The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, February 20, 2011

St. Paul's Annual Meeting - the report from the Priest-in-Charge

Report of the Priest-in-Charge

In the political sphere executives typically give a “State of the government” report of some variety, and in many ways, that’s exactly what this is: a kind of “State of the parish” report.

For a few weeks now, in my sermons, I’ve been giving you some previews of what I have to say today, but in brief, I can report from nearly six months as your priest, that the state of our parish is good. We have a deeply loving community, incredible resources available to us in our physical plant, a measure of financial security passed down to us through the generations who have gone before, beautiful enthusiasm and joy for Christian community, enviable diversity, and solid potential for growth.

Our gifts are nearly immeasurable and we have so much to be thankful for.

Not the least of which is our people. Each one of you is an important member of this community, and we are all richer because you choose to be here. In particular, I’d like to take a moment to thank a few of you specifically.

First and foremost, we all should join in thanking Althea Maynard. For many years now, Althea has served this community with a level of dedication and love that most of you probably can’t imagine. She is in the office for hours on end each week volunteering her time and expertise, she is always available to the parish clergy and to each of you, she has represented the parish at larger church gatherings, and she has led our church through some difficult years on the vestry and finally as warden. Thank you, Althea. You are a blessing to me and to this whole parish. We will miss your leadership and we look forward to seeing the new ways that God is calling you to be a part of this community.

Also, though she’s not here today, we would be remiss if we failed to thank Carol LaBate. As you know, Carol has been the Junior Warden, but for about the past year has been holding that position in spite of the fact that she has been quite ill. Now, Carol is rotating out of her leadership position as she and her husband have moved out of the area. Her presence in this community will be deeply missed, but we wish her well in her recovery and in her new home.

I’d like to ask all of the members of the Vestry in the past year to please stand. These people have faithfully served as your leaders. Being a member of the vestry - in any parish, but particularly in a small parish such as ours - is more than just showing up at a monthly meeting. These people have given their hearts and their souls to this church and its ministry. On a personal note, I’d like to thank them for calling me to be your priest. I know that they interviewed three fine candidates, any one of whom would have come here and loved you deeply - how could they not? And I am humbled and honored that they chose me to come and lead you for a season.

And now I invite the members of the choir to stand. Each Sunday they play an integral role in leading us in worship - helping us all to find our way both through the liturgy and to a deeper relationship with Christ. Thank you for your service.

In every parish, the heart of the community lies in its worship. And our weekly expressions of worship would be impossible without the faithful band of servants who do the “dirty work” behind the scenes before and after services to ensure that everything runs smoothly, and that everything that needs to be in order is. Would the members of the Altar Guild please stand? Thank you for all of your work this year.

It’s often a joke among clergy that Altar Guilds can be some of the most difficult organizations to work with in a parish. I must say, with a note of personal gratitude, that this Altar Guild is clearly the exception. You have been a joy to work with. You are both reliable and flexible. I give thanks for your service!

But as you all know, worship each week is a major undertaking. It takes a lot of people to keep this place running smoothly, and to make it a welcome haven for both regular worshipers and guests. Each Sunday an army of others march through these doors to do the work that God has called them to do - chalice bearers, torch bearers, gospel bearers, crucifers, lectors, intercessors, ushers, and now, even a verger! - each playing a role in making worship more meaningful, not just for themselves, but for all of us who have gathered. If you’ve served in any of those capacities in the past year, please stand.

And while most of us are gathered in the church to sing and to pray and to break into the gospel, there are others setting up to host our coffee hour gatherings and teaching the children in church school. If you’ve served in that capacity this year, please stand. Hospitality and Christian Education are two of the most important jobs of the church. We are all grateful for your service.

You probably noticed during this little exercise of gratitude that nearly everyone in this room stood up. Some people stood up more than once. And that’s how it should be. A church is not its buildings or its endowment or its income and expense statement. As we all sang as children, “the church is the people.” When we have visitors in this parish, it is the people that stand out - even more than our worship or our music or our beautiful buildings, but each of you. It’s the love that you clearly feel for one another and openly share. That’s where our greatest potential lies.

But all of this is not to say that we’re not without our challenges. Like most of us in our personal lives, the biggest challenge for us as a community is financial. Though these buildings are beautiful, they are difficult and expensive to maintain. And all of our costs as a parish - everything from paper clips to priests - keeps going up. In the past year, you all made the bold decision to hire a less than full-time priest for the first time in recent memory. It was a bold step out in faith on both of our parts. You trusted that God would provide you with the priest you need right now and I trusted that together, with God’s help, we would do the work necessary to improve our financial position in the next few years.

