from the virus itself.
But as one example of the difficulties we have faced, I happened to read an article just yesterday by Diana Butler Bass. She is a church historian and author. We used one of her books for our Lenten study a few years ago and some of us heard her speak in Ames a few years before that.
She was writing about what people are calling The Great Resignation – the number of people who have left the workforce in recent months. She said,
We’ve all worked really hard in the last twenty months, often doing things we never imagined we could do, work where we’ve learned much but that also hasn’t always been what we feel confident in, good at, or held the greatest emotional rewards. It has been hard for everyone: young adults entering the working force; mid-career workers, many of whom are also parents and had school-age children at home; those approaching retirement. People who had to work at home; people who couldn’t work at home.Bass was recently was in Norman, Oklahoma, doing her first in-person event since the pandemic began and she said she experienced something she had not in a long time – the joy of being a teacher. The personal contact was renewing. She went on to say that commentators are focusing on economic reasons for so many leaving their jobs, but it seems to her there may be a spiritual component to it.
Every one of us could tick off challenges we have faced over these last couple of years – personal and professional and family and social.
We have certainly faced challenges as a church. We went for well over a year of meeting almost exclusively online, with all of the difficulties that brought. And now we are kind of meeting half-online, and that is a challenge too.
I don’t have to tell you that it has not been an easy time. But here’s the thing: life has always been challenging. Even in the best of times. We have always faced setbacks and personal struggles.
Our scripture for this morning comes from the prophet Isaiah. His ministry was during a time of – well let’s say challenge, to put it mildly. This part of Isaiah was written toward the end of the captivity of the Israelites in Babylon. These were people who had suffered – they had been taken from their homes, from their land, from all that was familiar. Their survival as a people, not to mention individual survival, was threatened.
And even in such a setting, the prophet’s words are words of comfort and words of hope:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;In challenging times, God is there. God had sustained the Israelites through a dark time.
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
Isaiah goes on to remind the people of another challenging time. He recounts their liberation from Egypt and the miraculous escape through the Red Sea, when the waters parted. God had acted in a mighty way in the past, and now, God was again doing a new thing. The people would return to Jerusalem.
Through the challenges we have faced over these past months, God has sustained us – in so many ways. When we face those difficult and threatening moments, God says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you… when you walk through the fire, I will protect you. I have called you by name and you are mine.”
We have been sustained through challenging times. At the same time, the challenges we have faced have brought about possibility. In her article, Diana Butler Bass went on to write about work in terms of vocation and calling, and she concluded by saying,
As we move ahead and exercise the more familiar, rewarding parts of our jobs once again, I hope that people will rediscover satisfaction and fulfillment. And for those who truly discovered their jobs had little to do with calling, I pray they will find work attended with joy — and that the Great Resignation will be the first step toward a genuine spiritual renewal of vocation - the rediscovery of meaningful work.Through challenge comes possibility. As a church, we have done some things we would not have imagined a couple of years ago. Some of these are relatively small things. This Friday we will have a virtual trivia night. Anybody, anywhere can participate including friends who join us from out of state and those who could not get out and drive somewhere on a Friday night.
Likewise, we have expanded our congregation in these last two years. Folks from at least 27 states, DC, Canada, and Germany have worshiped with us and many out of town folks join us each week. This includes regular attenders who are traveling and folks in Ames unable to join us in person.
In 2020, largely because we were not meeting in our building, expenses were down. At the same time, without ever passing the offering plate, amazingly, giving went up. And this presented us with possibility.
At the end of last year, with a budget surplus, we used some of those funds to provide more support for Good Neighbor Emergency Assistance, providing heating and utility help that is needed more than ever. We sent additional funds to Food at First, which provides a free meal to the community every single day. We sent a check to the Story County Emergency Fund for Immigrants, helping some of the neediest people in our community. And we sent additional support to American Baptist United Mission, helping to fund mission and ministry in the United States and Puerto Rico and around the world.
This past summer we did not have a mission trip. We used some of the funds budgeted to help support a mission trip to support the ministry of Bruce and Linda Hanson in Honduras. They are serving through the mission arm of the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ, but when their church – Ames UCC - was having pre-recorded services, we commissioned them as missionaries in a live service out on our front lawn. And of course we claim them as our missionaries too, but this challenging time brought about a cool possibility.
The challenges we have faced brought about possibility as we held many services in the front yard – primarily because in the time of COVID it’s a safer environment. But you know what – it was fun, and it was a witness to the neighborhood. I was amazed when folks walking along the sidewalk would stop and listen for awhile.
Now at some point, things will end up at whatever “normal” normal is going to be. Or maybe they won’t, maybe a world of continual change and challenge is the new normal. Either way, God will continue to sustain us. God is good, all the time. And through the challenge there will continue to be possibility for God’s people.
Today is our annual Stewardship Sunday, and we make pledges to support God’s work through this church. As you leave today, you may leave your pledge in the offering plate or you can mail pledges to the church office. We are giving to support the work of the church, but what we are really giving toward is possibility.
What does that look like? People who have been away from church for years, if they ever were a part of a church, will stumble in, looking for some kind of hope, and find to their amazement worship and music and community that help them start to connect with the community of faith and the message of Jesus – things they desperately need.
Or people may come looking for a nice staging area for their wedding, thinking a traditional service would be nice, and start to discover that spiritual grounding of relationships has a value they had not considered.
Or parents will bring children for music camp and find a community that values children, looks to broaden horizons, and sees every person as a beautiful child of God.
Or an offender will be sentenced to probation with the Center for Creative Justice and come to CCJ at a rock-bottom place in their life. They are forced to reflect on their life, they are held accountable for their actions but also treated as a person with potential who has been given a second chance, and a year later, they will be in a much better place, with a bright and hopeful future.
Or students find a community of friendship and support and encouragement that does not treat them as just a part of the pack but as an important individual.
Or folks whose family is far from Ames find that in times of need, they do have a family here.
Or, a person has a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and is filled with worry. And then they come to First Baptist to take part in a singing group or a boxing group and not only does it help them physically, they find a wonderful community of support. They find hope. They find joy.
God sustains us through the times of challenge. And by God’s grace, we become open to possibility. God continues to say to us, “I am about to do a new thing.” Amen.