Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 28—Year B—Rector’s Annual Address and Sermon
I Samuel 1:4-20, I Samuel 2:1-10, Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25, Mark 13:1-8
Settle in. Get comfortable. Try as I might, I never am successful at being succinct on this day.
It is my joy to address you as your Priest and Rector. There is much to celebrate from this past year, and there is much to anticipate as we look toward the future. But before I speak one more word, I want to thank my colleagues—Charles and Brenda, Katrina, Emily, Katharine, Pat, Catherine, Sarah, Ted, Karen, and Greg—they are an amazing staff! Each of these individuals has such a sense of ministry about their work, and that only adds to the spirit of our community. This past year, we began having monthly staff meetings. We’ve been watching the Reggie McNeal Six Tough Questions for the Church video’s so that we, as a staff, can understand the shifts happening in our church and in the culture. We share what’s going on in our various areas, and we help one another think through challenges. Everyone brings wisdom to the table, and we laugh a lot. Now, more specifically…
Charles and Brenda Oaks continue to love our physical plant. They are family. When Brenda had to have her back surgery, it was one of the family having surgery. Charles has stepped into the lead role beautifully, and Brenda is determined to get back to full strength. Their work is so behind the scenes—if you ever are here when they clean, please thank them for their work.
Katrina Godsey, Emily Wright, and Katharine Houghton take care of our children week in and week out. The first formation a young child gets in our church often happens in our nursery. The fact that our children are cared for by caring, loving, nurturing, energetic women communicates much to our children about how our God cares for us. We are blessed to have this team of caregivers.
Pat Kohles continues to keep our numbers straight. Part of stewardship is being careful and trustworthy stewards of the monies you entrust to us. Pat keeps all the funds straight, keeps us in compliance with the government, and is there to answer your questions when something doesn’t add up. I would add that Pat has helped to shepherd us through the audit process, and we now are in complete compliance with our Diocesan requirements—yea! And Pat is one of those rare people who finds joy in double-entry accounting. I love that about you!
Catherine King keeps the office humming, the communication flowing, the bulletins rolling, the website updated, the Rector sane—and all with a pastoral sensitivity, great wisdom, and a keen wit. Catherine has a wonderful way of pulling the curtain back and naming what is. That kind of clarity ten feet away is immensely helpful to me. And we laugh a lot—sometimes at the insanity in the world, sometimes at this loveable and crazy thing we call “church.” Thanks Catherine, for being a great partner in ministry.
Sarah Miller continues to show amazing creativity and flexibility as our Director of Christian Formation. She has made me aware that, for the third year in a row, we have completely reworked Christian formation for our older elementary and middle school age kids. She is now used to me saying, “I woke up in the middle of the night, and what if we did…” She is a great dreamer and brain-stormer, and we are finding wonderful new ways to do Christian formation with children. She resources those of you who teach and is always there to think through your questions. Sarah, we are blessed to have your open spirit, as well as a lifetime of educational experience to make sure that our methods actually give witness to the gospel we are proclaiming. And thanks for rolling with my middle-of-the-night ideas.
Ted Gulick. We allowed him three months of leave this summer, and though he planned well for the supply organists, we all were keenly aware that none of them was Ted. It’s not just the fact that he is an enormously gifted musician; it’s the spirit Ted brings to his music making. It’s the fact that he is completely open to new expressions of praise, as well as the ancient ones. It’s the fact that Ted has a very intentional spiritual life that opens up this space for Spirit to move through his hands and his feet. Ted also understands his ministry to the Chancel Choir, and he pastors that flock well. I think they pastor him, too. In a nutshell, the liturgy just goes better when you are on the bench.
