Procreating the Gospel

It is customary to use the sermon on annual meeting Sunday to offer a kind of state of the parish review. The problem is when I’ve tried to do this in the past – I fear it becomes rather tedious to listen to a list of all the previous year’s accomplishments – which could be seen as a nice problem to have. However, it’s difficult to single out ministries of particular significance without those ministries not singled out – feeling left out.

In the Rector’s written Introduction to the annual report, I do attempt to convey an accurate overview but again, the details are actually in the ministry reports, and I do not attempt to reproduce these in my introduction.

So can I ask you all to please read the annual report – hard copies will be distributed at the meeting. For those of you who are viewing this via livestream and those of you present today unable to stay for the meeting – though I trust all of you will – you can find the full report on the website under the who we are drop down menu at the top of the screen. The report is actually very interesting. It gives us the most accurate overview of the state and health of the parish by showing the range and depth of our ministry activities in 2022.

If there’s one tag line that sums St Martin’s up it’s a community punching above its weight. For the actual size of our membership, we run a ministry program that would put to shame many parishes twice our size. I believe this to reflect the caliber, skill, and dedication of those of you actively engaged in one ministry or another – and who in most cases – will be involved in several at the same time.

So thank you to you all, for everything you do to ensure that together we can make a greater impact on the world than anyone of us could, alone.

As you read the reports, it might be helpful to note how particular reports belong together. For instance, an area that has really flourished in 2022 has been our small group ministries. It’s helpful to view Women’s Spirituality group, Gander Men’s groups, 20/30’s group, and Knitting as all aspects of a flourishing area of portal (gateway to the community) ministries using small group settings.

Likewise, we have a very hopeful report from the Finance Committee which shows that despite the economic turbulence and uncertainties in 2022, we ended the year on target and enter 2023 with a continued strong level of financial commitment as an expression of confidence in the vitality of the parish. You might read the Thrifty Goose which is reporting an incredibly successful year thanks to the dedication of its team and the Estate Sale report alongside the Finance report.

Worship is a handy heading to keep in mind while reading the Music, Altar Guild, and Meditation Hour reports. It’s helpful to read the Pastoral Care and  Education-Formation reports as ministries closely related to our worship life.

While the Property report offers a dizzying list of repairs and improvements – some anticipated and others an unwelcome surprise -it stands alone but it’s also helpful to read the Memorial Garden report in this context.

The Hospitality report is a significant indicator of how 2022 has been a year of coming back together after the disruption and shutdowns of the pandemic – a sign that although we are not out of the COVID woods and maybe never will be, we are determined to celebrate as fully as possible our community life together. The resumption of the St Martin’s feast was a clear signal that our legendary love of celebration is back.

By far the largest report is the Outreach and Philanthropies report, which speaks volumes about the importance we place on serving the wider community. The report very helpfully outlines the different areas of our outreach. The report offers a helpful table of contents at the beginning – even more necessary because of the wide scope of our six outreach ministries. You might also read the Episcopal Charities report in conjunction with outreach.

Having directed your attention to the importance of our ministry reports from 2022, I want to spend what time is left in addressing parish life against a post pandemic wider societal context. Today we are increasingly affected by the process of demographic change signaling significant shifts in societal attitudes to church-going – leading some to now declare that the Christian Church – and particularly our brand of it, is in sharp decline.

This view makes sense only if our current situation is judged against the years of post war boom which is an historical blip that provides a poor benchmark against which church life going forward can be measured. We should also not forget that the post war boom years in church membership were years in which Christianity became subsumed into a suburban, white, middle-class vision of American life. This is a vision of Christian life often sharply at odds with the teaching of Jesus outlined in Matthew’s beatitudes. Jesus taught that big is not best, wealth is not a sign of being blessed, success if not a sign of God’s favor, – neither is grief nor suffering a sign of God’s disfavor.

It’s important to warn ourselves against allowing memories of the past to cast an unrealistic shadow over understanding our present and casting gloom over our future remembering it’s affluence not adversity that dilutes the impact of the gospel’s message.

Even as we mourn the losses associated with inevitability of change, we are also gearing up to grasp the new challenges of returning to a model of church life, more akin to the world in which the Apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthians in our NT lesson this morning:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

So what do we notice in our own St Martin’s community that reflects wider societal context. Living in an increasingly non-churchgoing part of the world, I liken sustaining our parish community as akin to swimming against the cultural and social tide. It’s important that we do not interpret our society’s declining pattern of churchgoing as a reflection of our failure. The post war church boom and current social trends in the other direction both demonstrate to us that it’s affluence not adversity that dilutes the impact of the gospel’s message.

