Building for All Souls

A sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 25, 2011. The lectionary readings are Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, and Matthew 20:1-16.

If you’ve read the church newsletters and have picked up on the theme of this day, you know that we’re thinking about building at All Souls. In particular, after the 11 a.m. Mass, Jim Clark from MTFA Architecture will be presenting a plan to add an elevator, a proper entrance from the parking lot, and handicapped accessible restrooms. This process has been hoped for and talked about for years, but has finally taken shape over the last year and a half. Representatives from the parish have dreamed, prayed, argued, and planned. The Vestry has approved the plan and is solidly behind it. Initial plans can be viewed here.

So let me say out loud what a lot of us have thought—that question we might have asked ourselves or someone else: How can we possibly think about building at All Souls?

At a time like this, how can we? The economy is bad. Unemployment hovers around 9.1 per cent. Too many we know either don’t have jobs or don’t have jobs that pay or satisfy. Some are retired and living on a fixed income or on investments, and things are unsure. Things are uncertain. Healthcare costs more. Home maintenance costs more. Rent costs more.

How can consider building with a congregation the size and strength of ours? Our active membership is around 350 persons, with an average Sunday attendance of about 150. We have about 162 financial pledges, with a promised pledged income of just under $500,000. But that’s a huge stretch. And this is a bare-bones budget.

Though some in our parish make good money, it takes a fortune to live in this area—keeping up homes, sending kids to school, taking care of aging parents, (or even visiting aging parents) and still trying to save for the future. Our parish grows, but often we grow with younger people, who (frankly) don’t make a lot of money. Or we grow with wonderful people who are just here for a couple of years before moving on (so their investment—spiritually and financially may be lower). Or we add to our number people who come from a background where they were never asked to connect the way they spend their money with their spiritual beliefs.

This question, “How can we possibly build now?” can be shortened to a simple, “How can we?” But that’s a theological question as much as it’s a practical one. And it’s a question that has been asked before.

In our Old Testament reading, the people of Israel are asking “how can we?” How can we move on? How can we move forward? But they feel stuck. They’ve heard about the Promised Land. They’ve been told about God’s love for them. Some remember being slaves in Egypt. But memory is a funny thing. There in the heat and boredom and fear and hunger and confusion of the desert—the old life back in Egypt begins to seem pretty good. “If only we had died there,” they say. But they look to Moses and toGod: “Now look what you’ve done. You’ve brought us ‘into this wilderness to kills us with hunger!’”

Moses understands complaining when he hears it, and so he refers it up to the Divine Complaint Department. “This is bigger than me, God,” Moses says. “You need to do something with these people of yours.” But God hears. And God answers. “You shall eat. And in the new morning, you shall have your fill. And you shall know that I am the Lord your God.”

The people have God’s promises. But before long the promises produce manna—Manna from heaven.

Biblical scholars still debate what manna might have been. Maybe a miracle: as bread comes down from heaven. Or maybe the manna was some kind of plant the Israelites stumble upon. Others suggest that manna is like the Feeding of the Thousands, in which the real miracle is more that people share the little they have with each other, so it seems like a miracle of amazing proportion.

However manna was made, wherever it might have come from, it brings a message as true that day as it is today. God says “I am with you. Have faith, do your part, and I will provide for you. I will provide.”

God provides in our Gospel story, as well. It’s an elaborate story that can help us think about the ways we measure ourselves against others and try to figure out who is more worthy of God’s blessing and provision. But the story has in it the same simple ending as the reading from Exodus: God provides. And the kingdom of God is a place of generosity. And that’s why we can think about building for All Souls.

With our history, with our faith, and with each other– How can we NOT build?

In 1911, the little group of 15 men and women, along with Dr. Sterrett, began All Souls and they had their obstacles. But they were faithful. They were passionate. We can build on their faith and tenacity.

During the wars, All Souls fought. Some parishioners and friends of the parish died. Many returned to lead and serve and to build. We can build on the vision and strength of those veterans.

On June 1, 1923, Washington woke up to the awful news that the founding rector of All Souls, Dr. James McBride Sterrett, after suffering from depression, had taken his own life. The congregation mourned. But they came to church and they said their prayers. They supported their then rector, Dr. Sterrett’s son.
By the next year, they had built this larger addition of the church, and the Rev. Henry Hatch Dent Sterrett, after his father’s death, continued to pastor All Souls for another 25 years. We can build on their resilience.

All Souls as a parish almost died by the mid 1980s. But there were a few older ladies who kept the doors open, the flowers on the altar, and breakfast in the undercroft. We build on their faith.

In early 90s, too many young people were dying of AIDS. But the rector All Souls opened its arms and its doors. A lot of funerals were done here and from this parish. We build so that spirit of compassion and care.

This summer, a young transgender man was introduced to All Souls. Before he went back to school he asked to meet with me. When we got together, he thanked me for this place—for our welcome, for our acceptance, and for helping him feel the presence of God in a rare way. We can build on that acceptance and welcome.

And finally, in just a few moments we will baptize James Douglas McAllister. Every baptism is a celebration of faith in the goodness of God, in the generosity and care of God, and in the laughter of God. We can build for Jaime and his brother Will; we can build for their parents, and for all the families who look for a place to say a prayer, to help teach their children about Jesus, to make new friends, and to find God.

Given our history. Given our faith. Given God’s promise to be generous always— at a time like this, how can we NOT build?

May God continue to lead us and inspire us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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