Welcome to annual-meeting Sunday and the state-of-the-parish address. And here’s my annual warning: This will be longer than a standard sermon. On the bright side, I won’t be giving a speech in the meeting downstairs….
In a nutshell, the state of our parish is mixed, honestly. Some parts of our common life are strong and getting stronger; in others, we see red flags we’ll be addressing this year. That’s not a surprise, given the huge changes underway, both in our parish culture and in our world. Following our model of collaborative leadership, I’ll share with you where we are in terms of the parish’s spiritual affairs, and you’ll hear about the temporal affairs downstairs.
We’ve had a very good year in terms of “equipping the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). Basically, we’ve spent a year strengthening our staff. We defined a new leadership position, pastor for young adults and families; and we searched for and found Fr. Marcus – praise God for that. We bid farewell to Dr. Sharon Hettinger in her retirement, redefined the music director’s job with a more missional focus, and called Dr. Tom Vozzella – praise God for that. We redefined the roles of the children’s and youth ministry coordinators, making their work more collaborative with their commissions; and we found Kat Mercer and Mathew Berger, who’ve energized these ministries greatly – praise God for that. We redefined our communications role to focus on marketing the parish internally and externally, and we’re very close to filling two part-time positions to get that work done. Our talent pool is deep and getting deeper – praise God for that.
We’ve also built our capacity to stay connected with you. Many of you remember Telecare, led by Chuck Sweeney – a ministry of calling everyone in the parish simply to check in. Thanks to the leadership of Mtr. Anne and Deacon Peg Ruth, we’ve renewed Telecare and rechristened it “Sweeneycare” in Chuck’s memory. We’ve also increased the number of parishioners visiting other parishioners for pastoral care, with 11 lay people now regularly doing that work. At the other end of the age spectrum, Fr. Marcus, Kat Mercer, and Mathew Berger have been busy contacting our families to strengthen those relationships and invite them to join the fun.
And we’ve begun building our capacity to reach people who aren’t yet here. With Take5, our Saturday-evening service, we’re offering a new, more relaxed approach to worship at a new time – and about 50 people a week are taking us up on the offer. And Fr. Marcus is meeting people in neighborhood coffee shops and watering holes, building toward a regular series in a bar – relaxed fellowship and conversation about real issues, offering “church” in a new way.
But in other ways, as I said, the indicators aren’t so good. For the year, our worship attendance is down. Our sojourn in the undercroft during the nave renovation had something to do with that, and the addition of Take5 on Saturday evenings has increased our averages in the past seven weeks. But still, attendance is down. Also, our pledged income is basically at the same level as last year, which is good; but the number of pledging units has decreased. From what we’ve heard in following up with people, many just forgot to send in their pledges or didn’t recognize the pledge mailing for what it was. Still, we have some real work to do in engaging parishioners better and in making stewardship a year-round, spiritual practice; and we’ll be digging into that beginning with the Vestry retreat in a couple of weeks.
You’ll hear more about 2013 in the meeting downstairs. But for now, let’s think about the big questions as we look forward: Who are we, what is our mission, and what’s God asking of us in this moment? The answers to these questions have everything to do with what’s coming in the next 12 months.
Our readings today tell us pretty clearly who we are and what we’re called to do. The prophet Isaiah says, “It is too light a thing” for us simply to be people of faith. Like the Israelites, we are called to be the Lord’s “light to the nations, that … salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). The people of God are by definition a missionary presence in the world. The light of Christ shines through us. It shines through the witness of our lives, our words and our actions. That witness is both our greatest gift to God and our brightest beacon of blessing for the people around us. And in that offering of ourselves, in our brokenness and in our giftedness, we are “called to be saints,” Paul says in First Corinthians: We are holy and set aside for the service of God, and we “are not lacking in any spiritual gift” necessary for a saint’s work (1:7). If a bunch of fisherman were good enough to follow Jesus and take his word to the world, aren’t you? And in John’s Gospel, we hear that story, our story – the call of Andrew to call others. He begins as a follower of John the Baptist, but he goes off to follow Jesus instead. Jesus asks him what he’s looking for and invites Andrew to “come and see” (John 1:39). We don’t get to hear what happened, but something clearly happened because Andrew couldn’t keep his saints’ light from shining. He had to run off and find his brother, Peter, and share the news: that he’d found the real deal, the messiah, the real presence of God come to earth. Andrew couldn’t help himself: He had to open the door and invite his brother in.