Karen Robertson. Oh, Karen. Karen is an amazingly talented, gifted, beautiful musician and person. She has continued to pursue creative avenues for music at the 9:00 service. When one thing isn’t working, she has sought to find another way forward. And always, she has sought ways for singers and other musicians to offer their gifts through the Family Choir, the cantor groups, and the instrumentalists. Karen, you have successfully taught us that we can clap and hold a rhythm, and that we can tap our feet, sway, and even dance. And now, you give us one gift more. A month ago, Karen came to me to tell me of her decision to step down as the Director of Music for the 9:00 service. Karen sensed that something needs to shift in that liturgy and that it wasn’t going to happen until a space opened up for it to do so. So, she is opening up that space, and over the months to come, we will discern where the Spirit is moving us. We will celebrate Karen’s ministry with a reception on December 30th, but for now I want to say, I will miss you like crazy. I will miss your music, your spirit, your creativity, your love of God, and the deep sense of ministry that you bring to it all.
And I want to thank Ted and Karen for the spirit in which they have long worked together with each other and with me. Trust me, I talk to clergy around the church, this is not always the case. We are blessed to have musicians of differing gifts and sensibilities that truly honor the breadth of styles that exist between them. Ted and Karen, you have done much to heal and move this community forward when it comes to the different styles of music that feed our souls, and we are all the better for it.
Deacon Greg Erickson. Greg has had some travel this fall, and boy, I’m really aware of how much I count on him when he is not here. It’s not just the bazillion of details that Greg attends to every Wednesday and Sunday, but it’s the way his spirit anchors this community, and especially me. You are all heart, and your open heart opens every heart you meet. You have a heart for people, and a heart for mission, and you remind us that those two always go together. You are my brother in every way, you are a wise councilor to me, and it is a joy to share this sacred ministry with you.
This is your staff. They are team players in every way, and they embody servant leadership. I would be sunk without them. As you cross paths with them, please thank them.
Need to stretch?
What a year this has been! Ministries are growing. Ministry is extending. Focus is growing sharper and shifting in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. A year ago, I couldn’t have told you who Reggie McNeal or Dwight Zschleile were, (they are leading thinkers in what is now being called missional church) and now, these ideas are woven into our conversations at St. Luke’s. Last winter, your Vestry started watching the Reggie McNeal videos—the very videos now being shown in our Sunday Adult Forums. Reggie McNeal makes us keenly aware that we can be really busy doing church; we can exhaust people with church busywork; we can do church excellently, but if we are answering the wrong questions, it’s not going to get us where God is calling us to go.
As Jim Banks’ paper indicates, the trend lines in the Episcopal Church, and even in our own Diocese, are dire. The Episcopal Church has lost 37% of its members since 1965. Does that strike fear in your heart? It certainly has in mine. And if I am honest, I have probably spent a good amount of time this past year in a pretty anxious and fearful place. I have been deeply aware that the church for which I was trained is changing, and that a good part of my thinking and training does not translate to the church we are becoming. Dwight Zschleile talks a lot about the church needing to adopt the position of disciples—we need to become learners as we encounter the world outside our doors; a benefactor mentality no longer holds. So, I am becoming a learner, right alongside all of you. I don’t particularly like change. I like to know what I am doing, but I am beginning to grow comfortable with the fact that this is something we are going to discover together.
I find the gospel for today more than ironic. As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Oh yay. And after we just completed the stonework on our building…really Jesus? Can’t we just enjoy our great buildings? Does the whole thing really have to topple down? Does it all have to be thrown down? And Jesus goes on to make clear that the period to come is going to be a tumultuous one indeed. I don’t think it’s Jesus, per se, who is going to throw down our structures, but if we don’t embrace the transformation Jesus is inviting us into, the structures are going to collapse of their own accord. Jesus didn’t come to establish the church; Jesus came to invite us to walk into the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is everywhere, if we have eyes to see. They say that we are in the midst of the biggest reformation since the one that Christ ushered in 2,000 years ago. Reggie McNeal is right—it is AD 30 all over again, and it’s exciting, and terrifying, but maybe that terror can become the mysterium tremendens—that awesome mysterious terror that always accompanies true encounters with the Holy.
