"Maintenance Mode"

Sunday sermon from November 10, 2013, Stewardship Sunday
Texts: Luke 20:27-38, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

No one will be as surprised as me that today's sermon isn't about money. Today is, after all, stewardship Sunday; it's the Sunday in the life of our congregation when we first receive financial pledges for the next fiscal year, as we will today during the regular time of offering. It's not an event on the liturgical calendar, but in most churches it might as well be, and of all Sundays it's the one where you come to church most expecting to talk about money, and very much to my own surprise I'm not going to, partially because I'm confident you've heard that sermon before; partially because I'm committed to speaking and preaching about money throughout the calendar of our time together and not just one this one particular day; but, largely because I recognize that stewardship isn't just about why we give our money. It's also about where we give our money.

Now, it used to be the case that the church was the sole provider of almost every kind of social or community service, schools, orphanages, welfare assistance, etc., all under the umbrella of the church, which meant that giving to the church was kind of a one-stop-shop for making charitable contributions. But as you know, these days churches compete for charitable donations alongside all kinds of worthy non-profits. Which means that the financial health of any one congregation doesn't just compete against our natural tendencies to hold on to what's ours; it competes even against our charitable impulses; it competes against all the other organizations that vie for our gifts. The enemy of stewardship Sunday isn't just greed, which is easily demonized; sadly, it's also Habitat for Humanity and the Red Cross and your Alumni Association and the list goes on. So it seems to me this morning that, as we prepare to put our pledge cards in the offering plate, it seems to me that we ought to be able to articulate not simply why we give, but why we give here. I want you to give not simply out of theological obligation but also out of excitement for what's happening here. Which means it's not a question about money. It's a question about who we are as a congregation, about who we are and where we're going.

Who we are and where we're going. It's a surprisingly Biblical question. Last week we got to know the congregation of early Christians in Thessalonica. It's a church for which Paul exhibits great tenderness and great affection. But as we heard today in this central chunk of a rather short letter, even for Paul's most favorite congregation it is not always easy to remember who they are and where they're going. In Paul's absence, the congregation has been inundated by some bad preaching and some less-than-helpful theology. Which means that the pastoral response in this letter is not only to repair some of the theological harm but also urge the congregation to remember their roots. That's how our text today closes:* "So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us."* Hold fast to the traditions. The world is changing. There are all kinds of preachers of dubious theological merit. Paul has set his church afloat into a sea of uncertainty in a storm of risk and political danger and to help moor them, to help them know who they are and where they're going he has this imperative: hold fast to the traditions.

Now, in our world, which is also changing very quickly - you may have noticed - I think tradition gets a bad rap. Contrary to popular belief, it is not simply the process of doing the same thing over and over again. I should know, because I am hardly a creature of habit. For me there is nothing at stake in having the same morning routine day in and day out; I'm happy to let it come as it comes, but I do love a tradition, because tradition isn't just about what we do day in and day out but how we are connected to the larger story of who we are, where we're going, and where we've come from. Most of you know that my wife and I are living right now in Lovingston, which, if we're being honest, is going through a rough patch. We don't see many folks on the street. It very often feels like a town that used to be here. In fact we've lived there for less than a year and in that time at least three local businesses have closed their doors permanently, and it's not like we had any to spare. But then on Halloween, from all over Nelson county, families of all shapes and sizes descended on Front Street in all manner of costume, and all of a sudden all the doors were open and the town was alive, hundreds of people flowing through the streets, and in that moment we realized how much more there was to learn about the place we were living. Tradition does that: it fills the occasionally empty streets of a changing world with all of the stories and names and characters and colors and shapes of everything that's gone before. We know how that works. We sit in the pews where our parents sat. We sing the hymns our grandmothers sang. We pray the prayers our great-grandfathers prayed, and so on, and so back into the past, tradition holds us fast to some persistent vision of who we are.

But that's not the whole story on tradition. A brief look at our Gospel reading from this morning would give us an entirely different perspective. The Sadducees have heard Jesus talk a lot about tradition and they've heard him talk a lot about change and they figure he can't have it both ways so they try and trap him with this convoluted question about marriage. We can skip the details. Suffice to say that, in some ways, Jesus gets off on a technicality, but it's a bit more bruising that the Sadducees realize. He's arguing that in God's kingdom all those traditions won't really apply, that our Lord "... is God not of the dead, but of the living." Which is to say that, for Jesus, tradition is fine for telling you where you've come from but it can't do much to tell you who you are now or where you're going, because God is not of the dead but of the living. So we sit in the pews where our parents sat and we sing the hymns or grandmothers sang and we pray the prayers that our great-grandfathers prayed but still, God is here with the living. The resurrected Christ is here with the living. The power of the Holy Spirit that rebuilds and reforms and rejuvenates and reimagines us is here, with the living, always doing something new. So if we are engaged in telling the story of who we are, of setting and stewarding the vision of who we might yet be, it means we are engaged in not just holding fast to the traditions that brought us here but opening ourselves to the new things that God is doing in this place, here with the living.

We have to hold fast. That's who we are. But we also have to let go. That's where we're going. We have to hold fast, and we have to let go, and it's exactly as complicated as it sounds.