2022 shows that despite a return to in person worship, the pandemic has only exacerbated the longer-term trend of less frequent and intermittent church going. The Episcopal Church has always assessed its strength by the ASA – average Sunday attendance. But this is no longer an accurate indicator of parish vitality. The big learning from 2022 for us is that it’s important to know how to accurately read the signs – which is why a closer reading of the annual ministry reports is essential. From them we note that worship attendance is down but giving is stronger than anticipated. Pledge numbers are stable and the dollar amount is up. The amount of plate receipts – non pledge giving through the Sunday collection and online plate is far stronger than expected.

As I’ve noted the ASA’s appearance of falling numbers is a reflection of changing worship attendance patterns rather than an indication of loss of members. Our overall membership numbers remain stable with around a dozen new members having joined us in 2022. As the culture of church volunteering  is impacted by living more pressured lives, investments of time seem to be our most scarce and precious commodity. Nevertheless, the vibrancy and impact of our ministries is stronger than ever. Despite the impact of demographic and changing social attitudes to church going our parish community remains strong and vital. It’s a mistake to equate size with strength or even more so, to equate size with success.

Organized Church life in New England maybe akin to swimming against the societal tide, yet a better metaphor might be salmon swimming upstream. Think for a moment about why salmon swim upstream. They do so as part of their procreation cycle. Like the salmon we have some mighty swimmers swimming together in the service of the Gospel’s eternal cycle of procreation.

Subconscious Listening

This is the second Sunday in a row when the Gospel has presented the call to discipleship. The call of discipleship – is as I mentioned last week – the overarching theme for the season of Epiphany.

Last Sunday, we heard John’s version of events. Today, we come to Matthew’s construction of supposedly the same events. There is always more than one way to tell a story and we might be struck by not only the differences between John and Matthew’s version of the same events – but also the similarities.

Both Evangelists set Jesus’ call of his first disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. But each sets this scene against a different historical figure and scriptural backdrop. John sets the scene against the backdrop of John the Baptist and the long Jewish tradition of the messiah’s arrival being preceded by the message of a forerunner – preparing the way.

Matthew sets the first call of the disciples after John had been arrested – whereas John reports the Baptist still loitering about the lake shore. Chronologically, Matthew comes first, so John’s later account is playing fast and loose with the timeline and his setting of the call against the backdrop of the Baptist’s ministry requires some literary license.

Matthew places Jesus in the historic tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading for Epiphany 3. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali correspond to the area which by the 1st century CE was known as the Galilee. As in Isaiah’s day, so in Jesus’ – Galilee was a border region – a buffer area – subject to waves of invasion as well as persistent cultural infiltration by the non-Jewish peoples of Syria and the Phoenician coast.

Each Evangelist uses a different historical figure not only to authenticate Jesus’ identity as messiah, but also to imply something about the meaning of his coming.  Here they share a similarity. Jesus is baptized in the Jewish heartland of the Jordan valley. But he begins his ministry in the cosmopolitan melting pot of the north. Their plot timelines may conflict and yet they agree on the location – both setting the call of the first disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee – each portraying the power of Jesus’ charisma to change the direction of people’s lives.

Matthew’s depiction of the call of the disciples is startling and somewhat alarming – if we take it seriously. Can it really have been the case that Simon, his brother Andrew, together with James and John, the sons of Zebedee just dropped everything and abandoned their lives with all attendant responsibilities? I mean what happened to poor old Zebedee, now two sons and four hands down? How will their father now crew his fishing boat?

What must it have been about Jesus’ amazing pulling power to wrench men from their busy lives?

Why John and Matthew are at pains to set Jesus’ arrival at the beginning of his active ministry against the backdrop of very particular Jewish historical themes is because they are not only telling us who Jesus is but also hinting at the expectations of those who dropped everything to follow Jesus and why they did so.

Simon, Andrew, James, and John were already waiting and ready for Jesus’ call.

Conditioned by their Jewish longing for the Messiah they were thus receptive to Jesus’ call with its strong message of repentance as the engine for change. They heard Jesus’ call because whether conscious of it or not, they were already waiting for it and like so many of their fellow Jews, they were subconsciously listening for it. The power of Jesus’ call to follow him spoke directly into the deepest longings of their hearts, both as human beings and as members of a nation consumed with a longing for change.

