Once to Every Man

Matt. 3:1-12

Israel had not known a major prophet for 400 years. The people of the Law, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose pilgrimage took them to the land of Egypt under Joseph and brought them out under Moses — these people had not heard the call of judgment, forgiveness and hope for 400 years.

They knew that they had a covenant with God, that the 12 tribes had fought, strayed, united and wrestled their homeland from strangers. They were proud of Saul, David and Solomon. They regretted the divorce of the house of Israel into two houses, Israel and Judah. They mourned the chronic frustrations under unrighteous principalities and powers and the bondage to the forces of darkness. The prophets called again and again for justice, for mercy, for faithfulness, for trust, for forgiveness, for repentance and for hope. Isaiah raised a cry to those in captivity and enslaved by foreign powers: “Prepare the way. Make the crooked straight. He comes. The king comes. The savior comes. The messiah is coming.”

Oppressed by others, the family of God strove to know and to find God through keeping the Law. The harder they tried the harder it got. Family argued with family, the Pharisees with the Sadducees. Some acted out violently. Zealots rebelled, killed and were killed. Mourning its captivity and defeat, Israel yearned for forgiveness, comfort and hope. Would Elijah come again to lead the way? Would there be an apocalyptic reversal of time and eternity? From whence would come resolution and a healing of old wounds?

Onto the stage of history lurched John the Baptist, calling for repentance, for a turning around. He denounced evil and apostasy. He spoke the truth and offended the politicians. He proclaimed a new day. He baptized with water and announced a new baptism by the spirit, which would come with one who would bring salvation. John pointed to a new man and a new people. A new family of God. A new life: a new beginning and a new relationship through one who would lead us in a new journey, a new pilgrimage. John announced the coming of one who was born in Bethlehem in the stable of an inn. There was no other room. Plain folk, shepherds and stable hands, donkeys, sheep, cows and goats attended the birth of a babe in a manger. In these lowly beginnings, with an awed father and mother, the story of mankind, our history changed dramatically. The angels sang and the magi came from afar. In the cold, windswept hills of Palestine, on a winter’s night there was the birth of the incarnation of God’s compassion, forgiveness, comfort, love and hope.

The story of the Old Testament and of the Gospels is our story. We are now the tribes of God, the family of God. Our pilgrimage is fraught with danger and pain. It is tempting to say, “that the more things change, the more they stay the same.” There is still injustice, war, suffering and pain. The journey is hard. But the story and the promise of eternal life and God’s redemptive love guides us and gives us markers against which we hold our course. The history of the Christian Church over the last two thousand years is the history of faithful people grappling with the complexities of sin and temptation. There have been detours of wars and heresies, failures and venality. Time and again faithful men and women have taken up their crosses, made sacrifices and followed the call of Jesus Christ to proclaim His Lordship and to live out the fullness of the Gospel. Society has been shaped, hospitals built, colleges and universities established, folkways and mores formed that respected, honored and protected the individual. These institutions have been shaped and moderated by men and women of faith through their lives in the institution of the Church. Some institutions and parishes have been large, others small, some ornate, others simple. But through the institutions of the Church, through parishes like St. John’s, the Gospel has been preached, the promise of eternal life has been proclaimed, the sacraments have been celebrated and souls have been saved. All of this has happened because God has called His people and His people, people like you and me, have decided to respond.

Years ago James Russell Lowell wrote a poem that became a familiar hymn of my youth. “Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide. In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side; some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight, and the choice goes by for ever, ‘twixt that darkness and that light. Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust. Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just. Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had deniedƒ.New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of truth.” (The Hymnal 1940 p.519.) What a great hymn! It was written in 1845 to promote the cause of the abolition of slavery. It speaks of the struggle to give in to what is easy and to stand and to support that which is right. Though a little archaic and rough in spots, I love the thought that “once to every man/woman comes the moment to decide,” and “new occasions teach new duties.” The high priests of hymnody in the Episcopal Church eleminated that hymn in the 1980 revision of the hymnal. Even so, there are times when one has to choose to “fish or cut bait.”

Today is Stewardship Sunday. We are formally kicking off our Capital Fund Drive. In 1975 the moment came to decide. St. John’s decided to stay in its present location. We could have sold the building and have a newer building on the outskirts of the city. But the parish decided to stay in the center of the city, to proclaim the Gospel in the center of the city and to minister to the whole city. This is consecrated ground. Our sanctuary is holy space. It is filled with the prayers of generations and the memorials to generations. It is where God is praised and worshiped. It is where prayers are given and heard. It is where small miracles occur everyday. This is the place where people find and are found by God. This is holy ground.

I believe that here at St. John’s we present a specific message to ourselves and society that we believe is a valid statement and a valid way of life. In churchspeak: our mission is to save souls by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are not presenting a product. We are not presenting a service. We are presenting a religious way of life. We use the orthodox tradition of the Anglican Communion to express our faith. By proclaiming and teaching we are helping people on their faith journeys. We ask that they join us in worshiping the Triune God and in serving and helping others. St. John’s is a beacon in the midst of a metropolitan community, and we function as a vest-pocket cathedral: here we offer serious teaching, preaching, music, liturgy, worship, outreach and pastoral ministries. If we have a goal, it is to praise and serve God in our whole life. This means that we seek to set the standard of excellence in all that we do, whether it is music, worship, outreach, pastoral care, etc. We should seek to be the number one parish in the community, so that when people think of “church,” they think of St. John’s.

Our buildings have served us well. Several of them date back to 1867. Others are as recent as 1950. The whole complex is in serious need of reformation. You are encouraged to make a pledge of a significant amount to be paid off over a three to five year period. This is your time to memorialize dear old Dad or to commemorate Mom’s many years in the choir. Perhaps you proposed to your wife in this sanctuary, taught or were taught in one of our classrooms. Perhaps you wept tears of sorrow or of gladness at the altar rail. Perhaps you found healing for yourself or someone else here in this wonderful complex of buildings.

Each one of you is asked to make a meaningful pledge to our Captial Building Fund. Your pledge would be paid over a three to five year period. I know that you have many other commitments to charity. But St. John’s is not a charity, it is the leaven in all of the caring and giving in society. I know that many of you are on fixed incomes. What we ask for is 100% participation. You decide. You take the moment to decide into your hands and hold it before God. Every so often the moment comes to make a major decision and a major diffrence. This is one of those moments. After all, if not now, then when? When will you do what you really want to do? If not now, when? Comes the moment to decide. Carpe diem. Join in the tradition that goes back to John the baptist in pointing out God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. Join in helping that proclamation of the Gospel to continue for yet another generation and another hundred years. If not now, when? Let us go forth in the name of Christ. Amen.