In the midst of this change, there are daunting questions: How do we grow? As the economy struggles and as giving patterns change, how do we finance this church we love? How do we maintain our buildings and sustain our structures? Are we still relevant? Does this church matter? Why do we exist? These are sort of scary questions to ask; it would be easier to pretend that we if we just find the right programmatic fix, we can regain the glory days of the 50’s and 60’s, but I want you to know that your Vestry, your staff, and your Rector are not burying our heads into the sand. We have been, and are, asking these questions, and we want you to ask these questions with us.
But even more, we want to ask even deeper questions: How is God inviting us to move out into the world? How is Jesus calling us to follow him? Where is the Spirit nudging us, pushing us, pulling us? What are we being called to create, together? How can we set people free from church busywork, and set them free for the mission that God is calling them to in their workplaces, in their classrooms, in their homes, in their neighborhoods? What does a radical Jesus person look like, and how can we walk that path? How does our liturgy need to change, and what do we need to retain? Lots of voices are calling us to move this way and that, just like the gospel says this morning, how do we discern the path we are to walk? We are asking these questions, in Vestry, as a staff, and amongst the 20 or so people gathering in the weekly Friday morning study group.
As the Vestry has asked the hard questions about our purpose, we have come to see that we do have a purpose; we have an essential, vital, vibrant role to play in God’s kingdom. Reggie McNeal predicts that in the future, 1/3 of believers will continue to be connected to churches as we have traditionally known them, 1/3 will worship in some sort of house church, and 1/3 won’t worship in any church at all, but will just be about the work of God as they go about their lives in the world. These dynamics are already in play. I am deeply aware that the community of St. Luke’s extends far beyond those we see in weekly worship. There are many whose spiritual container is much bigger than the institutional church, and yet, they are connected to us. Why? From their standpoint, and from ours, why is that connection to St. Luke’s important?
I think that connection is important because we need a base camp. We need a place to come where we can be fed and nourished and formed and shaped, so that we can go out into the world and engage the mission, the adventure, that God has set before each one of us. We need a place to come where we can learn what it means to be Jesus people, to be people of the Way. We need a place to come where we can learn what it means to live as a community and to love our neighbor, even when, especially when our neighbor drives us crazy. We need a school of love, as St. Benedict called it, a place where we learn how to forgive and how to receive forgiveness. We need a place to learn how to extend mercy and receive grace. We need a place to come where we can talk the language of the True Self and identify the trappings of our false self, trappings that the world holds up as the goal. Where will we learn all these things if this community is not here? And even for those who don’t come but every so often, they know that base camp is here and someone is tending the home fires, and that makes a difference in their lives. So, yes, we have a mission, and our salvation, our wholeness, depends upon it.
It does change how we do things here, and some of that mindset has already shifted. We begin to see everything through the lens of formation. How do our classes shape us for this new day? How can we teach the core practices of the faith? How is our liturgy shaping us? How do we keep encouraging one another in our mission beyond this place? When things aren’t working, how do we adapt?
Sunday morning formation wasn’t working well for our elementary age and older youth, so the J2A group now meets once a month on Sunday afternoon. I teach the older elementary and middle school kids on Wednesday afternoons, and we changed what we do with them in our Sunday morning time. J2A doesn’t have critical mass, so we’re now inviting St. Mary’s and Holy Cross youth to join our group.
My adult class on Tuesday evenings had lost some steam over the years, so we dropped it, and a Friday morning book study has emerged where amazing conversations are happening.
The digital world has changed the way we all communicate, and our monthly newsletter seemed out of date before we had even printed it, so we invested energy in reworking our website, posting to our facebook page, and weekly emails with announcements, and we’re going to start experimenting with posting youtube videos, beginning with taping the sermons, so that we can reach out beyond our four walls into the wider world, all made possible by technology.
Why do three Episcopal churches exist in the same county and never talk—that makes no sense—so now we’re talking, and the Tri-Church Committee is looking for ways to deepen those bonds and increase the power of our common witness.