Today, our psychologically informed awareness of the power exercised by charismatic leaders over their followers casts an interesting light on Jesus’ call of his first disciples. The charismatic leader’s call to discipleship –whether spiritual, political, or personal – speaks into our experience of futility and powerlessness.  The charismatic leader appeals to our longing to live with deeper meaning and higher purpose. Being called is the experience of being recognized – singled out – speaking to our need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Being called is to be chosen. Being chosen is an intoxicating experience that satisfies not only our longing for something deeper but also our desire for intimacy – an end to our sense of personal isolation.

The call of the charismatic leader does not sound into a vacuum. What do we hear in Jesus’ call for us to follow him? The answer to this will depend on what we are subconsciously listening for.

We respond to a call because it comes to us in a context of our expectations shaped by a belief that God has a purpose for us and has a need for us to play our part. It’s these expectations that precondition us – making us receptive to hearing Jesus’ call to follow him. Many of us may not hear his call as a distinct experience – like a voice in our heads. Most of us will hear his call in dispersed ways – a comment here, a thought there, a confirmation coming at the right moment for us to take a course of action. We will have a sense of how we want to act in life – how we want to make the world better than we find it to be.

But our expectations also pose a danger. As Episcopalians we are often too closely identified with polite society’s wish to keep expressions of Christian faith private so as not to cause offence. We may be waiting – but the question is what are we waiting for?

Speaking about the call to discipleship to those in church on a Sunday morning is essentially preaching to the choir.  Because we are the ones who for whatever dimly grasped reasons are responding to Jesus’ call to worship God. If you think this is a small matter, then recall that the central symbol of our worship is that of being nourished at God’s table to go out in to the world strengthened for action.

To worship God – as we do in the Episcopal Church – through our unique synthesis of timeless liturgy and of-the-moment theological messaging is an increasingly counter cultural action in 2023 America – esp. here in the New England. If you doubt me then ask yourselves why fewer and fewer of us are prepared to do so.

Worship is the water in which we swim like the messianic longing of the Jews of Jesus’ time, it shapes us in unseen ways – making us receptive to God is ways the world around us as ceased to be open to.

To worship God as we do is to want to be changed to become agents for change in the world. The crucial eucharistic transformation is not only in the bread and wine but in the transformation of our hearts and minds to be better fit for God’s purpose in the world. In a sense Jesus calls us is to realize that through eucharistic transformation we become the ones we have been waiting for. As Christians, everything we do in the world flows from this point.

Simon, Andrew, James, and John, the first of a trusty band of brothers heard Jesus’ call and responded without equivocation because he spoke into their longed-for expectations. They heard a promise of change in Jesus’ call. They knew the only thing they had to lose was not changing.

I’m reminded of the cartoon with a somewhat salutary message. It pictures Jesus dressed in 1st-century long shift with shoulder length hair sitting with a young guy who looks like he’s sleeping rough. Jesus has just asked the young guy to follow him – to which – the guy replies Facebook? Jesus says No I really want you to follow me. Still a little perplexed about what Jesus is getting at – he finally exclaims – So ….. Twitter? Jesus says: I’m going to start again and you can let me know where I lose you.

God Calling

We mark the Sundays from The Epiphany to Lent as the Epiphany Season. On the second Sunday after Epiphany we pick up the theme of the call of discipleship. Over and over, we hear how Jesus met people who accepted his invitation to join him. From a cursory reading it appears that those whom Jesus met, just dropped everything – left their lives and existing obligations to go off into new lives as his disciples – they literally followed him.

Isaiah paints a movingly intimate picture of his sense of God’s call in the Old Testament reading for the second Sunday after the Epiphany. He announces: Listen to me you coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was still in my mother’s womb, he named me. Isaiah is describing God’s call as his awakening realization of his life’s purpose. His is a life changing realization of encompassing spiritual intensity. Oh, that we could feel so intensely.

The psalmist in Psalm 40 captures the life-changing nature of God’s call: I waited patiently upon the Lord; he stooped to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the desolate pit … He put a new song in my mouth. Waiting with longing and patience – who can bear such things? He then connects his call with his passion. He finds his song, and it’s not the same old song of his frustrated life.  He finds himself singing a new song. He cries out – for the new song in his mouth is a song of praise of God that excites not only him alone – but the many who experience his joy and passion. Hearing his song – they will be deeply moved – and like him be encouraged to listen for their own call from God.

Likewise, Paul’s opening words in his first letter to the Corinthians. In 14 words he hints at the life transforming nature of his experience of God’s call. Paul was a man who had never lacked zeal or passion. As Saul, he had been the most zealous hound and persecutor of the followers of the way – who were for him a heretical Jewish sect. In 14 words he is recalling his bruising encounter with God’s call on the road to Damascus when suddenly blinded he fell from his horse and heard Jesus saying to him: Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? From that moment his priorities were violently reordered so that years later he is able to write: [I] Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.

