I spent the last week at Princeton Theological Seminary, concluding an Executive Leadership certificate program called Iron Sharpening Iron. For the past two years, the clergy participants and I have journeyed together, all facing the unique challenges of this liminal time for the Church, but also all hopeful that God is doing a new thing in the Church. In the spirit of camaraderie that has developed over that time, we found ourselves asking each other this week, “So, how are you really doing? How is your church?” This is the kind of setting where clergy feel comfortable enough to let down their guard and share life with an honesty that we might not in other settings. And I confess to you, every time that question was asked of me, and I took a moment to really think about the question, the answer was the same, “Things are actually really good.” In truth, I think I was just as surprised by my answer as every other clergy person was. I had no reason in that space to posture or try to make myself or our ministry look good, especially since most of the participants were not even Episcopalians. I just knew when pondering how we are really doing, at the core of all that has happened in the last two to three years, we at Hickory Neck are doing really well.
I suppose I could have talked about how many of our longtime parishioners and many of our new members are online participants exclusively. I suppose I could have talked about how many ministries are having shortages of volunteers, causing us to rethink what is possible because we cannot sustain the volunteer leadership. Or I suppose I could have talked about how we stepped out on faith by hiring two part-time clergy associates this year, knowing that our financial giving would need to grow to support the programmatic needs of our growing church. But those are realities I do not see as challenges; instead, I see them as opportunities to be the Church in new and creative ways as invited by the Holy Spirit. Certainly, I want our in-person attendance in worship to grow – but I want our online ministry to grow and thrive concurrently. Certainly, I would love some of our ministries to return to how we experienced them pre-pandemic – but I also see sacred invitations into new forms of ministry that may mean letting go of other forms. Certainly, I want to be fiscally judicious within our budget – but I also want to create enough space in our budget to grow ministries that matter and make an impact both inside these walls and outside these walls.
Perhaps what I mean is I look at Hickory Neck the same way that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy look at their church in Thessalonians. The writer of second Thessalonians, which some debate could be Paul or someone within the Pauline community, is writing to a community of believers facing persecution and afflictions. The text is not clear what those persecutions and afflictions are, but we know the church of the Thessalonians is suffering. In those days, persecutions and afflictions were often seen as signs of the end times, likely leading to a great deal of fear and anxiety.[i] And so, we hear this letter meant to commend, encourage, and thank the community, and help them interpret meaning in the midst of suffering. But the writer does not have to struggle too much to find that encouragement because what the writer has seen about this church is that they have developed an uncommon unity and love for one another.[ii] And that gift of unity and love is a gift to be celebrated and honored. That gift is something for which to give thanks.
And that is what we are doing today on this In-Gathering Sunday. We are giving thanks for the ways in which Hickory Neck has experienced uncommon unity and love for one another, especially as we emerge from what has been a tumultuous couple of years in our community and the world. We are giving thanks for the ways in which God has sustained us through afflictions and persecutions. We are giving thanks for the bountiful abundance in our lives, when the world around us would want us to see scarcity, and we are returning that abundance in the form of our time, talent, and treasure. And, so, friends, as we give thanks, I read to you our letter from second Thessalonians, paraphrased for today:
To the church of Hickory Neck: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore, I myself boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring…To this end, I always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of God’s call and will fulfil by God’s power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
[i] Guy D. Nave, Jr. “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 257.
[ii] Robert E. Dunham, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 257.