What does that look like? On my smartphone I have an application called "Daily Prayer." It's actually produced by the Presbyterian Church - by some programmer that the denomination has paid for the task. It's a very simple application: it contains the readings and scripture for morning and evening prayer services throughout the lectionary cycle. Those readings and prayers were originally compiled for our printed Book of Worship, so it's not like the programmer had to write any prayers from scratch. All the software does is take these words and put them my pocket in a simple, easy-to-use kind of way. But since the content itself is so very old, you might imagine my surprise when, a few weeks after I first installed this application, I got a message telling me that it was time for an updated version. Now, this is just kind of the life of owning a smartphone -- the software changes all the time, and I am constantly in the process of installing updates. But that's to be expected for programs that do all kinds of new and innovative things. This one is just a prayer book, and the words haven't changed in generations, and yet every six weeks or so here I am with a little reminder to install new version, which means that in our denominational budget somewhere is a line item for active development on this one application that really seems like it shouldn't have to change. And to be fair, it's not like they're making huge changes. It's not like they've put all these fancy bells and whistles in it; it's not like it's integrated with Facebook or uses GPS data or some other fancy new trick. It's just that the technology changes so quickly, and the code has to change if it wants to stay relevant. The screen sizes change. The software rules change. It's just the way the industry goes, and our programmer is doing his best (or her best) to keep up, with one hand holding fast to those old words and that old Word of God, and with the other constantly letting go of the code and that makes it happen.

Now, we have an alternative. Whoever is in charge of the existence of the Daily Prayer app has an alternative. They could simply say: look, this thing works well enough. Maybe a bug here or there, but for the most part, it works. We've pretty much got the program we want. The words aren't going to change. The prayers aren't going to change. It works on all the phones that you can buy right now and that's good enough for us; we've got to quit. We can't keep paying this one guy to make updates to something that really shouldn't have to change. In software development, this happens all the time: companies decide, for whatever reason, that the code has accomplished all of its intended goals, that it's about as good as it's ever going to get, that they're not going to work on it anymore. And it goes into what we call Maintenance Mode. Maintenance Mode means that we think the program is good enough as it is. Maintenance Mode means we're going to do what we can to preserve the code as written, but we're not changing anything; we're not investing anything. It just has to live or die on its own. As you might imagine, Maintenance mode is easy. You don't have to make anything anymore; your overhead disappears; you can just sell it for pure profit. And maintenance mode is cheap, because you can sell your program without having to pay your programmers. But the problem with Maintenance mode, of course, is that technology changes underneath our feet. But most programs that go into Maintenance Mode just fade into obscurity. Even if you don't program all the bells and whistles, just staying relevant takes investment. Just staying relevant takes ongoing imagination. Just staying relevant takes holding fast and letting go.

And now it's Stewardship Sunday, and you get to decide whether this congregation is in active development or Maintenance Mode. You can say: look, this thing works well enough. Maybe a bug here or there, but for the most part, it works. We've pretty much got the program we want. We've got the traditions that hold us fast. And we will do more or less the things that got us here, and we will putter along. It's relatively easy. It's relatively cheap. But remember that most programs that go into Maintenance Mode just fade into obscurity. The walls won't instantly cave in. The roof won't immediately collapse. The crowd won't suddenly vanish. But the hard truth is that the world is changing underneath our feet, and if we put this church in maintenance mode - or, one might argue, if we leave this church in maintenance mode - we will, nonetheless, slowly, gradually, inevitably, fade away. We will become the church that used to be here.

So you get to decide, but I, for one, choose active development. And this congregation has, time and again in recent history, chosen active development. You've chosen the hard path of investment and change and risk. You put money into the revitalization of this sanctuary, in order to realize a vision of having a place of worship and welcome for anybody that God sends through our doors. You took the financial risk of calling a full-time pastor, because of a vision of this congregation wherein its life does not stop when the Sunday service ends but continues throughout the week. And this year your session has time and again chosen active development. We've invested to create the parlor space in the education building because of a vision wherein this church might be a place of comfort and fellowship for people in every season of life. We've done the small and less glamorous work to ensure that the life of our church preschool continues to thrive in accordance with the vision of community service and education long ago articulated by this congregation. And in the year to come, it is very much my hope that we continue to be a congregation in active development. The proposed 2014 budget includes a substantial percentage increase to this church's commitment to community mission and outreach, not just because of a vision of who we are but of what Amherst is, a vision of how this congregation might lift up the community around it. We are very much holding fast to the core of who we are: to the words of Scripture and the words of prayer that have borne us this far. But we are also letting go, taking a leap of faith, carried here only by the Word made flesh, by the resurrected Messiah, by the God of the living who works in our midst for peace and justice and reconciliation and we are just trying to keep up.

Active development is hard work. It takes sweat. It takes energy. It takes imagination. And it takes stewardship. You know it and I know it: none of this happens without you, not without your time, not without your talent, and not without without your financial support. And if you can give, if you can give out of your imagination and not just out of the money left at the end of the month, if you can give to a vision and not just to a budget, then before you know it we will not just be trying to keep up with the living God. We will be riding something more powerful than we have ever known.

Hold fast.

Let go.