Be of Good Cheer:
Over the past year or so I have had the huge pleasure of working through the Acts of the Apostles with the adult Sunday School class. It’s probably the third time I have done so – with one group or another – in twenty five years; and as with any great work of writing, you never exhaust them. The more you read of them, the more you discover is there; and familiar passages reveal hidden depths of meaning.
One of the famous elements of the story told in Acts concerns Paul’s sea-journey to Rome, as a prisoner who has invoked his right as a Roman citizen to appeal his case to Caesar. Against Paul’s warnings, the captain of the ship had pushed the sea journey a little further than was safe at a dangerous time of year, and they are caught up in a terrible storm, driven helplessly by a north-easter in the middle Mediterranean. “ And when neither sun nor stars in many days appeared, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope that we should be saved was then taken away” (Acts 27:20). Yet in this situation, it is the same Paul who earlier warned the captain against the risk he was taking, who now stands forth with words of hope and encouragement revealed to him by the Lord. Though the ship and its cargo will be lost, every one of the human beings on board will be saved. After days without sleep and food, “he took bread, and gave thanks to God in presence of them all: and when he had broken it, he began to eat”. His words and action are contagious: “Then were they all of good cheer, and they also took some food”. In the event, the ship runs aground on off the isle of Malta and breaks up in the waves, but they all make it shore.
In the midst of a raging storm, sleep deprived and famished, facing shipwreck and death by drowning, Paul has reason in his faith to give thanks. He trusts in the promises of Christ, and in the providence of God, in his power to bring good out of evil, and life out of death; to save and deliver not just from but even through destruction. As Paul had written to the Thessalonians several years before, “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). “In every thing” means just that – in every thing, both the good and the bad, and perhaps especially the bad; for our God is the God who can use everything in the service of his good purpose, even things that are bad, and perhaps especially those (Romans 8:28).
So as I look back over the last one and half years, difficult, disruptive, demoralizing as they have been – and it’s not over yet – I find myself giving thanks. Diocesan and civil authorities imposed guidelines, some elaborate and restrictive, which we complied with in good faith; we invested in and established an online audio-video ministry which is now a permanent part of our ministry (and has found a wide viewership on a daily basis); but when the opportunity for re-opening appeared, we promptly took it. When most other Episcopal churches in Savannah and Georgia were still closed, we led the way in re-opening, as we also did in bringing back singing and the common chalice. Though parishioners did not always see eye to eye about the best way forward, they exercised patience and humility in unity and peace rather than bickering and criticizing. Despite the recent resurgence in cases, we continue to move forward; and it is encouraging to see not only many parishioners but some newcomers also.
That we have fared as well as we have thus far owes much to the tenacity, the determination, the faithfulness and the love of parishioners for this church. In a difficult time, they did what they could to support this ministry we share with their prayers, with their engagement and participation (online or in-person), and their gifts. When the lockdown in the spring of 2020 threatened our ability to pay bills, parishioners stepped up with contributions that enabled us to keep going and to come back.
We have challenges before us as church; but we have reason to give thanks, and to be of good cheer. And it’s in that perspective that I hope you will be thinking about your stewardship pledges and financial commitments to St. John’s for the year 2022. This week you will be receiving pledge cards in the mail, and over the next several weeks reflections by a range of parishioners in your Wednesday email. I hope these will stimulate your own reflections and prayers, as you consider the pledge we are asking you to make for the coming year.
This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.
(Image: WikiArt.org, Ordaining of the Twelve Apostles by James Tissot)