The Evangelist John paints for us the amazing domino-like effect of God’s call to follow Jesus. John the Baptist testifying to his experience of baptizing Jesus, seeing Jesus’ approach whispers to his disciples standing near –Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is the one I’ve been telling you about – the one who confirmed everything I had been dreaming about. John continues into an impassioned account of how Jesus came to him for baptism -electrifying his disciples nerve endings – exposing in them a longing they didn’t know they had. The next day – by the way this is an important rhetorical device for John the Evangelist – momentous events always unfold over a sequence of days – the next day the same thing happens. John and his disciples are once again loitering with intent – observing the goings-on along the lake shore as Jesus walks by. Two of John’s disciples break off from the group. Their hearts pumping, their ears deafened by the surging of blood, pulsing – as if in a trance, they follow Jesus. Jesus aware of being followed turns and looks at them.

Have you ever had the experience of secretly admiring someone from a distance and getting caught out? Thinking you are unobserved, the object of your admiration spots you. Bamm! You’ve been rumbled – you feel exposed – stripped bare – feeling shame as a red blush spreads across your cheeks.

Making due allowance for the somewhat distanced and polite translation of the NRSV – we can detect that this is the kind of experience the Evangelist is describing when he tells us that Jesus, seeing them – a better rendering might be – that Jesus, spotting them asks: what are you looking for? Imagine the men stuttering and spluttering before finally their tongues untied they get out a few words: Rabbi –where are you staying? I mean what else is there to say in the heat of such an intoxicating moment? Jesus simply says: come and see.

The dominos keep falling– Andrew, one of the men who has spent the whole day with Jesus – as evening comes rushes off to find his brother Simon. Finding him – out of breath he exclaims we’ve found him. Yes, HIM, the one we’ve been waiting for. Andrew, returning to Jesus with his skeptical brother in tow, brings Simon to Jesus. And what happens? Jesus – as if expecting Simon’s arrival gives him a new name.

Remember my message of two Sunday’s ago on the feast of the Holy Name on New Year’s Day – that names really matter? Well, here we are again. Simon is renamed Peter which means rock. There is an echo to Isaiah here. Peter is the name as if given to him by God while he was still in the womb, unknown to him until the moment when it was awakened in him by Jesus’ call.

Let me recall for us and image I’m sure we will all be familiar with from World War II movies where a small group in Nazi occupied Europe have secretly gathered around a radio dangerously tuned into the BBC broadcast frequency. Knowing the German radio detector van might not be far away, they wait – feeling a mixture of trepidation and expectation. Finally, the airwave crackles to life and they hear the announcer’s voice: This is London calling! This is the call they have been waiting for. A voice that calls them to hope -reviving their longing to be free.

Listen to me you coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was still in my mother’s womb, he named me.

I waited patiently upon the Lord; he stooped to me and heard my cry.

I Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus – by the will of God.

Jesus asked them what are you looking for? Stuttering and spluttering before finally their tongues untied, they get out a few words: Rabbi –where are you staying?  Jesus says to them: come and see.

This is London calling! The callsign of hope in their liberation.

We may not feel much like it, but we are those who probably without knowing quite why – have amidst the cacophony of busy lives filled with petty preoccupations have responded to God’s call to worship and got ourselves somehow, to church.  ourselves together enough to get to church this morning. We are the ones who have woken early enough to tune-in to the livestream of this service in real time. Or maybe we will be those who will remember later in the day or week to click on the livestream link. The point I’m making is that we are present to worship God because we have for reasons maybe unclear to us, chosen to do so.  

Despite competing pressures, worship remains important to us – although we are a dwindling constituency among those who nevertheless remain committed to this church community. Gathering for worship in the New England of 2023 is God’s call to engage in an increasingly countercultural practice. So let us be encouraged by this suggestion while keeping in mind the deeper question for those of us whose expression of faith is often muted by our too close alignment with prevailing culture and social trends.

God is calling. The message from the scriptures this morning is that unless we are listening – unless we are expecting, unless we are hopeful, unless our expectation is tinged with enough patience to tolerate waiting, we may not hear God’s call when it comes because we have stopped listening. It’s one thing to listen and quite another to expect to hear something.

If the weekend when we commemorate the call and life changing mission of Dr. Martin Luther King is not the time to question are receptivity to God’s call, then when will be the opportune time?

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