So, for this congregation of “missionary zeal,” as the plaque to my left says – what do we hear in all this for us? I hear God calling the saints of this place to open our doors and let Christ’s light shine. It’s right there, in our parish vision statement: “St. Andrew’s is a spiritual home to all, inspiring us to shine Christ’s light into our families, our city, and our world.” So here are four doors we’re going to work to open in the next 12 months:
First, the doors of our hearts. There are lots of ways our hearts might be opened to a deeper relationship with God. But first and foremost, those doors are opened by worship; and within worship, it’s particularly music that turns the key. Over the past year, we’ve been taking a few steps to differentiate the musical experience at our three weekend services. Now, with Tom Vozzella here, that work will step up. 8:00 will still be an experience of the richness of traditional hymnody and classic composers. At 10:15, we’ll keep exploring a greater musical diversity, including traditional hymns along with spirituals, more contemporary pieces, maybe music from other cultures. And at Take5, we’ll keep moving toward a more inviting and accessible sound, giving people the chance to sing things they might hear on Christian radio, things they can sing with ease. It’s all a work in progress, the musical “product” one week being influenced by your experience in the weeks before. So please, talk with Tom, or with Mtr. Anne, Fr. Marcus, or me. Let us know what’s working and what isn’t. Because the point isn’t to create an interesting range of church music; the point is to open your heart to Jesus Christ, who’s standing at the door and knocking (Revelation 3:20).
So the door to our hearts is the first one to open. Second, we’re going to work on opening the interior doors of our parish. Of course, I don’t mean that literally; I mean the doors that sometimes keep us separated from other members of our church community. Maybe the door is closed by physical difficulties in getting to church. Maybe the door is closed by a habit of keeping to the crowd we know. (I heard recently from a long-time member, and a ministry leader, that she’s never been invited to another parishioner’s home.) Maybe that door is closed by forgetting to invite newcomers to get involved in something you’re involved in. (We have a good number of people coming through our red doors; and even though they may not say it, they want you to “make the ask.”) We’re going to work on opening each of these doors – increasing our capacity to get older and disabled people to church, creating new opportunities for fellowship and pastoral care, explicitly offering multiple entry points into the life of the parish. In the city of God, scripture tells us, “its gates will never be shut” (Revelation 21:5).
