Let me give you a heads-up. This sermon will be a few minutes longer than usual. For those of you who came to the Baptist church last week, I apologize for two long ones in a row. But this is the State of the Parish Address, as well as the sermon – so at least you won’t have to hear a speech from me at the annual meeting.
Just a minute ago, we heard this from the Gospel of Luke: Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, unrolled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah “and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’” … [Then Jesus said,] “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:17-21)
On one level, that reading may not surprise us much. It isn’t new information that God’s unswerving, undeniable purposes include turning the lives of poor people from despair to hope, bringing release to those unjustly held captive, illuminating the lives of the blind, freeing those who are oppressed, and aiding those in crushing debt (which is what “the year of the Lord’s favor” was about). In those words of liberating blessing, Jesus is talking about people who are actually poor and blind and captive. But he’s also talking about people who are poor and blind and captive in a hundred other ways. The promise is the same: The Spirit is upon Jesus to fulfill the unswerving, undeniable purposes of God.
I can get that, I think. But here’s what’s harder for me to hear and nearly impossible for me to say: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, John Spicer, because that Spirit has anointed me to bring good news and healing and freedom and new life. Part of that’s about standing up here on Sunday mornings. But as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve also been blessed with the opportunity to write a book, based on my sabbatical study last year. I have a contract and everything, with Church Publishing. It’s an immense blessing – and for several months now, it’s been a daily struggle actually to make space to write a book alongside this job I have. But my deeper struggle has been trusting God. What business do I have writing a book about how congregations can break down boundaries between themselves and the communities around them? What the heck do I know? So every day, I find myself confessing that lack of trust and praying, in the words of Psalm 45, that God will make me “the pen of a skilled writer” (45:1 BCP) and finish the darned thing. As of right now, I have seven days and 14 hours until the deadline, and two chapters to write. Yikes. But the remarkable, amazing, astonishing thing is – I believe it will get done. I may be a little out of pocket this week, but I believe it will get done. Because, as much as I stumble on these words even as I try to say them, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and that Spirit has anointed me to bring good news and healing and freedom and new life. Who knew?
Well, this is the State of the Parish Address. What does all this spiritual anointing have to do with the church’s annual meeting? OK, try this on: The Spirit of the Lord is upon St. Andrew’s, because the Spirit has anointed us to bring good news and healing and freedom and new life, to each other and to the people around us. I don’t usually look to statistics to prove the Spirit’s presence and power, but I can tell you this: Sunday attendance is up over last year – by 1%, but it’s up. Membership is up by 2%. Christmas attendance was up by 10%, and Easter was up by 16%. And you’ll hear more about this in the meeting downstairs, but here’s a preview about stewardship and generosity: At this point last year, we had 280 pledging units from the annual campaign. This year, we have 315, and pledged income is up 6% over this time last year.
And those are just dry statistics. Come to the Fools for Christ Dinner, or the Mardi Gras Party, or Massterful Carols, and you’ll feel the Sprit. Come to the Free Store downtown, along with 80 other St. Andrew’s people, and you’ll feel the Spirit. Come visit our partners in Haiti, or our friends at United Missionary Baptist, and you’ll feel the Spirit. For the Spirit of the Lord is upon St. Andrew’s, and that Spirit has anointed our church family to bring good news and healing and freedom and new life, to each other and the people God gives us to serve.
Maybe that’s not so surprising. I mean, you’d hope the Spirit of the Lord would be upon the church. But try this one on: The Spirit of the Lord is upon you. Each and every one of you. The Spirit of the Lord has anointed you to bring good news to people who are poor, and blind, and captive, in all kinds of ways. When you were baptized, you were brought into a huge family, stretching across time and space – the family of God, the family of apostles. Every time we witness a baptism, we remember the covenant we share with God, and we remember the Spirit’s anointing we received, equipping all baptized people as the church’s first order of ministers. In your baptism, you received a share of God’s own power, and God longs for you to use it.
So today, I want to give you an invitation. I invite you to beat your boundaries. And I invite us, as a congregation, to beat our boundaries. Let me give you a little background on that. Beating the Boundaries is the title of this book of mine. It comes from a practice in England centuries ago, in which villagers and their clergy would walk in procession around the geographic boundaries of their parish, marking where their civil and religious responsibilities ended. Boys carried sticks to whack against significant boundary markers – to impress on their minds, in a day before surveying, what was their village and what wasn’t. That lesson was impressed more personally, too – the boys themselves were thrown against boundary markers and dunked into boundary streams. I’ll just bet they didn’t forget where the edge of the parish lay.
Well, today, God is calling us to beat the boundaries, too, but in a different way. We can go to the edge of our boundaries in order to mark what’s ours and what’s not; or we can go to the edge of our boundaries to step past them and engage with people – not to find out where our church stops but to find out where our journey begins.
