Sunday, January 22, 2017

Stories and Storytellers

State-of-the-Parish Address, Jan, 22, 2017
Matthew 4:12-23

I’d like to invite you this morning to hear our Gospel reading through the ears of our patron, St. Andrew.  I’d also like you to imagine the reading not as a piece of journalism, not a report by a detached observer, but as part of Andrew’s story, which he’s telling years later.  Andrew is telling this story as he’s hanging out in the ancient equivalent of a coffee shop, talking with someone who’s become a friend.  Andrew is trying to share something about what matters most in his life.
So he sips his latte and gives a little background.  “This guy named Jesus,” Andrew says, “he was from my region, and he came to settle in my own village.  I’d been hearing things about him – that what he had to say made people listen, that it brought people hope.  And it made me think about how people have been finding hope for centuries when God manages to take the hardest things in life and help you find blessing in them instead.  Well, my brother and I were working one day, out fishing, and this guy Jesus came up near us on the beach.  For no good reason, he asked us to come along and see what he was up to.  And, well, we did.  You know, I was dealing with my own problems, and I needed a little light in my life.  So, we started talking with Jesus, and he said, “Hey, come along with me, and I’ll teach you to fish for people instead.”  I wasn’t sure quite what he meant, but we went along; and he invited other guys to come along, too.  And, you know, we saw and heard the most amazing things as we traveled with him.  We heard him teaching about how life could actually mean something, and we watched him heal people and give them a new lease on life.  You know, I didn’t realize how badly I needed that hope and healing until then.  But it’s made all the difference to me.”
There’s the Gospel of St. Andrew, over a latte with a friend in an ancient coffee shop.  It’s a story of hope and healing – not just for Andrew but for the guy across the table, too. 
So what I’ve just described to you is an example of what I see as our greatest need in this church family, as we begin a new year together.  We need stories and storytellers – as the old saying goes, stories told by one beggar to another beggar about where to find bread. 
Why do we need stories and storytellers?  To make love real.  To give it flesh and bones.  That person you have coffee with, or exercise with, or work with – God loves that person more than anything.  And God uses us to show it.  Nothing communicates love like love stories.  So God needs stories and storytellers.  And so does our parish family. 
When I look at our congregation, here’s what I see.  I see a lot that’s good.  I see hundreds of people serving God and loving the people around them, week in and week out.  At the parish meeting downstairs, you’ll get a copy of the annual report, and the ministry it describes is really pretty stunning – people giving their time and talent and treasure to serve in worship, and take care of the building, and raise more than $100,000 for people in need, in addition to the giving that comes from the operating budget.  People who teach children, and manage finances, and visit others who are sick or alone.  When you pull back and look at the ministry that happens week in and week out, the ways people share hope and love, the news is truly good. 
When I look at our congregation, I also see people who love this place and all that it represents.  We were founded 104 years ago when our bishop at that time, the Rt. Rev. Sidney Partridge, said, “Our own city – right here – is our greatest and most crying mission field.”1    Since then, St. Andrew’s has been an outpost of God’s mission of love in this community, and we’ve touched hundreds of thousands of people.  I see a congregation that still believes in that mission and wants to ensure we have the wherewithal to help God accomplish it. 
One way I’ve seen this belief is in your response to the Christmas appeal to help us replace the air conditioner in the children’s wing and the undercroft.  A generous parishioner offered a match of $90,000, and we asked you to give toward meeting that match.  Long story short: You gave enough not just to meet the match but another $80,000 beyond it.  As I said in a letter this week, we’ll use those gifts to address water damage in the lower levels of the church, and redirect the way water drains off the roof, and fix the elevator.  It’s a stunning example of your love for this place and for its work to bring hope to real, live people.
When I look at the numbers, I also see some signs of hope.  Pledging is up – $35,000 more pledged than last year, 134 increased pledges, and 39 brand new pledges.  That’s a testimony to the fact we’re improving the way we tell and live the stewardship story.  Good job, Stewardship Commission and the Vestry callers!
And … when I look at our congregation, I see challenges, too.  Sunday attendance dropped this year, and membership is flat.  Pledge payments dropped even as pledges rose.  All this has something to do with challenges of the moment – the nave’s air conditioner dying and us worshiping in the undercroft certainly didn’t help attendance or giving.  But the challenges run deeper, too.  When I was growing up, attending church regularly meant going every week, unless you were sick in bed.  Today, attending church regularly means once a month, or less.  And along with that come demographic challenges to attendance and giving.  If you look out across the congregation this morning, you see a lot of gray hair – including my own, increasingly.  And the people with that gray hair do most of the serving and the giving in this place.  Forty-six percent of our pledges last year came from people over 75.  Forty-eight percent came from people between 48 and 74.  So six percent came from people younger than 48.  We have real work to do – increasing attendance, incorporating new members, encouraging people to fulfill their pledges, and broadening the base of pledge support.  These will be among the Vestry’s top priorities this year.  