Third, we’re going to work on opening the doors of our faith to our friends and neighbors by helping you tell our story. We’ve made a good start, with parishioners putting out yard signs at Christmas and Easter, maybe even distributing some door hangers (probably in the dark and in other people’s neighborhoods…). As Episcopalians, speaking about faith is our greatest growing edge. Well, your new Communication Commission has been helping us find the words to say when the time is right to talk about what makes St. Andrew’s special. On the back page of the bulletin, you’ll find the progress so far: a statement of beliefs and values that encapsulate what differentiates us. (Please don’t read it now; take it home instead.) The commission isn’t finished, so look for more tools to help us share our congregation’s story. Doing that, along with growing our capacity to market ourselves professionally, will open doors for people who never would have thought to seek God here. As Jesus said, “Knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Luke 11:9)
Fourth, we’re going to work on opening the exterior doors of our church. Again, I’m not talking about literally propping open the red doors. I’m talking about opening the parish to the community around us, continuing our journey of reaching new people with “church” done in new ways. As you know, for some time now we’ve been exploring what to do with our facility across the street, HJ’s, and whether we should conduct a capital campaign to celebrate our second century. In November, we asked you those questions through a fundraising feasibility study. The results were deeply encouraging. We received more than 200 responses, and 88 percent of you feel this church is effective in meeting your spiritual needs. That’s huge – exciting and humbling, all at the same time. In addition, a clear majority supports replacing HJ’s with a new facility, and our consultants say we have a very high likelihood of raising the money to do it. So the Vestry has voted to proceed with a capital campaign, and you’ll hear more about it downstairs. For now, let me say this: It’s an open question exactly what we’ll do with HJ’s; that decision is part of the campaign process. But the building is not the point. The goal is to create a new open door between our parish and our community – a place where activities like Youth Group and Scouts can grow and thrive; a place where fresh expressions of worship can happen; a place where neighbors can gather for art exhibits, classes, meetings, or events; a place where we can support and empower entrepreneurs working to improve the lives of people in our city who are suffering. We want to build an open door through which parishioners and residents can come together, both to prosper our church and to prosper our community. It’s the next step for the spiritual descendants of St. Andrew, providing a place where we, along with those not yet among us, can “come and see” Jesus as we gather together, opening the doors of the kingdom for people, like Andrew himself, who don’t even know what they’re seeking.
When we truly open our doors, we can’t predict just what will happen. We can’t know exactly who may come in. And that’s a good thing. In fact, it’s the point. Jesus is asking the saints who tend this house of God to open the doors of our hearts and the doors of our parish to the gift of new life that Jesus wants to give us.
I want to close by reminding you of a story, something that happened here three and a half years ago now. A parishioner and I were returning to the church after lunch; and as we pulled up under the porte-cochere, we noticed the door was propped open. Directly in front of the doorway, at the threshold, there stood a dove. It was minding its own business, with its back to us; and it was looking into the church.
We sat in the car, watching to see what this symbol of the Holy Spirit would do. And what it did was … nothing. It just stood there, looking inside, weighing its options. Finally, it jumped, spread its wings, and beat them hard to lift itself up and … into the building. We took it as a healthy sign. It’s always good when the Holy Spirit chooses to join us here in church.
So my friend went back to work; and I went inside – where the dove was now flying around in the narthex, trying to make sense of a new space. Part of me wanted to let it stay, to see where else in the church the Holy Spirit might choose to go. But the practical side of me – the part that really didn’t want the dove to fly into the nave and roost in the rafters – that practical side of me intervened. And I found myself in the dubious position of trying to corral this emblem of the Holy Spirit and drive it back out of the church.
The dove had flown pretty far in, onto the small greeter table by the Wornall Terrace door; and I thought I should get myself between the dove and the Jewell Room so it wouldn’t fly around in there. Slowly I walked around it, but the dove didn’t seem to care. Instead, it seemed to be waiting for me to take my place. Once I’d gotten behind it, the dove flitted over to the oblations table by the door to the nave. I came along slowly, hoping it would keep moving toward the outside door. It looked at me, hopped down from the oblations table, and flew over near the door. Again I came along behind. Finally, I watched as the dove beat its wings and flew out the open door.
I was relieved but also a little disappointed by the role I’d had to play. But then it hit me: Who was leading whom? Rather than me driving the Spirit out of the church, perhaps the Spirit had invited me to follow it. The dove had come through the open door, and I had followed it in. Then it had moved to its positions, and I had moved into mine. Like dance partners making up the steps as they go, the dove and I moved in choreography that came as it needed to come. I wasn’t herding or corralling anything. It was the dove who was leading me out, just as the dove had led me in.
The same holds true for us. The Holy Spirit has led us here, into this beautiful and sacred space, into this warm and welcoming family. Now, the Spirit says: Unlock your doors and open them wide. Open your doors, that we might let the light of Christ shine through them. Open your doors, that we might bring in people looking to connect with a power they can’t quite name. Open your doors, that we might go out into God’s world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Open your doors, that the Spirit might use us to make the old creation new.