We’re just a few months into the process, and the work has begun, but we still have a long way to go.

Our income each year is less than a third of our annual expenses. As a result, we rely too much on our endowment to keep us solvent. I know, when people hear that we have an endowment, they often take that to mean that there is less of a need to give to the church, but that simply isn’t true. We are withdrawing from our endowment at the maximum level that we can without thoroughly depleting it, just in order to stay afloat. As a result, unexpected expenses that we encounter have the potential to be financially devastating.

But even beyond the financial realities of the parish, we are all spiritually weaker for failing to take our full share of responsibility for being good stewards of this corner of God’s beautiful creation with which we’ve been entrusted.

It’s not enough to make a token gift to the parish. It’s not enough for the church, and it’s not enough for you. In the gospel we are constantly being told the kinds of initially counterintuitive truths like we were told this morning by Jesus. ‘You have heard that, but I tell you this…’ Well, everything in the world tells us to look out only for ourselves. Our consumerist culture is constantly preaching to us that we need the next latest thing. But the truth is, it is in giving that we receive.

We have been steeped in a culture of scarcity, but we worship a God of abundance. It’s hard, but we have to learn to trust that abundance. When we do, we will all be richer for it, and it will make us an even truer breath of fresh air than we already are to this aching community in which we serve.

The good news is, our income from grants and contributions for the use of our space is poised to rise in the next year, but that’s not enough. Those income sources help us, but it’s only through congregational giving that we’ll really have a chance at surviving.

And we all need to redouble ourselves in our commitments to being here and being a part of this church. Not just from time to time, but every Sunday, and more times between Sundays.

We’re having some wonderful programs right now - with the emerging music programs, and our renewed efforts at making our spaces available to outside groups. All of that will have an effect on helping this church to grow. In fact, it’s already starting to have an effect. But the single best thing we can do to help this church grow, is for each of us to be Ambassador’s of St. Paul’s. Tell your friends. Tell your neighbors. Tell your co-workers. You are a part of a beautiful community! And everyone is welcome here. Find the people in your life who have a skewed view of what church is. Find the people who think church is hurtful. Find the people who think church is boring. Find the people who think church is irrelevant. We all run into them every day. Invite them to church. Tell them why you come and help them to see why they should.

Programs are great, but there’s no program that will ever be as effective as a personal invitation.

I can help some. I’ve done a lot of work in these past few months to try to make us appear as welcoming as we really are - through the work on the website and the brochure and our order of worship, and helping to get new, engaging programs established, to even simple things like beginning the process of getting our parish offices more organized and efficient. But I can’t do it alone. I need you. The church needs you.

None of us can do it alone. That’s why we have community. Jesus did a lot of work building community, because he knew the calling that he was issuing was far too big for just a charismatic leader or two. We all have to have a bit of the Christ in us. And when we work together, our bits of Christ join together as God alive in the world.

It can seem scary, because it’s such a big job. But we’ve got each other. And together, we are blessed more than we can say.

Thank you for being a part of it. And thank you for allowing me to lead you for a time.

Our church is strong, but it can be stronger. The state of our parish is good, but together, and with God’s help, it will be great!

Thanks be to God.

The living gospel of nonviolence

**NOTE -- Another short sermon this week, because it was the day of our Annual Meeting**

Epiphany 7A
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The gospel today seems to be coming at a perfect time. All around the world, and even at places close to home, we’re hearing the stories of nonviolent resistance - stories of people standing up for what they believe in and speaking their understandings of truth to the powers that would silence them.

Last week, as I was watching the drama in Egypt unfold, I was filled with a sense of pride and awe for my brothers and sisters half a world away. I would be the first to say that I haven’t followed the story closely enough to really be a fair commentator on the issues in Egypt. I don’t particularly know much about Mubarak and the government he led. I don’t know much about the welfare of the Egyptian people while he was their leader. But what I do know is, too often, when people see a need for change in their leadership, it leads to hardship and strife and violence. It would have been easy for the people of Egypt to turn to those kinds of tactics. But they didn’t. They made the deliberate choice to stand in nonviolence and to speak their truth.

It was an awesome thing to watch.

The same is true in Wisconsin right now. Estimates had the number of demonstrators yesterday estimated at some 70,000. And like their brothers and sisters in Egypt, they never turned violent. Instead, their protests had what many news analysts called a kind of joyful spirit.

It brought them JOY to stand in solidarity against what they viewed as oppressive foes.

