The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: January 28, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Hello, good people of St Michael’s. Today is our annual meeting, a time to look back over our last year and give thanks for the ministry we’ve been doing together. At the end of the service we will transition from worship into the main part of the meeting, with reports from our cemetery committee chair, our treasurer, and our wardens. There will be numbers and pie charts and blessings to be counted, and it will all take place right here in the church, even the coffee hour right here in the church so that you don’t have to go anywhere – you can stay and take part in this annual update of our common life. And to lead us into that meeting, it falls to me in this sermon to give you a sort of State of the Congregation address. Time to talk about all the good things happening here, and celebrate all of us in our work together.
But I have to say I was a bit daunted by the selection of readings for today – it’s one of those Sundays when I think, why didn’t we pick different scriptures for ourselves than the ones put forth for us in the lectionary? I want to talk about what I think God is up to here at St Michael’s. But it seems I do so at my peril. The Deuteronomy reading has Moses telling the people that they can’t handle hearing God directly and so must listen to God speaking through a prophet – but then winds up with a warning about those prophets who think they’re speaking about God but really aren’t. ‘Any prophet who…presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.’ Great. Meanwhile the gospel tells a story of a congregation gathered to worship, like this one, listening to a new rabbi named Jesus teach – when suddenly a demon starts shouting and it’s time for an exorcism. That would sure be some annual meeting.
So with fear and trepidation, I plunge ahead.
Because there is something in these readings for us today, I’m convinced of it. There’s something in them about hearing God’s voice – directly or indirectly; hearing the true word of God. In the Deuteronomy passage the people are longing to hear God’s word, but frightened of hearing it too directly. Which then puts them at the mercy of God’s purported spokespersons, who may or may not be conveying to the people the true word of God. Indeed, that’s a very good question for us: how do we listen for the truth and hear it when it comes? What would God say to us today? In Mark’s gospel it is the true word spoken by Jesus that calms the ferocious power of the demon. The Word of God is present right there in the flesh with that congregation; Jesus speaks with a voice of authority. Do we hear that authority here in this community today? Is the Word as present here now? In a time of ‘fake news,’ of clamoring voices each trying to convince us of their take on reality – believe this, vote this way, buy that, become this – in such a time we need to hear that true word more than ever.
There’s a book that we use at St Michael’s called Listening Hearts. It lays out a process of discernment, listening for what God might be calling one to do in one’s life. The term discernment literally means a ‘sifting through’ our experiences to determine what is of God. The authors note that discerning the work of the Spirit among us requires several things: that we trust God and one another enough to open our hearts to each other, and that we listen to one another when that happens. It requires that we pray and read and study our scripture. It requires that we know ourselves well, that we practice spiritual disciplines, that we wait on God’s timing, and that we keep a healthy sense of perspective and humor. With all of these conditions met, we can avoid the traps of impatience and the desire for too-quick certainty, of self-serving self-righteousness, of the self-sufficient consumerism that pervades our culture. We can listen, therefore, for the true Word, for God’s voice, for what God has to say to us.
So what is the word God is speaking to St Michael’s? I think one way to answer that is to look at what is happening here in our community. Last year one of our main focuses as a congregation was the Renewal Works process. At this time last year many of you sat down to complete the Spiritual Life Inventory, which asked probing questions about your beliefs and spiritual practices. What came out of the inventory was a bunch of data about the state of our collective spiritual life, which the Renewal Works leadership team sifted through to come up with recommendations for our life together – which are, in brief
- take every opportunity to build relationship
- meet people where they are to invite them in
- raise up leaders to empower spiritual growth
- and better communicate who we are at St Michael’s.
But what also came out of the experience was that we began to talk more in church and out of it about spiritual growth, talking about it as something real and expected and well, to be talked about. Instead of just being here ‘for the community,’ or to do some good works with other people, we began to talk together about growing in God, about that being the point of our presence here. And that conversation has continued and is ongoing. I think our culture as a congregation has changed because of it.