When I was growing up, at Christ Church in Springfield, honestly we didn’t think too much about engaging with people at our boundaries because the primary evangelism strategy was having babies. In our worship, we had one rite for Morning Prayer and one rite for Holy Communion, and that was plenty, thank you very much. But you know, even in the “good ol’ days” of this Church we’ve inherited, things didn’t hold still. The Spirit blew where it would then, too. Now the Spirit just keeps blowing; and we’re readying this ship, this nave we call St. Andrew’s, to raise our sails and ride the wind. We had two-thirds more kids in VBS this year than last, and kids’ ministry overall is up by 16%. Youth participation is up by 42% since our new coordinator came on board. Adult formation is up by 30% – and some of that is from our new inquirers’ process and catechumenate, in which 13 adults are now preparing for baptism, confirmation, reception into the Episcopal Church, or reaffirmation of baptismal vows – as well as another 14 youth. That’s great movement under the Spirit’s power.
But there are other, less quantifiable, ways the Sprit’s moving us past our boundaries to engage with people. We’ve partnered with the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival on its Camp Shakespeare for youth, as well as collaborating on a program for adults about Shakespeare and the English Church. We host the Southtown Council of Brookside and Waldo businesses every month, and a Vestry member and I attend those lunches. A group of St. Andrew’s people goes out to have morning prayers every Friday in public, at Bella Napoli, and I invite the Brookside business group to join us. From the Heaven & Ale gatherings, Fr. Marcus is putting together a group of parishioners and seekers exploring the connection between arts and spirituality – you’ll likely see more about that in Lent. And we’re taking outreach ministry to the next level of community engagement for the good of God’s world through our Red Door Center for social entrepreneurship. In fact, our first social-entrepreneur incubatee, Natasha Kirsch, has launched her start-up called EPEC – Empower the Parent to Empower the Child. And you can visit its dog-grooming facility Saturday afternoon, Feb. 6, at an open house. Plus, Natasha is also part of St. Andrew’s Outreach Commission. Look how that works.
These are the kinds of opportunities for engagement that the Gather & Grow initiative is opening up. As I’ve said before: The point of Gather & Grow isn’t building buildings but building relationships. That’s what God’s asking of us. The challenge – for St. Andrew’s, and for the churches in my book, and for every church, period – the challenge is that when we beat our boundaries, what we find is that we need to engage with people in new ways. And what binds those new ways together is being assertive, rather than being passive, in building relationships. When I was a boy, people came to church looking for relationship. Social expectations and family patterns told us, “This is just what good people do.” Today, many people still come to church looking for relationship – but many find connection other places instead, at the coffeehouse rather than at coffee hour. And so, for the church, beating our boundaries means going to people rather than waiting for people to come to us.
What does that look like? It looks different in each parish, because where the Holy Spirit really moves is in that rich intersection between the gifts and wiring of a particular congregation and the needs and interests of real people nearby. For example, and this is just one example: People have asked me why we would add a multipurpose space at HJ’s where kids and youth can play, either as teams or just for fun. Well, early on in the Gather & Grow process, we asked people nearby, as well as urban planners, what people around us need. One of the consistent needs we heard was space for kids and youth to play and have practices. So the plan for Gather & Grow includes space we can use that way, as well as other ways. But the effort cannot stop with providing space. Space is a blessing, but it’s not a relationship. So we have to connect with people through the blessings we offer. They need to see us being part of them, rather than us expecting them to become part of us first. We need to go out as ambassadors of God’s love because, after all, the Spirit of the Lord has anointed us to bring good news and healing and freedom and new life.
Doing that takes individual hearts and hands and feet – and not just from clergy or paid staff but from all the ministers, all the people of God empowered by the Holy Spirit in baptism. When the rubber of the church meets the road of real people’s lives, it’s just huge when someone sees that another person cares – and when the one who cares isn’t paid to do it.
I can hear you thinking, “I don’t know how to be Christ’s ambassador.” I really don’t think it’s complicated, but it does take intentionality. Think about people with whom you’re connected. Listen to what those people need or care about. Ask yourself, is that a need or a concern that aligns with the kingdom of God – something Jesus would like to see? And then think, what would it take to address it? Is there a way the church, as an institution, could help? Or, just as powerfully, are there individuals you know here who could make a difference?
Here’s a small example: Think about the parents who come here for Kindermusik or, later on, parents waiting for their kids while they play at HJ’s. What might those parents need? We’d have to get to know them to find out. I could imagine them saying they need more time with their spouses, or they need help raising their kids to make good choices, or they need better educational opportunity in Kansas City. So, after several conversations, maybe people in the church end up providing babysitting for a parents’ night out. Maybe the church brings in someone to do a parenting class. Or maybe we facilitate discussion – perhaps even prayer – about how we might build our city’s educational capacity.
It’s all about seeing yourself as an ambassador of Jesus Christ and his family, the Church in this place. It’s about making ourselves available and building relationships with the people among whom God places us. It’s about listening to them to learn their needs and interests. And it’s about walking alongside them, investing ourselves in love.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us. The Spirit has anointed this church family to bring good news and healing and freedom and new life, to each other and the people God gives us to serve. And that’s scary – at least it is for me. But then, I remember how we are empowered for that work. I remember who’s actually writing “my” book. And I remember a quote that’s often attributed to Nelson Mandela but comes instead from the writer Marianne Williamson. I imagine you’ve heard it before, but it gets me past my fear and my excuses not to be the person God’s made me to be. So I invite you to pray about this:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world…. We are all meant to shine…. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.1
1. Williamson, Marianne. From A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of "A Course in Miracles." Quote available at: https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/17297.Marianne_Williamson. Accessed Jan. 21, 2016.