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, January 27, 2013

Annual Address & Sermon


The Rector’s Annual Address
January 27, 2013

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

In the Gospel today, we hear something not entirely unlike Jesus’ Address on the State of the Church.  And the State of the Church was pretty straightforward at that time.  There was no staff, no budget, no buildings, and very few members.  There certainly wasn’t an Altar Guild, or a Sunday School, or a Property Committee.  There were no wardens.  No elections.
But even in the absence of all of that, the state of the church was strong.  There was one measure by which Jesus determined the state of the church - whether or not the Holy Spirit was a part of it.  And it was.  He read the passage from Isaiah and boldly proclaimed, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The Holy Spirit was present.  In the face of that reality, everything else would be okay.  Not easy, necessarily, but strong.  The church may not have had everything that it wanted, but it most certainly had everything that it needed.
At the end of this service, as we move into our Annual Meeting, you’ll have the opportunity to choose new leadership for the parish, to hear brief reports from everyone in its current leadership, to ask questions, if you desire, and to read even more detailed reports of the many ministry areas that are currently active in our parish.
I promise we’ll try not to take up too much of your time.  But I hope the one thing you’ll look for, and find, is the truth that I know: that the Holy Spirit is alive and active in this place, and that with that fact, we can be assured of our strength.
Though I’ve only been with you for a short time, I have seen the Holy Spirit moving in our midst.
I first began to see evidence of that fact through the discernment process with you.  The members of the discernment committee were very clear about their mission - they didn’t see themselves as a hiring team.  They didn’t even seem to see their primary goal as simply finding a priest.  They were clear that the core of their work was discernment: to discern who we are as a parish, to discern who we would like to be, and through that, to discern who God might be calling to share in that unfolding.  These dedicated servants worked relentlessly, in the context of prayer and self-examination, for months on end.  We all owe them a debt of gratitude.
But the Holy Spirit’s stirrings were not simply limited to the discernment process here.  Their work was representative of the commitment that I’ve found time and time again in these few months.  Upon arriving and beginning my work, I quickly learned how blessed we are by the work of dedicated lay professionals in Roland and Barbara.  In case you weren’t aware, these people do not merely work at the church, they work for the church.  They give of themselves for the benefit of the church in ways that far exceed any normal call of duty.  Their talents are immeasurable, as is their love of this parish.  Working with them is a joy for me, as I know it is for all of you.  Please take this Annual Meeting day as a reminder and an opportunity to express your thanks to them.  Most of what we do here would not be possible without them.
And our ministry would also not be possible without all of you.  Everywhere you turn in this parish, you will find people working tirelessly for the benefit of the whole.  I doubt a day goes by when there isn’t some one among you working to keep this place running smoothly - whether it’s VJ fixing a washer, or Martha arranging contractors, or Nancy tending to the gardens, or Larry painting, or Vestry members meeting, or Altar Guild members preparing for Sundays, or Ushers arriving early to greet our guests, or Sunday School leaders preparing lessons that educate and nurture our children…  The list could go on and on.  There are so many people who work so hard to keep this ministry alive.  There are so many people within these walls that clearly love this place and the God we were all called here to worship and to serve.
I am grateful to each of you beyond my ability to express it.  I am grateful not only for the love you show, or for the work you do, but most of all I am grateful for the evidence of the Holy Spirit that you embody.  I could begin to see evidence of the Holy Spirit in our midst when I first learned about you nearly a year ago, and I keep seeing it every day.  Despite whatever challenges we may face, we have the Holy Spirit on our side, and that’s always a strong place to begin.
And there are challenges.
The gospel lesson we read today is not exactly the end of the story.  In what we hear today, we imagine the people wide-eyed and eager, but in the continuing story next week, we’ll hear that the people of Jesus’ hometown quickly become enraged.  It seems the Holy Spirit isn’t enough to keep us supplied in puppies and kittens and mom’s apple pie.  Our confidence in the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean everything will be easy.
Though we have been blessed in many ways, we still have a lot of work ahead of us.
Our biggest challenge in at least the year ahead - and probably more - is church growth.  Like a lot of churches over the past 40 or 50 years, we’ve watched our numbers steadily decline.  It used to be that for a church to prosper, all you had to do was open its doors.  The dominant cultural reality was church attendance.  But those days are gone.
I think you’ll all agree with me that we have a lot going for us here.  We have beautiful buildings that are in very good condition.  We offer worship that is challenging and inspiring, and with a quality of music that far exceeds what anyone would expect from a parish of our size.  We have generous and loving parishioners who genuinely enjoy being with each other.  We are not divided by petty internal conflicts.  We are diverse in age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and socio-economic status - a reflection of both our neighborhood and our wider culture.  We are a microcosm of the Body of Christ.
And just as Paul says to the church in Corinth, we are many members, but of the one Body, and in the one Spirit.
We need to grow, not just for ourselves, but because we have something of value to offer to the world around us.  We have the Holy Spirit.  We have the Holy Spirit in a world that is aching for it.  We have the Holy Spirit and our neighbors are lonely and in pain - and with the Holy Spirit we can help.  Our neighbors are aching for community and a sense of purpose - and with the Holy Spirit we can help to show them the way.  Our neighbors feel broken by war, violence, political divisions, and personal tragedies - and with the Holy Spirit we can give them healing.  We have the Holy Spirit and we can’t keep it to ourselves any more.
We need to grow, not just because our resources are scarce, but also because we are overflowing with abundant blessings to share.  There is a world outside these walls that needs the Church of the Good Shepherd.  They need you.  The world needs you to share the good news of this place that is filled with hope, with healing, and with love.
We won’t solve all the problems of the world, but we can make an impact.  We can show another child that they are valued.  We can give hope to the family that has grown cynical from watching the nightly news.  We can show those who feel excluded and attacked and victimized by this harsh world that there is a place where they can belong.  In short, we can show them that the Holy Spirit is here: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to the let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
We have all the tools in place.  We have the people, and the love, and the worship, and most of all, we have the Holy Spirit.  Together, we can do it.  Amen.

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