Today is Stewardship Sunday, or what we call Celebration Sunday. Over the past 4 weeks we have been talking about the ways each and every one of us is an important thread in this congregation’s ability to change lives. The Stewardship Committee, Kaitlin Young, Sue Webb, Dick Runge, and Jan Hoffman, guided our focus on 4 ministries that are integral to the DNA of this congregation: Because of you, our church changes lives through music, children and youth ministries, local outreach, and social justice advocacy.
We are woven together. We are one in the Spirit.
Yet on this Celebration Sunday, the bible story read today was not your typical stewardship passage. The United Church of Christ suggests bible passages such as Matthew 6:19-21:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (NRSV).
Or 2 Corinthians 9:6-7:
“The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
These passages offer images of gifts, giving, and treasures. These are words that make sense to us for stewardship full of God’s abundant gifts, and our joyful responses. After all, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7), right?
Yet it seems to me that stewardship is much more complicated than that. The reality into which we are living is much more complex. The Holy Spirit is stirring something up. And She is ready to release a Holy Something in our midst. This is why I appreciated being able to struggle with the images in the story from the book of John this week. As our own nights lengthen, it becomes easy to imagine the gloom into which the disciples gathered in that evening. They were hiding. Doors shut. Locked. Fear swirling about.
“…it was evening… the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” (John 20:19).
Evening. Dark. Doors. Locked. Fear.
And grief. This story takes place after Jesus’ horrendous, public, crucifixion. This story was written down probably 60(ish) years later (around the year 90 of the Common Era). Reading the narrative today, we need to take a bit of caution, because the Gospel of John can be viewed through a lens that is anti-Semitic. Bible scholars do not know a lot about the community that retold this story. But in the book of Acts, chapter 9, the author tells us that the early Jewish followers of Jesus, those that called themselves the Way, were being rounded up by a sect of religious elites (Acts 9). Hounded by people like Saul (who became the apostle Paul). And of course, if there are Sauls out there persecuting you, fear abounds.
In grappling with the “what just happened?” grief-stricken moments in which the disciples found themselves following Jesus’ death, we are also witnesses to this amazing “ah-ha” moment. A thin space of revelation sandwiched between anguish and sudden insight, deep despair and great hope. A recognition of that Holy Something greater than ourselves.
Have you ever been there? Have you ever found yourself in a life shattering instant, a series of days spiraling out of control, that point from which… going forward… life will never be the same?
In my own life experiences, these are often times in which I find I WANT to lock myself in, away from the rest of the world. That normal, human sense to seek safety, grieve that which was, and question what is next.
There are REAL fears. There is REAL pain. Here. Inside our doors. And here, in our neighborhood. It is here, in that place of gloom, despair, and locked doors, that Jesus shows up. And in an instant, transformation occurs. A movement is born. And the world is never the same.
Do you believe?
I believe that we are living into one of the transformational moments of history. I believe that we, together with the Holy Spirit, can unlock shut doors around us and let God pour in. In worship the past month, we have heard five testimonies about the impact THIS church has on lives. Merry Spangler shared with us how important this church was for her at a critical moment in her life—and how she found community at Memorial. Two of our youth, Maddie Planton and Izzy Oeser, talked about the ways in which they have encountered God through the relationships they have built during Vacation Bible School and other church activities. Jacquie Caravello offered a reflection on her experiences at Luke House and the joy in breaking bread with people in the community, and how while we cannot fix everything—we can show up. Lisa Schoenwetter talked about Memorial’s social justice work, which is so important for Love to overcome fear in our community.
This is life changing news times 5. But let’s not forget the written testimonies that have been in the eNews from Janine Bessemer, Mary Holtshopple, Jan Pitas, and Kaitlin Young. That is 9 stories. Now, multiple those 9 stories by YOU. Take those stories and weave in yours. Let the Spirit be unlocked, and released! Because of you…our church changes lives.
And then… what if… just what if… we could multiply those stories by other local congregations, our local faith and/or coalition partners in Fitchburg… around Dane County… and make a substantial change in the ways in which we actively change lives?
Here is one example of the Spirit unlocked: Two weeks ago, a handful of UCC congregations in the Chicago area announced that they had raised enough money to wipe “… out $5.3 million in medical debt for 5,888 Chicago(land) families… through a collaborative effort of local, Conference and national bodies of the United Church of Christ and other partners… (and because of their ministry) Almost 6,000 families on the South Side of Chicago have had their medical debt forgiven.” Now THAT is an amazing Because of You, Our Church Changes Lives story! This is a movement that unlocks the Spirit! The Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, the UCC’s General Minister and President, said “This is what love in action looks like. The joy of giving in a way where you see tangible evidence of a life improved is sacred.”
Do you believe? According to today’s bible reading, two thousand years ago, a small band of disciples, women and men, experienced a Holy Something. On an all-too-normal evening, in an all-too-uncertain time, there was a movement of the Spirit and the world was transformed.
Do you believe?
Beloved, I say to you today that once again the Holy Spirt needs to be unlocked. As we grapple with our own “what just happened?” moments, we are also catching glimpses of the amazing “ah-ha” moments that happen HERE. In our time. A revelation of that Holy Something greater than ourselves.
To this I testify: Because of YOU, Holy Things do happen HERE… and in our wider community.
So Come. Embrace stewardship as a faith practice that transforms lives. Changes the world. Unlocks the Spirit. The Holy Movement that starts… HERE…
Reflection on John 20:19-29 offered on November 3, 2019
 October 21, 2019 Written by Hans Holznagel, 2019 at 1:46 PM October 31, and 2019 at 1:45 PM October 31. “UCC Forgives Millions in Debt in Chicago, Announces National Effort.” United Church of Christ. Accessed November 1, 2019. https://www.ucc.org/news_ucc_forgives_millions_in_debt_in_chicago_announces_national_effort_10202019.
 October 29, 2019 Written by Connie Larkman, 2019 at 9:50 AM October 29, and 2019 at 9:29 AM October 29. “UCC to Continue Mission of Abolishing Millions in Medical Debt.” United Church of Christ. Accessed November 1, 2019. https://www.ucc.org/news_ucc_to_continue_mission_of_abolishing_millions_in_medical_debt_10292019.