They say the vast majority of disaster relief comes in within the first 90 days of a disaster, then that flood of cash and goods, labor and care—turns into a trickle, and then nothing at all.
Likewise, widows and others who have lost a loved one, find an outpouring of support… for about the first month. Then people begin to drift away. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that life is awful busy.
Churches too, have a flow and ebb to them. Churches form their habits based on the decade they were founded in, and for about the first 100 years of a church’s life the further they get from the time when those habits were the norm, the more likely they are to be in decline.
Finally, a slightly different and also slightly more concrete example—The House of All Saints and Sinners—a Lutheran Church in Denver that focuses on ministering to those pushed out of traditional church, Recovering addicts, gays, tattooed folk, and hipsters—In other words the kind of people who would show up to Thanksgiving dinner at the Halverson household when I was a kid.
This Church has grown, from 4 people hanging out on a couch talking about their faith to 180 on a Sunday. But with that growth comes growing pains.
What do you do when the normal people show up?
Does installing a sound system squelch the Spirit?
How do you keep that many anti-authoritarian-types, each with different ideas about how to do church, from being at each other’s throats?
In all four of these cases, time, instead of healing all wounds, has the potential to cause deeper wounds.
In the face of such a situation, it’s worth focusing on:
Today we read from one of the earliest pieces of Christian scripture—Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians.
And what a community Paul writes to.
To a bunch of people who assumed Jesus was coming back within their lifetime.
The Thessalonians were a community that hoped to white knuckle it until the end of the world. To just hold it together for a little longer.
To push forward those last few days, on adrenaline alone.
They’d hoped to hold their communal life together just a little longer.
They were a community waiting for the End of the World.
And the end didn’t come.
Some still pressed on—other’s pressing turned into depression and inaction.
Their waiting turned to boredom and backbiting.
They were even weary of doing right.
They desperately needed to know how to be faithful in the interim period—in the Already Not Yet reality of the Christian life.
They needed a different model of being faithful together—one that involved a sustainable community and a sustainable faith.
They needed to move from a faith in which one last great heroic act of holding on, was enough—one where they could save themselves through their struggle toward the End of Time, snapping at one another all the way there—
To a faith that was servant shaped—shaped like their Savior.
One of small. Quiet. Consistent. acts, beautiful in their simplicity and inclusivity—so that even the backbiters who only wanted to watch and jeer, are won over and eventually join in.
Or look at Luke chapter 21 which we read today. It is sometimes called the little apocalypse, because it speaks of times of trials and great calamity.
And lest we grasp these words of Jesus and turn them into End of the World Predictions as the Thessalonians did,
it is worth point out that the troubles it describes are mirrored in The Gospel of Luke’s sequel, The Acts of the Apostles.
For example, in Luke Jesus warns of “great earthquakes” / in Acts Paul is freed from prison by a great earthquake and allowed to witness to his jailer.
In Luke Jesus warns of dreadful portents in the sky / in Acts these portents are pointed to at Pentecost as the early Christians testify to God’s actions in every language on the earth.
It’s like Jesus is giving the disciples a road map to their suffering and faithful endurance.
And Jesus tells them that coming through this calamity will lead to the gaining of their souls.
Gaining their psyche, in the Greek. Their true self.
How they endure—their ongoing faithfulness—shapes who they are—it forms them.
Think about that for a moment—
the Disciples, who in the gospels are mainly known for their bungling, for their not getting it, cowering men who deny their Lord—
are transformed into the Apostles, who boldly preach the good news that Jesus died and rose for us, preach that message to the ends of the earth.
They are so shaped by these times, testifying to God’s action in their lives—testifying to God’s ongoing faithfulness, even as they are shape into a faithful people.
In summary, ongoing faithfulness is about a small thing, quiet simple acts, but it is also a giant thing, being formed into the Body of Christ.
It’s the unsung background work our church, the ELCA, has always been so good at when disaster strikes, we aren’t only the first in with aid, but we’re also the last out.
It’s being there for people who are grieving over a lost loved one, even after our impulse to help has left us—and being surprised by the person you are becoming by being there for them.
It’s riding the ebb and flow of where a church is at, and holding together a community.
It’s an experimental church wrestling with the dangers of growth and change, and being changed by that wrestling.
It is God’s ongoing faithfulness to us being realized in us.