We don’t have property for a community garden, but our neighbors do, so we partner with them and ASU and the County Extension Office and the garden doubles in size and teaches us about God’s abundance. What’s amazing about this garden is that it draws workers and visitors who may never see the inside of a church. God is so present in this work and in these encounters, and what better place to encounter God than in a garden—the place of creation and resurrection. And then, the food goes to Hospitality House or to FARM Café where we cook and serve food for our neighbors.
The Junaluska work gets tough as we do the hard work of racial reconciliation, so we call in help from the Diocesan Commission to Dismantle Racism, and we stay at the relationships, finding that they grow in love in the process.
Both the Women’s and Men’s Group have reorganized this year and are finding their way forward.
Moveable Feasts for 20 and 30 somethings. Third Place for college-age adults. We are learning what it means to live our faith out in the world with courage and a sense of adventure.
The culture brought us a difficult issue this past year in Amendment One—we tackled it head-on with solid teaching, space for conversation, and we found an incredibly creative third way forward that honored the spaciousness of this community and allowed those who felt called to make a powerful, public witness. I am proud of the work we did in that season, and it was hard, hard work!
We also were faithful this past year in our call to take care of this sacred space that has been entrusted to us. Through your generosity, we put in air conditioning (I can’t tell you the difference that makes to me on Sunday morning and to the staff who work throughout the week—it is night and day), we finished the stonework, and our dishwasher will soon be installed—this is amazing! We have more projects ahead, and together, we will care for the physical aspects of our base camp.
We see the trends identified in Jim’s paper, and we wonder how we sustain base camp financially in years to come, so we continue to teach about stewardship in all its dimensions in the short-term, and we get an endowment structure in place and begin to talk about planned giving for the long-term.
And in and amongst all of these things, we care for one another. We minister to the sick, we care for the dying, we remember the saints, we pray for the world; we rejoice in our children, we look to the wisdom of our elders, and we play—remember that procession last Easter morning?
We are the Body of Christ. We share our joys, we share our burdens, we share this feast. We encourage one another. In a world that is full of mind numbing-distractions, in a world that leaves no space for the deepest stirrings of our soul, we help each other stay awake to God’s amazing presence. We are teaching our children, as well as ourselves, to sit in silence—in every worship service, in every Sunday School class. Do we understand what a counter-cultural thing it is to teach ourselves how to be present to Presence?
God is everywhere, Jesus is alive, the Spirit is moving. I don’t know where it is all going, but I do know that this community of faith is up to the task, and we are on for the ride.
For me, the balance has tipped. It is a scary time for the institutional church, yes, but it is a great time to love and follow Jesus. We, together, can make this turn into the future. It will be hard work. It will call forth the very best of our selves. We will risk more, which means we will fail more, which means we will need to forgive each other more, which means we will be more dependent than ever on grace—God’s and each other’s. We will change, but honestly, any adventure worth taking changes your life. As Jesus also says this morning, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” Something new is being born.
It is truly a privilege to be your priest. Goodness knows, you know by now that I am infinitely human, and I have feet of clay—if you don’t, ask my staff, ask my family. After nine years, I know you, and you know me, and there is a real grace in that.
And I want to publically thank Jim and Julia. They have their own ministries, but I tell you, I could not do mine without their love and support and generous amounts of forgiveness. Julia has to share me a lot, not always an easy thing to do, but she understands that what I do matters to this community. She also reminds me, in gentle and not-so-gentle ways, that I need to lay my work down at the end of the day. And Jim, I could not ask for a better partner in life or in ministry. Even though, from time to time, we do have to declare “church-free zones” in our home, you are my soul-mate, and my journey is all the richer for doing it with you.
So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the fact remains that you are an amazing community of faith. When people across the Diocese ask, “Who is wrestling with this missional/emerging church stuff?”—St. Luke’s, Boone is one of the names that comes up. I don’t quite know where we are heading, but I know that we have ears to hear and eyes to see where God is inviting us to go.
Thank you for taking this journey, and thank you for your support.
It is an honor to serve you as your priest, and I love you more than you can possibly imagine.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
November 18, 2012