I wonder if you caught the joyful spirit of our New Testament lesson this evening. Paul is writing to the Christians in the city of Thessalonica who are going through hard times, anxious about their own safety and worried whether their church will survive. We Americans are going through anxious times ourselves these days with an economy in serious trouble. Paul’s response to these hard times is to sit down and write the Thessalonians a kind of love letter to encourage them. Let’s imagine that his words were written to us.

Paul and Timothy, to the church of the Washingtonians on Mt. St. Alban, Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that God has chosen you…so that you became an example to all the believers in Washington and across the nation. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in the D.C. area, but in every place your faith in God has become known.

And on it could go. Paul’s response to a struggling church is gratitude. Thanks be to God, he says, for the wonderful things you are doing for Christ right in the thick of your own hard times.

Here at the Cathedral we get a surprising number of letters like that.

  • A Letter from a visitor from Toledo or Charlotte, thanking us for a moving service that made him feel connected to God for the first time in years
  • Thanks for an event like the first Nancy and Paul Ignatius Forum that explored the challenges that America faces in dealing with the rest of the world.
  • Thanks for the way a young, poor struggling teenager’s life was changed by the Cathedral Scholars program and who now is off to a college she never dreamed of attending.
  • Thanks for the Forums each week that are helping people connect their faith with the big public questions of our day.
  • Thanks for this magnificent building and the experience of simply visiting here. “Your beautiful Gothic building has a ministry all its own,” one said.
  • Thanks for being here for the nation at its critical times.

And on it could go. When times are hard, one of the best things to keep us going is gratitude.

This evening we are giving thanks for all those in our life who practice the art of giving, whose financial contributions make all these ministries possible. Every engine depends on a source of energy if it is to do its work. My coffee maker needs electricity, my oven needs natural gas, my car needs gasoline, my body needs food. Without fuel all those engines would stop cold. No matter how good they are, how effective, without fuel they just sit there.

It takes a great deal of fuel to run a cathedral, indeed a massive amount. That fuel comes in many forms—dedication, talent, hard work, skills of many kinds, imagination, creativity, commitment. And it also takes a fuel called money, financial resources, the substantive gifts that make our lives possible.

And so in this evening offering of prayers and thanks to God, we give special thanks for all of you whose giving has fueled the essential work of this Cathedral as an agent for God’s work in our time. And we honor as well the members of the Cathedral Founders’ Society, who are supporting the Cathedral through planned gifts that will sustain us in years to come. You can spot them with the handsome lapel pins on!

It is no small thing to give to keep this Cathedral’s ministry strong. Unlike other non-profit organizations, Cathedrals don’t have loyal alumni, or grateful patients or, until recently, a congregation. Our supporters find their way to us by different paths, and they come into our life for widely different reasons. Something, or some things, though, captures their spirit and inspires their heart—something about the power for God’s work latent in this great Cathedral standing at the heart and pinnacle of this powerful city.

As we all know, we are the nation’s Cathedral, but without support from our national government. We are the Episcopal Church’s Cathedral, but we do not receive support from the national church. We have a calling to bring other denominations and even religions together in the cause of reconciliation, but we receive funding from none.

No, we turn to you, and to what I pray will be an expanding and enthusiastic band of givers determined to make the Cathedral count in this complex 21st century.

I will be candid with you. The Cathedral, like every other profit and non-profit organization, faces significant financial challenges in the coming months as we make our way through what clearly appears to be a recession. Just the other day someone surprised me with an article from the Chronicle of Philanthropy that reported that in general, even in significant downturns in the economy, giving to support churches and non-profits tends not to decline much if at all.

I want to turn that around and say that in this downturn, I am hoping and praying that giving to support this Cathedral can rise substantially. We cannot be the strong and vibrant church for our nation without significantly increased giving, from you and from what must become a growing community of devoted supporters.

And of course this giving starts in gratitude itself. Gratitude for the lives we’ve been given, for friends and family, for opportunities we never dreamed would come our way, for a Christian faith that keeps calling people to be their best selves, for our forebears who built this great Cathedral, for the working of God’s Spirit in bringing us all into the ministry of this place.

We give because we have been given to beyond our wildest imagining. And that makes us want to give in ways that make a difference—for God’s sake and for the sake of our city and nation.

A final thought… A friend of mine recounted hearing a man describe the defining family ritual of his life growing up during the Depression. On Saturday night after the dinner dishes had been cleared, his father would sit down at the dining room table and take out of his pocket an envelope containing his earnings for the week from running his small store. Now he would take out thirty-three dollars in bills and coins. Not much, but enough to get by. The boy watched his father count out three dollars and thirty cents and place it in an envelope marked “church.” That was his tithe, and it was sacred. His father presented it every Sunday. His tithe came first and everything else was secondary. Then the ritual continued with coins and bills going into other envelopes—for mortgage payments, food, clothing, and other necessities. Sometimes it took long deliberation to decide what went in each. But there was no question about what came first.

There is something good about hard, demanding times. They help us to see what matters, what is most important, what we are most grateful for. This hard stretch for the economy, for individuals, and for churches and non-profits such as this one, is going to call us all to focus on what matters most, and what we’re most grateful for.

And at the heart of that I believe is a church for the nation, pointing endlessly to the God of love and mercy who called this earth, this nation, and you and me into being, and calls us to continue to be big-hearted givers for the causes that matter.

I give thanks to God this night for all of you who have made our Cathedral ministry so strong. And I pray that we can work and pray and give together to make the Cathedral’s ministries stronger than ever in the challenging times ahead.