The Third Sunday after the Epiphany: January 22, 2017
The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
In the summer of 2015, a woman named Bree Newsome dressed in climbing gear and a helmet, shimmied up the flagpole in front of the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, and pulled down the Confederate flag. As she came back to ground to the police gathered there to arrest her, she quoted text from the Bible: ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life. Of whom then shall I be afraid?’ The flag was put back up that day, but it was taken down permanently a few weeks later. I think of that act now every time I read that psalm, Psalm 27 – an act of faith, of hope, of following Jesus in this world.
In sifting through the news reports about that day, I was struck by how often Newsome had to remind reporters of the community she came from. You Google her name and she comes right up as the woman who took down the Confederate flag. But there was someone else there with her, a man named James Tyson who was arrested along with her; and there was a community behind them both that made the decision to take action. And she acted because her faith, the faith her parents had raised her in and the faith she held herself, impelled her to. She quoted Psalm 27 because she knew it, and it spoke the words she wanted to speak, the words of her faith that God was there, and she was following. And so she, and all of her community, did not have to be afraid.
That’s the psalm we sang together today. What a psalm for us to have today, this weekend of the inauguration and the Women’s March; and what a psalm for us on our Annual Meeting day. The Lord is my light; whom shall I fear? We at St Michael’s have seen that light of God shining here in this place. The Lord’s light has been present in our community and is present with us today. So we know, going forward into this new year, that we do not have to fear. But maybe we have to remind each other of that again – and again.
2016 is a strange year to look back on. Many while we were still in 2016 were already calling it a terrible year. The deep unpleasantness of the presidential campaigns and the bewildering results of the election. The deaths of several prominent musicians and artists much beloved by people about my age. The mass shooting in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history so far. The Brexit vote. Terrorist attacks in Brussels and Nice and Baghdad and elsewhere, the ongoing disaster in Syria, Hurricane Matthew, Russian hacking of our elections. But then there was Rio and our women’s gymnastics team and especially Simone Biles!, and there was the amazing success of the protest against the Dakota pipeline. So it was a mixed sort of year, 2016.
Meanwhile, at St Michael’s, we were designated a New York City Landmark – a mixed piece of news in itself. We officially welcomed some 40 new active members (and several more of you snuck in unofficially as well) – which was great news, all the way. 15 youth and adults were confirmed and received into the Episcopal Church in May – fantastic! We fed a lot of people in Saturday Kitchen and ate a lot of food in monthly pasta dinners, the Shrove Tuesday supper, the spring progressive dinner, BBQs, the Christmas brunch, and of course the Cupcakes of Ingathering Sunday. The women went on retreat, the men went on retreat, groups went on hikes, a bigger group went to a baseball game, and the young adults went to the bar and talked about God. Four people were baptized and three couples were married in our chapel and we mourned and celebrated ten beloved people at their deaths. We refocused and built up our ministry with children and families with special needs, we got a little more involved with social media, we greatly increased our ministry and visibility of welcome to visitors and newcomers. We blessed a new wall at the cemetery that names people who might otherwise have been forgotten. We ran a new kind of class for adults digging into faith questions, and kept at it in our Bible studies and forums, justice group meetings and more. And we lived through several months of scaffolding and dust while we waited for our walls to be replastered and painted and our organ to be restored, and then for All Saints Day it was finally done.
We said a tearful goodbye to our children’s choir director Jonathan De Vries, and then a joyful hello to our new director Dusty Francis. We brought the Rev. Kyle Oliver on for help in our communications and digital media. And we sent our organist and choirmaster John Cantrell off on a well-deserved sabbatical. And we leaned heavily on the rest of our fantastic staff to clean and repair and set up, to plan and lead and organize, to worry and run interference and add up numbers. All while we celebrated 249 Eucharists, said 282 daily office services, and drank 74,367 cups of coffee (estimated).
And why did we do all of this? Because we were bored? No. Because it looked good on our resumes? No. Because we liked being busy? No. Well, maybe there was some of that. We did it, more or less, and in our human and compromised way, because we were trying to follow Jesus and live out being God’s community here in this neighborhood. And you’ll notice, all of it was something we did together. From baptism to burial, in classes and in worship, through meals and service, even in taking care of these buildings, the work of St Michael’s in 2016 was work of the community together – the work of the community illuminated with God’s light.
Our gospel today tells about that community in its formational stages. Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John: when Jesus came along to their fishing boats and said, ‘Follow me,’ they dropped it all and followed him. They saw in Jesus the light they needed to go forward. They did not fear. They just chose to follow. And they brought others along with them, as disciples of Jesus and as followers long after he was gone too. And so they began the community together, the movement, that we are all still part of today.
Jesus calls us into that too. Follow me – all of you come together. I’ll make you fish for people. You come and be part of this community, and I’ll have you bringing others along too. In this community gathered around God, the Lord is the strength of our life together. In this community gathered around God, you don’t ever have to be afraid.
What is coming in 2017, we don’t know. We don’t know what our world will be like this year and what events will make the news – what it will be like with this new president, what will happen in our foreign policy and in our economy and in our common life together as a nation. We don’t know what will happen here at St Michael’s, though of course we have plans – to work on our spiritual growth here together beginning this spring with RenewalWorks and to continue on with priorities and intentions that we will clarify together; to invite more people in to this community and to find ways to connect together more deeply and more meaningfully in love and service. But how that will all look, we don’t know yet. And we don’t know what sacrifices each of us might be called to make, or what hurdles each of us might have to overcome, or what tragedies and joys might be part of each of our lives. It can all look a little scary, when you think about it.
But this we do know. We walk this path together as a community of people here on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, some of us lifelong friends and some of us newcomers and some of us quiet and anonymous, but all of us finding something here to come back for. We walk it in the company of the faithful throughout the ages who have baptized their babies and buried their dead and painted walls and cooked meals and pulled down symbols of oppression and faced into bullets, because they heard Jesus’ voice calling and felt God’s power giving them strength. And we walk it following one who went through death and beyond, who opened the way to life for each and every person throughout the world, and who invites us, each of us, to follow. To follow and to serve and to invite and to pray, and to know that there is nothing, nothing to fear. Because the Lord is our light, and our salvation. Yesterday, today, and forever. Amen.