Those concerns are real, but they don’t tell our full story.  When I look at our congregation, and the 2017 budget, I see a church family seeking to love more and love better, both within and beyond our congregation.  We’ve received an incredibly generous gift to fund a full-time positon to help us build engagement – with newcomers, with people who use our church during the week, and with people on the periphery of our membership, the folks we don’t see very often.  We’re also bringing on someone part-time to help us start a ministry of planned giving, following up on the incredible work that Charlie Horner has put into stewarding our endowment.  We’re adding hours in formation of children, youth, and adults to help us do more to serve people within the congregation and to reach people in the community around us.  We’re planning a series of spiritual conversations in a coffee shop and more participation in community celebrations and events.  As of this week, we’ll have a new staff member leading communications, a woman named Shelby Lemon, who will help us share the Good News of God’s love among ourselves and beyond ourselves.  Even Mtr. Anne’s coming sabbatical is an investment in love, as she develops resources to help “care for the caregivers,” a role many of us know.
Several of those investments in love fall into the category we’ve called “Gather & Grow ministries,” which is shorthand for reaching people around us in new ways.  The Gather & Grow initiative has always been about reaching people and developing our physical resources to enable that work.  As you know, plans for work on HJ’s hit a major roadblock last spring, when construction estimates came back much higher than we were initially told.  It led the Vestry to some soul-searching over the summer and fall, discerning whether to come back to you asking for more funding.  We discerned God was asking us instead to see that what you had given is enough – and to move forward accordingly.  So we’ve been working with an owner’s rep, Pete Lacy, who grew up in this church, to help us get the best facility we can across the street within the resources you’ve provided.  The Vestry will use part of its upcoming retreat to decide whether to renovate the existing building or build a new, more efficient one.  But in either case, the point is to enable ministry. The point is not to build a building but to connect with people around us in new ways.  And doing that doesn’t have to wait for a new building, which is why we’re working to build those ministries now.  These ministries are about going fishing for people – following Andrew as he followed Jesus and sharing our stories along the way. 
To do that, I see something else we need as a congregation.  We need to read the Bible.  Now, I know that’s not a shocking thing to hear a preacher say, though it may feel a little shocking coming from an Episcopalian preacher.  But in order to tell people Good News about the presence of God in our lives and the value that a relationship with Christ gives us, we have to know two stories: God’s story and our own.  We have to know what God has done and is doing in the world, and we have to be able to link that love story with the love we know when we feel the Sprit moving in our own hearts.  So, we’re going to offer an opportunity to read the Bible together.  And better yet, it’s sort of a condensed version of the Bible, navigating around some of the more distant material from a very distant time.  The resource we’ll use is called The Path, and it’s just that – a manageable journey through God’s story.  Here’s how it will work:  We’ll suggest people read certain chapters each week, and we’ll have a weekly time, after coffee hour, for teaching and discussion.  Our youth will be doing the same thing, by the way, also gathering after church; so parents and youth can both take part; and the younger kids will be using a kids’ version at the same time.  In addition, it’s a great resource for small groups or book discussions.  You’ll get more information about it in the next few weeks, and you can sign up at the annual meeting to find out more.
I firmly believe that this will make a difference for our congregation, if we will commit the time and energy to turn toward God every week.  When we know God’s story and feel it connecting with the grace and love God has shown toward each of us – when our heads and our hearts are aligned with the knowledge and love of God – then we receive the power to speak and act as participants in that divine love story.  We receive the power to serve as Christ calls us each to serve.  We receive the power to give sacrificially and to trust that it will bring us blessing.  We receive the power to reach out to people on the margins of this congregation and draw them deeper into this family.  We receive the power to share our story with someone else and invite him or her to experience what we’ve experienced. 
That’s what our patron, St. Andrew, was doing in his conversation with a friend in that ancient coffee shop.  He wasn’t hawking a product or promoting an institution.  He just identified someone he knew who needed to hear that life has meaning and that hope is real.  Andrew had thought about how his own experience with Jesus fit into the bigger picture of how God has been loving the world from the beginning.  And he thought about how he might tell his story in a way that made sense to the guy across the table. 