No matter your politics, or how that affects your response to what’s happening in Wisconsin, it’s always an awe-inspiring thing to see people standing up in joy to make their positions known. Just as it’s always disheartening to see people rise up in violent rhetoric - or even actual physical violence - to make their positions known.

In the gospel today, Jesus talks about the need for his followers to refrain from violence. He says, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” and, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

So much of what Jesus tells us can come across as counterintuitive. And at first glance, this might seem like one of those times. Let’s face it: turning the other cheek and praying for our persecutors isn’t usually our first reaction in the face of adversity.

But as has been reinforced for us on the news for the past few weeks, it’s the only response to adversity that ever does work.

Jesus may well be telling us something that’s not our first thought, but it’s not really all that counterintuitive, after all. We know in our guts that violence is wrong. And we know intellectually that it’s rarely effective. But even so, it’s often our first thought. Even so, we need to be reminded to turn the other cheek and to pray for our persecutors.

And the events in the Middle East and the Midwest over the past weeks have been examples of living gospel.

The question is, how will we respond? What will inspire that kind of joy for us? What will we stand for?

Too often, even in the church, we merely stand for our own craftiness or our own variations on worldly wisdom. But as Paul reminds us, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” What we are told is true, very often isn’t rooted in truth, after all. The fruits of God’s wisdom are built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Whatever we stand for, it will only stand firmly on that foundation.

So as a church, and as members of that church, we must constantly examine ourselves through the lens of determining our rootedness in Christ. So long as we are rooted in the foundation that is Christ, all that builds on that will be strong. Amen.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Big Picture


The sermon is a bit short today - we had to keep things moving at St. Paul's because we had a concert this afternoon.  It was the inaugural event of the St. Paul's Music Education Program.  One aspect of the program is a world music concert series - a way of reaching out to and celebrating our richly diverse neighborhood!

Today we had a concert of West African drumming, singing, and dancing.  It was a spectacular event!

For pictures and video clips CLICK HERE 

Epiphany 6A
Matthew 5:21-37

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Perhaps we can’t see the forest for the trees. Sometimes we’re so lost in all the details that we lose sight of the bigger picture.

One of the roles that faith plays in our lives - and not just for Christians, I think, but for all people of faith - is that it helps us to see a bigger picture than we would otherwise be seeing. It takes us beyond our singular expressions and experiences of ourselves and points us to something bigger - God, community, love, relationships…

But even in the face of this prevailing lure, sometimes our humanity takes over. Sometimes our propensity for getting lost in the details wins out over the lure of God to help us to see more.

I hear this in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Paul planted. Apollos watered. And while both of those are admirable tasks, they’re both mere details in comparison to the growth - growth which could only come from God.

The gospel lesson for today can be one of those that clergy nowadays might have a bit of trouble preaching.

The most glaring problem is certainly the condemnation of divorce. While nearly everyone would agree that the death of a marriage is something to be mourned, many of us also recognize that there are times when even that sadness is the healthiest thing for everyone involved. Though we know that marriage is a sacred covenant between two people and God, and that it should be protected from assaults, most of us also know that sometimes reality gets in the way of the ideal. Sometimes the dissolution of the covenant is necessary.

But even beyond that - for those of us who aren’t married or divorced - the Gospel lesson today gives words to challenge all of us. While most of us can handle the commandment not to murder, Jesus tells us we shouldn’t even become angry with anyone. It’s not enough not to cheat on your spouse, you shouldn’t even allow the idea to enter your head! And it’s not just that we are not to swear falsely, but that we aren’t even to swear the truth!

This is the kind of biblical passage through which we often find ourselves becoming lost in the details. It can be easy to see these words as a kind of checklist - this is what it takes to be the people of Christ.

But the message is bigger than a mere checklist could convey. We must be careful not to miss the forest for the trees.

Jesus is telling us that whatever we thought it meant to be faithful, we should assume that it’s more. Think about when you think you’re giving enough. Then give more.

That’s what it takes to be a part of the body of Christ. That’s what it takes to be in community.

For the past few weeks we’ve thinking about what it means to be a part of this community. We’ve talked about the emerging mission of the parish - and the ways we’d like to focus our ministry in this community. We’ve talked about the light that lives within each of us, and our calling to put it out there for everyone to see.

But throughout all of that - as we grow into the people that God is calling us to be - I pray that we never lose sight of the bigger picture. I pray that we never get lost in tasks and projects - the planting and the watering (as noble as they are) - at the expense of living our lives in joyous gratitude to God: the source of our growth.

