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.

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