As I look at our congregation this year, here’s what I see.  Our greatest need is for stories and storytellers.  To say it in church-speak, we need to build a culture of evangelism.  To say it in the language of real people, we need to know who God is, know who we are, and put that into words. 
So, I began this with my take on our patron saint’s story, based on today’s Gospel reading.  Let me end with my own story.  It’s not beautiful or stunning or theologically deep, which is what I used to think it took to offer “a witness.”  Because I didn’t think my story was compelling or dramatic, I didn’t think I had a story.  Now, I know better.
I grew up in a family that went to church but didn’t talk much about what we believed.  I knew prayers, but I didn’t know the God to whom I was praying.  As a young man, I was working as a writer and editor; and that was OK, but it didn’t mean anything.  I had a wife and a little kid; and when we moved back to Kansas City, and I thought I ought to find us a church because good parents do that sort of thing.  Over the next couple of years, mostly through conversations with two people at work and the priest at my church, I realized that something I thought was impossible might actually be true: that God wanted what I had to offer.  At the same time, Ann and I came to one of those periods couples experience when your relationship goes south, and I had to ask some hard questions about where my life’s meaning really lay.  I started reading the Bible … what a concept.  There, I found a God who is all about new life.  I found a God who loved us enough to come and be one of us, and experience all the ugliness I experienced, and in the end, live resurrection.  Remarkably (or not), at the same time, I also found our marriage resurrecting, too. 
It seems like a story worth telling.  So now I’m telling it.  And if I’m telling my story, you can tell yours.  As Jesus said to one of the people whose life he made whole, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and what mercy he has shown you” (Mark 5:19).  You don’t have to tell your story to everyone.  You just have to tell it to the one who needs to hear it.

1.       The Silver Jubilee of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri. Commemorative booklet from the parish’s 25th anniversary, Oct. 9 and 10, 1938, held in St. Andrew’s archives.  Page 10.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Resolve to Live Eternal Life

Sermon from Jan. 1, the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus
Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

Happy New Year!  But that’s not the name of the holiday on the front of this morning’s bulletin, is it?  There, it says we’re celebrating the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus today.  Actually, there is no feast day on the Church calendar for New Year’s Day.  The Church’s new year is the first Sunday of Advent, in late November or early December.  So instead, on January 1, the Church celebrates ... circumcision.  The Feast of the Holy Name used to be titled the Feast of the Circumcision – the day we remember Jesus being circumcised, when he was eight days old.  No wonder that observance never really caught on as a secular holiday....  So, let’s talk about circumcision!  That will be fun. 
Circumcision is something most of us think about maybe once or twice in our lives, if we have to decide whether to follow the cultural practice of having it done to our newborn sons.  It’s a practice that’s been on the decline for years now because the physicians will tell you circumcision is medically unnecessary.  But of course, theologically, circumcision is a rich symbol, marking a man’s membership as part of God’s people, the children of Abraham – and if the man was part of that faith family, then so were his wife and daughters and … other possessions….  God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land to which God had led him, as well as the blessing that came with being God’s missionary presence to the world.  As today’s Old Testament reading puts it, God’s covenant community received not just land but divine favor:  The Lord promised to bless them and keep them, and make his face to shine upon them, and be gracious to them, and lift up the divine countenance upon them, and give them what all humanity longs for, which is peace (Numbers 6:24-26).  And not just peace in the sense of the absence of conflict, but peace in the sense of God’s wholeness and wellness, the peace of right relationship, the peace of God’s kingdom, the peace of shalom.  Circumcision was the mark of the people’s wholehearted commitment to the God who offered that kind of peace.  Of course, as our new year’s resolutions remind us, it’s comparatively easy to make a commitment.  The challenge is sticking with it – in this case, sticking with the God of Israel when the gods of the nations, and the idols of our lives, sing their siren song.
Well, Mary and Joseph were devout Jews, so of course they brought their baby to undergo this procedure on the appointed day, the eighth day of his life, as the Law prescribed.  Who knows how much they thought about it, but I’m sure they wanted to ensure their son would be fully part of this covenant community, that he would feel God’s blessing shining upon him.  Plus, this boy’s divine vocation called for it.  If he’d come to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), he had to be part of those people in every sense.  So Jesus receives the mark of the covenant, the mark of belonging to the people God would never abandon.  He was one with those he’d come to save. 