So much of our life as a church can feel like it’s wrapped up in checklists. But our faith is bigger. Our God is bigger. And while we all give a lot - of our time and talents and treasures - God is calling us to more. Just when we think we’ve done enough, or given enough, of spent enough time and energy - that’s when it’s time to really see what we’re made of. That’s when it’s time to let our light shine.

That’s when the planting and the watering will start to show growth. And not just in the church, but in our lives as people of faith. Amen.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Salt of the earth and light of the world

Epiphany 5A
Matthew 5:13-20

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“You are the salt of the earth…” and “You are the light of the world…”

These peculiar words of affirmation fall on the heels of last week’s beatitudes. Remember? Blessed are the poor… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are the persecuted… Because what you thought it meant, it doesn’t really mean.

After we’re told to spurn all of the signs of success of the world - to recognize that the world’s view of success may mean our own failure and that the world’s view of failure may mean a truer and deeper spiritual success - after all of this we are given this odd bit of encouragement.

It’s hard for me to imagine a salt that has lost its saltiness. Without its distinct flavor, salt would be just a rock. And not even a particularly admirable rock. Not a rock like Peter - on whom the church is built - but a weak rock. A rock that crumbles and dissolves.

So it is with that light under the bushel basket. It is either wasted or extinguished. A light that is hidden might as well be no light at all.

Salt and light have some similar properties. In both cases, if their essences are denied them, they are of no use. And in both cases, for their essences to be realized, they have to spread outside themselves.

Salt’s flavor isn’t just for itself. It’s only realized when it’s spread over and dissolved into something else.

And a light doesn’t just illuminate itself. It spreads throughout the room - sharing itself with everything.

This is a part of the nature of our faith.

Last week, part of what we talked about was three things that I’ve noticed to be key elements of every successful church: strong programs in music and liturgy, children and youth, and service to others. All of these elements are about allowing our faith to shine outside of ourselves. They’re about spreading our faith out - allowing it to flavor more aspects of our lives, and reaching out into more aspects of the communities we inhabit. Making something savory and rich that will be warm and desirable, not just for ourselves, but for everyone within our reach.

Too often, it can be tempting, in communities such as this, to keep to ourselves. Perhaps we’re happy with who we are and how we do things. Perhaps we’re just too tired to feel inspired to seek out new people and new patterns and new expressions of community. Perhaps we’ve just done it one way for so long that we can’t imagine anything else.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s human. There’s nothing to be ashamed of there.

But when we recognize it, it is important to face it.

In verse 16, in the gospel today, there are four simple words that I hope you’ll carry with you today and in the months and years ahead. Perhaps you should be ready to write this down, because it’s worth remembering.



At the Diocesan Convention last weekend, pretty much everyone I met asked me how things were going here at St. Paul’s. There’s a degree to which those questions among clergy can be kind of superficial. “How are things are your place?” “Oh, they’re fine. How about you?” “Oh, we’re just great, thanks.”

But when folks asked me how things were going here, I found myself busting with pride. Over and over I found myself grinning from ear to ear and saying, “It’s not that we don’t have our challenges - things are rough all over - but the thing that’s so exciting about St. Paul’s is, there’s just SO much potential.”

And it’s true. We as a community, and as a quiet little outpost for the gospel, have SO much potential. We certainly have our challenges. We’ve talked about them a lot, and I’m sure we’ll talk about them more in the weeks ahead. But we also have more potential than I think most of us realize.

This is the main reason that I want this church to grow. We certainly don’t need to grow for ourselves. We could certainly continue surviving as we have been surviving for quite a while. We could just continue going along quietly, doing our own thing. It would probably even be pretty satisfying for many of us.

But there’s a light here that’s worth sharing. There is so much darkness in the world, and we have a chance to shine the light of Christ into it.

The world can be so bland, but we are salty. We have a chance to make people’s lives and experiences so much richer and more interesting.

But only if we spread outside of ourselves.

Like salt and like light, it is our nature to share ourselves. If we don’t, we aren’t being true to our essence - we aren’t fulfilling our potential.

In the next couple of weeks, take some time to think about the potential you see for this congregation and for your role in it. How can you better let your light shine? How can we better let our light shine?

Two weeks from today, we’ll be having our annual parish meeting. It will be a time to dream and a time to re-imagine how we see this community and ourselves within it. It will be a time to begin unlocking the potential that lies within us.

This is an exciting time in the life of this place. And we’re going to need a lot of light. Let your light shine! Amen.