Preached on Proper 28 at St. Matthew & St. Timothy Church, New York
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
If you are at all familiar with the history of this church, St. Matthew & St. Timothy’s, you know the church building has been destroyed 4 times since its inception in 1797. This very building that we are sitting in now was rebuilt in 1969 after being burnt to the ground in 1965.
If you have been around this church for the past 15 or 20 years, you know the neighborhood and the congregation have seen their fair share of change. I’ve been here less than 2 years. But I spent 5 weeks listening to the stories of people in this parish as we discussed Radical Welcome* in our October book study.
What I have learned from all of you is that this church was a safe harbor when the streets were too dangerous to walk down. In a time when one could not walk from Columbus Avenue to Amsterdam unless first heading a few blocks North or South to circumvent drugs and violence, St. Matthew & St. Timothy was a haven of worship, learning, language and relationships.
The neighborhood is a safer place now than it once was. But with increased safety comes increased rent, leaving many priced out of their homes—either forced to leave, or to stay but feel like outsiders. And the changes have taken a toll on our Spiritual Home too. We look around and feel anemic—nostalgic for the days when services were noisy with children and pews were full of friends.
We are not too different from the writer of Luke’s Gospel and the people who would have first heard it. While the exact date of Luke’s Gospel is not known, many scholars believe that it was written after the destruction of the temple described in our reading today. So while Jesus was predicting the destruction of the temple, Luke’s account is written in retrospect of it.
And if the destruction of the temple weren’t enough, the verses immediately following today’s reading talk about a serious neighborhood change—the rule of the gentiles in what was a Jewish land.
In short: this message is for us. This Gospel is ours.
Jesus says the temple building will be thrown down, when not one stone will be left upon another. This church has seen the same.
He says we’ll encounter false teachers to lead us astray. Our world has known many.
He says nations and kingdoms will be at war with one another. The Veterans we honored this week can speak to that truth.
He warns of natural disasters and epidemics. We of course remember last year’s Hurricane Sandy even as we pray for the victims of this week’s Typhoon in the Philippines.
He warns of betrayal and hatred and death. An every-day threat.
And in light of allllll that, Jesus says we will not perish. We will endure. And he tells us this is our opportunity to testify.
To give testimony. To bear witness. That’s not easy to do when your temple is in shambles and your community is a faithful remnant among strangers.
And I’m not trying to say that our church has fallen apart and our neighbors are our enemies. This is not a perfect comparison—and thank God it isn’t. But it is a chance for us to recognize the challenges of Jesus’ time and of our own time, and to hear Jesus’ call in the midst of it all to be the resurrection people who proclaim a resurrection story.
It’s easier to testify when things are going well—when we are feeling strong and sure of ourselves. I tell people all the time that I intern at the best parish with the best mentor. I tell people how wonderful the parishoners are and how welcome you all make me feel. I tell them I actually get to do good work here—like working with the soup kitchen last year, preaching in two languages, leading a thought provoking book study. For me, having only been here 18 months rather than 18 years, it’s easy to appreciate the thriving ministry that is St. Matthew & St. Timothy’s.
But we have to testify when we’re feeling down too, and I can understand how those who have experienced the transition in our community and church might find endurance and testimony to be hard work.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is about hard work. You would almost think he’s writing to employees at a business, but he’s really talking to Christians in the early church.
My favorite line is, “We hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work” (3:11). Note that Paul does not equate busy-ness with work. The Thessalonians were apparently quite busy even in their idleness.
New York is a very busy place—take it from someone clearly not from here. My level of busy-ness has reached an all time high, and my guess is you feel pretty busy on most days too. Sometimes I’m so busy I can’t seem to get any work done.
Here are some examples:
When I’m so busy worrying about an exam that I can’t focus on studying for it.
When I’m so busy writing a sermon that I forget to listen to the Holy Spirit.
When a seminary is so busy making ends meet that it forgets that it is an extension of the church first and a business second.
When we’re so busy preparing food for the soup kitchen that we forget to prepare our hearts to truly serve our neighbor with dignity and love.
When we’re so busy missing so-and-so who used to be here all the time that we either forget to check in on that person or forget to check in on the person who is actually here present with us.
Sometimes we’re so busy lamenting the destruction of the temple that we forget to testify to the promise of resurrection.
People occasionally ask me why I’m training to become a priest when churches everywhere are experiencing decline. Where’s the job security in that?
The truth is I’m training to become a priest in a church that preaches resurrection—Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We practice resurrection every time we come to this table to receive the broken body of Christ, and we practice resurrection when we become what we receive—Christ alive in us, in our church, in the world.
And it’s true that we feel thrown down or betrayed at times. But this is where we come for the spiritual food we need to endure. Not enduring as busy-bodies, but as witnesses to a risen Christ.
In a few moments we’ll prepare this table for our Holy Communion—all of us, together. And whether you’re robed at the altar or standing in a pew, you are integral in sharing Christ’s body. Together we profess a bold faith and pray bold prayers. Your testimony is just as important as mine, Deacon George’s or Mother Carla’s. This is our work. But it’s not the end of our work. We testify to a risen Christ in these walls with one another, and then we continue to bear witness when we “go forth into the world rejoicing.”
Jesus tells us: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.” Lord, help us to see the opportunities here among us. Help us to be your resurrected church. Amen.
*Radical Welcome by Stephanie Spellers is an excellent read.