Does that mean that we are all spiritual grandmasters now because we’re talking more about spiritual growth? Not yet, no. But consider what is happening – many members of the staff here are spending more time on their spiritual disciplines, studying scripture, praying and meditating, and doing all of that together in our weekly meetings. The wardens go to weekly Bible study and lead Morning Prayer early in the morning in the chapel here. Your vestry spent time at each of their monthly meetings talking about joy, and about how we live out God’s desires as we care for our buildings, work together, and raise money. Thirteen people have been trained in the Listening Hearts process, listening deeply for how the Spirit is acting in someone’s life, and as a result, four different people are now embarked on a journey toward vocation in the church. (One of them, Anne Marie Witchger, will be ordained to the transitional diaconate this March, and more are lined up waiting their turn to talk with the committees.) Twenty people serve in rotation to offer healing prayer to people in our worship services every Sunday. Thirteen people are showing up to a three hour class every week in Education for Ministry. Nineteen other people are signed up for a program beginning this week called Community of Hope, offering training in pastoral care based in the Rule of St Benedict. Our Sunday School teachers have spent Saturdays in trainings for Godly Play, a Sunday School model that goes beyond simply teaching to children to offer space for children to talk and wonder about how God works in the world. Fifteen people met weekly last fall for a class on Faith & Doubt, talking honestly and listening to one another about the questions of faith.
I could go on, but my point is this: people at St Michael’s, a large and growing number of people, are committing their time and energy to listening for God’s voice – and living it out, not only here but in their everyday lives. We are trusting one another to speak truthfully and listen well; we are praying and reading our Bible; we are being patient and waiting on God for clarity and certainty – especially on the corner; and we are remembering always to laugh and do all of this joyfully. That is spiritual growth, in a nutshell. That is listening to what the word of God is saying to us all.
And also over the last year, we baptized four people, had seven received or confirmed at our Bishop Mary’s visitation in April, formally welcomed 32 or so new members, blessed one marriage, celebrated our 29 elders over the age of 80, and held memorial services for five people. We sent our organist and choirmaster John Cantrell off on a sabbatical and enjoyed the gifts of Scott Rednour in John’s absence. We welcomed Jonathan Kester from Emmanuel in London on his sabbatical. We maxed out the women’s retreat with so many people the convent couldn’t put them all up. We celebrated current and former vestry members at the rectory, including some we haven’t seen here in recent years. We hosted trainings in mental health and CPR, connected with our local precinct and had a security survey, all in the name of caring better for all who come through our doors. We welcomed our deacon, Richard Limato, who serves in worship every Sunday and as pastoral presence every Saturday in our Saturday Kitchen – which continues to feed over 200 people each week. We raised more than our $5000 goal to help build the new school in Haiti, and we had a generous pledge drive with nearly $550,000 pledged. We reached out to neighbors in ministry with interfaith families, we grew our children’s choirs and youth acolyte team, we showed thought-provoking films in the summer film series, and we had a lot of fun at parties together. All while celebrating our 210th anniversary year, honoring all the ways we have responded to God’s call here in the history of this place.
We are listening and discerning well here together – talking to one another more openly and truthfully – giving of ourselves more generously – living more faithfully. We are in a good place, a very good place – a place where the word of God can be spoken and heard, and where our lives can grow to be more godly – that is, more truth-telling, more peacemaking, more healing. More a part of what God’s up to in the world about us. There is so much to be done.
There are people to thank for all of this, and at the end of the meeting, we’ll individually thank our outgoing vestry members and others. But right now, I’d like to invite to stand for recognition these people who have been actively helping us all to listen for God’s voice here:
- Our current wardens and vestry
- Our staff
- Our Renewal Works team
- Our discernment committee members
- Our healing prayer team
- Our Sunday School teachers and youth leaders
- Our 210th anniversary committee
And how about all of you stand. Because we’re all of us part of this work together of listening to God’s voice. God’s word is speaking to us all. May we help each other to hear it, and to act as God’s people in this world. Amen.