Easter 3                                               Keeping Faith                                      Susan J. Barnes

April 30, 2017                                                                                      St. John’s, Minneapolis

Theologian Frederick Buechner writes memoirs. He recommends doing so as a periodic spiritual discipline.  That makes a lot of sense, really.   If we look back from time to time, we more clearly see how God has been working in our lives (it’s much harder in the present, isn’t it?)   We recognize the particular talents that God has given us and—if we will–how God has used them as spiritual gifts.

This practice can be good for congregations, too.   And a Centennial is just the time for a backward glance.   Jane Gilgun’s three sessions on our history in the Forum this year have shown how consistently certain characteristics that run right through St. John’s story are still part of our mission statement.   It seems that congregations, like people, have DNA.

For instance, the nurturing of children is there: from our very first days as part of an ecumenical Sunday school in the 1890s.

Celebration of community in and out of worship is, too, along with service to others.

As I’ve thought about our history lately, I’ve recognized that keeping faith is also part of St. John’s DNA.  Like other aspects of our nature, we probably take it for granted.   After all, it is part of the fabric—the very mortar–of this beloved building.

Here’s what I mean.

One hundred years ago this month, on April 4, 1917, the United States joined the Allies in World War I.

Barely a year before, the cornerstone had been laid on our Tower and Sanctuary.   In the upheaval and uncertainty of war, in which a number of St. John’s members offered up their lives, the congregation kept faith.   They completed the construction in time to celebrate the first services on September 17, 1917. They did so, by the way, with $27,000 in pledges and an $18,000 mortgage that would not be paid off for thirty years!

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (From the letter to the Hebrews)

Keeping faith means taking action in the present that both honors the past and looks with hope to the unseen future.

Sometimes that future lies a long way off—as with our church bell.   The Tower was designed and fitted out for a bell.  But it only got one 63 years later–in 1990; it was a gift of Fred Appell, Kirsten Mair’s father, who named it “Elizabeth” in memory of John the Baptist’s mother.

Most often in St. John’s history, keeping faith has meant facing a very present challenge.   Here are a couple of examples (drawn from two wonderful manuscripts: a history by John Risken and a D Min. paper by Mariann Budde)

St. John’s membership peaked in the early 1960s at about 700, including 170 Sunday school children. After that it declined steadily for two decades.  Lots of outside social and political factors contributed.   But so did the fact that our rectors kept faith with gospel values that were hot button issues: like opposition to the Viet Nam war and to nuclear arms; support of Civil Rights; and embracing of liturgical reforms, including the ordination of women.

That decline led to the greatest test we have faced so far. In the early ’80s, pledge income could no longer support a rector’s salary.  The bishop at the time wanted to close St. John’s.

No way! The remaining families stepped up.   Many of them were neighbors and socially close-knit.  For two years they ran the church (along with then Parish Secretary Jymie Anderson!), using only supply clergy for Sunday worship.   Keeping faith, with a hopeful vision for the future, they cut expenses and increased pledge income to the point that they could hire Todd Smelzer full time in 1983.    We owe an enormous debt to those members, many of whom are still among us today.   Their names include: Barber, Blatchley, Bremner, Crandall, Crary (Beth Reed), Erdmann, Gifford, Hawkinson, Madsen, Miller, Minnihan, Olson, Risken, Staubus, Stevens.

Their sacrifice–their faith–brought us to this blessed time.

St. John’s has grown in numbers and strength ever since. Still every generation has its own challenge.    Our last building campaign, ten years ago, was very ambitious, indeed.  Can you imagine St. John’s without the columbarium, elevator, accessible entrance, the parish/staff offices, the Library?  All were part of the project.

Like the work we plan to do this summer, that construction had to be done at once, not piecemeal.   It required a bridge loan AND a mortgage—the first St. John’s had taken since 1948.  It took courage, faith, and vision for the membership to step up to that challenge.   As Michael Morrow predicted then, we have managed the mortgage well, paying it down steadily.

Deferred maintenance on the Tower, an urgent capital matter, became our Centennial Challenge. Leadership on Building and Grounds and Vestry embraced it, along with the need to renovate our lower level to optimize safety and accessibility.  Faithful to our core value of service, we included a tithe for Social Justice.

The Keeping Faith campaign began as capital drives usually do, with a “quiet phase” whose aim is to raise 50-70% of the goal; our original total goal was $1,700,000.

With thanks and praise to God, through the generosity and sacrificial gifts of 80 households, we broke through that goal. You will hear more about that at the all-congregational meeting.  To build on this stunning success, an additional $100,000 has been pledged as a dollar-for-dollar challenge match for pledges and gifts received in the final, public phase of the campaign beginning today.

Everyone involved has recognized that we are being lifted by the Holy Spirit.   It is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon.   We must seize this moment.   Recalling the story in Genesis of Joseph whose good stewardship in the seven years of plenty carried the people through the seven years of famine, this also is a time to provide for the future.

We have a new kind of challenge now: keeping faith in the stewardship of abundance.  This campaign was forced by deferred maintenance.  We are taking care of the two most urgent items now, but others are waiting in line.   Our annual budgets cannot match the need.

And deferred maintenance can bring a congregation to its knees.

In addition to the Centennial Fund for Social Justice, my original idea for this campaign included a significant contribution to our meager capital reserve.   Costs for the key capital parts pushed it out.   Now we can return to that vision.  We can honor the past AND provide for the future—making a Centennial gift to those who follow us here.

Let us celebrate the sacrifices that have led to the present success.   Thanks be to God!

And let us commit to continue, with hearts and hands open in thanksgiving and hope for the Grace that is flowing through each of us as we give.

If you have already pledged, thank you!   If you have not, you will have the opportunity in the coming month.   Watch your mail!

I pray that everyone who loves this church will join the lead donors in making a sacrificial commitment—whatever that means to each of us–keeping faith with our forebears and providing for a future as yet unseen.

Let our Centennial Challenge be remembered as a Centennial Blessing for the future of this congregation and our service to the community.