That vocation to save people – it’s right there in the baby’s name, Jesus, which means, “he saves.”  The name was given by God, but it wasn’t just this baby’s name.  Jesus is a form of the name Joshua, Israel’s great leader who took over for Moses as the people stood at the edge of the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.  Joshua was the one who finally led the people across the Jordan River and into the land they’d been seeking, into the reward promised to those who would keep God’s covenant faithfully.  You can see Joshua up there among our beautiful windows, near the middle of the nave, all decked out as a military commander.  Now, to our ears, Joshua’s story in the Old Testament is a little problematic.  He saved God’s people by killing a lot of other people and occupying the land that had been theirs for generations.  That’s another sermon, one that might wrestle with blessings that come to us at other people’s expense, as well as our temptation to see blessing as a zero-sum game.  But at the end of the day, problematic though it may be, Joshua did save God’s people by bringing them out of the wilderness and into the good land God had promised. 
Jesus does the same thing.  He leads us out of our wildernesses, guiding us in living faithfully according to the covenant we’ve made and ushering us into the blessing that comes when God’s face truly shines upon you.  The difference between Jesus and the first Joshua is a matter of both form and content.  As I said, Joshua’s process for saving God’s people was by dispossessing other people, something I have trouble seeing Jesus affirming.  But Jesus also differs from Joshua in the terms of the covenant God offers through him.  In the Old Covenant, the promise was about life in the here and now – land and blessing for a chosen people.  In the New Covenant, the promise extends past this world – life and blessing, now and always.  Eternal life, in fact.  It’s the same gift, in a sense – God’s wholeness and wellness, God’s reign and rule and beloved community.  But with Jesus, the offer grows.  With Jesus, God expands the boundaries of blessing not just to the physical descendants of Abraham but to humanity by offering adoption into God’s family for all.  With Jesus, God expands the boundaries of blessing to include not just God’s favor in the life we know now but the light of God’s countenance shining upon us eternally.  “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” Jesus will grow up to say, “and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).  “I am resurrection and I am life,” he will promise.  Anyone who lives and believes in him will never die. (John 11:25-26)  It’s the peace of shalom, the peace of God’s beloved community – but both now and forever.
We’re tempted sometimes, when we think about eternal life, to think it’s out there somewhere, in the future.  As children, we’re taught (implicitly or explicitly) that if we’re good, we’ll find heaven; and if not, hell’s waiting for us.  And for many of us, that’s about as far as we go in thinking about Jesus’ new covenant, that promise of eternal life for those who believe.  But, you know, that childhood view is too small; and you don’t have to be a theologian to understand it a little more fully.  How many of us have known moments of heaven in this life?  And how many of us would say we’ve spent time in hells of our own choosing?  Well, as that good Anglican William Shakespeare once observed, “What’s past is prologue.”  The future is not divorced from the present; instead, it’s foreshadowed by it.  Eternal life is a both/and – a promise for the future, but also a reality right now.  Jesus doesn’t just save us later.  He cares too much about the messy, real lives of the people he loves.  Jesus saves us now, if we’ll take him up on it.  The kingdom of God is within you and among you, Jesus says, right there for the taking.  So the choices we make for God’s kingdom, or against God’s kingdom – those choices have consequences both now and later.  We can choose to live as adopted children of God, as inheritors of the covenant of divine blessing, as those beloved of the Father and blessed with peace – or, we can choose not to.
So maybe this is a New Year’s Day sermon after all.  I wonder, what would it be like to resolve, in this new year, to see your whole life differently?  What if we resolved to find heaven within us and among us?  What if we resolved to seek out the Lord whose face shines upon us, and who’s gracious to us, and who gives us peace?  You know, commentators, and my own children, have described the year now past as “the dumpster fire that was 2016.”  Fair enough; there was a lot not to like about 2016, as there is every year.  So let’s take Jesus up on the opportunity for a new start.  But don’t just leave that offer at the low bar of resolving to lose weight, or drink less, or go to the gym.  Take Jesus up on the offer of the New Covenant.  Resolve to find and foster eternal life every day you’re blessed to wake up in 2017.  For you, what needs to go?  What needs to grow?  Whom do you need to love?  Whom, or what, do you need to let go of?  What debt needs forgiveness – for you and by you?  What does the peace of shalom look like for you?  After all, it is your birthright.  For “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” because “you are no longer a slave but [God’s] child, and if a child then also an heir” of heavenly life (Galatians 4:6-7). 
So, in 2017, resolve to remember the moments when you gaze into heaven and know the peace of God’s kingdom.  Resolve to choose the reality that stands in contrast to the dumpster fires of our lives – how the Lord has made his face to shine upon you, and been gracious to you, and given you glimpses of peace.