The Third Sunday in Epiphany — The Rev. Katharine Flexer

Kate Flexer headshot

The Rev. Katharine Flexer

The Third Sunday in Epiphany: January 27, 2019

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10  |  1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21  |  Psalm 19

Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church

Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Today is our Annual Meeting, a chance we take every January to look back on the last year – a state of our union, you could say, unencumbered by partisan wrangling, going forward here at St Michael’s on time and as scheduled. At the end of the service I’ll encourage you to stay right here in the church – coffee and refreshments will be set up right in the back, and the vestry election ballot box will be there as well, and there will be no need for you to go anywhere at all (unless you are a child or a teacher on your way to Sunday School). It will be a presentation you don’t want to miss. We promise great photos of everyone at the end, too. Sit through the numbers and you just might see yourself on screen.

Today’s gospel gives us Luke’s version of how Jesus began his ministry – last week we had John’s version, with Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding of Cana. As John tells it, Jesus is nudged into action by his mother, and in changing the water to wine, performs the first sign of extravagant abundance that will characterize his message and ministry. Luke, on the other hand, has Jesus stage his own appearance on the scene, going back to his hometown synagogue (I wonder if Mom was there too) and reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah the powerful words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…’ and then, before the hushed crowd, Jesus claims that this scripture is being fulfilled right then and there before them. For sheer drama, this scene is as powerful as the miracle of wine at the wedding. This is the stuff of great cinema.

So we can’t resist having some of that drama right here in church – in just a few minutes you’ll hear what I mean. One of the new things of 2018, after all, was the formation of our theater group, the incarnation of a truth we’ve always known – this place has a lot of hams. Stay tuned to hear more.

Because even here at St Michael’s, scripture is being fulfilled in our midst. We right here are a part of that amazing work that Jesus embodies, the work of sharing good news to the poor, of proclaiming release to captives, sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free. That gospel of liberation that Jesus proclaims aloud in Nazareth is our gospel. That’s the good news we’re here for – the good news we’re here to receive, and to act out too. It’s not just something Jesus does. Paul makes it clear in his letter to the Corinthians: ‘You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.’ We all are part of what Jesus came to do – our call is to live out Jesus in this world.

So how are we doing on that mission, as we look back on 2018?

Here are some of the highlights of what I see.

One of the biggest things that captured our collective time and attention was the God’s Call process, what we did in the fall as we shared in small groups about our experience of this community and what we think it’s for. The leaders and I were already thinking and planning for it at the start of 2018, following on a sense that we needed collective agreement on where we were going and why. The Rev. John Lewis in San Antonio, Texas, where Leigh and I were for a conference in February, gave me the language for it, and Kyle Okimoto, John Stickney, and Gayle Robinson helped shape it as a process for our congregation. And 160 of you were willing to give it a go, beginning with the vestry and staff. We talked and we listened to each other, about why we come to church, how we’ve felt the Spirit here, why we think St Michael’s is needed. And there were some really, really great conversations. Discernment, getting a sense of where God is leading us, begins with listening, to one another and to what is stirring within us – and we did that well. The unplanned-for gift of the process was getting you all together with each other and really talking about deep things of your experience. Copious notes were taken and several of us read every one. And now we get to use all of that as the new vestry begins its work – all so that we can better live out Jesus in this world.

Also in 2018, we did some good work on our buildings and finances, starting to receive rental income from the corner after all those years of expenses and strain, and beginning to rebuild our endowments for future ministry. We put up new lights, put down new floors and painted walls, and made spaces better in the Parish House, including a wonderful new meeting space called the Angel Room, already the scene of great classes, study, and meetings. And we improved the Reception Room, making it a better place for our Saturday Kitchen guests and our own Sunday hospitality. Buildings and money provide the structure for how we live out our life as a community – and we’ll hear more about all those finances, of course, in the meeting that follows.

In our staff, we said goodbye to the Rev. Kyle Oliver, whose parting gift to us was the beginning of a job description for a new communications person – who will help us tell our story to the community around us, and to work better together. We said a more official hello to the Rev. David Rider, who brings years of experience in ministry throughout the church, and also connects us (beyond knitting) with the work he does for seafarers at the Seamen’s Church Institute. In our nursery, a hive of community building, we said goodbye to Rosie Perez after years of caring for our children – and hello to Abby Powell, who will care for generations to come. We celebrated the return to health of our main administrative assistant Richard Storm – but also found we needed our new admin Kevin Tkacz to stay on and help, because there’s a lot going on. Staff is also how we structure and support the ministry of this community.

Because here in all kinds of practical ways, we lived out Jesus’ gospel of liberation and healing: we fed people at Saturday Kitchen and helped them in the Pilgrim Resource Center and with giveaways of coats, clothing, and food. We sent more money off to Haiti to help with the construction of the school there, and a little bit also to Al Ahli hospital in Gaza; our kids raised money for hurricane relief and helped sell crafts for Michael Miiro in Uganda, helping fund his ministry there with people with disabilities and HIV. And we started a whole new ministry with Homework Help, our weekly one-on-one tutoring program for kids in our neighborhood. If you want to know how to start a new ministry, talk to Kris Ishibashi – she is an excellent example of an empowered and equipped lay leader, involving others in truly living out Jesus in the world.

And we lived out Jesus in our own midst as well – this community is doing well at taking care of each other. We graduated 17 spiritually grounded people from the Community of Hope International lay pastoral care program, who are now roaming the congregation full of ideas and love, starting a grief group, making phone calls to elders and more. Our lay Eucharistic visitors took communion every month to those who couldn’t get here to church; the prayer chain continued to pray for everyone who needs it; Andrea Dedmon helped our kids make cards every holiday for elders and shut-ins, and everyone signed them; a team formed to care for a family in need here in helpful, practical ways. Support groups surrounded parents of children with special needs, and parents of adolescents; and the parents of choir kids have helped make Wednesday afternoons a whole afterschool program of choir, homework, crafts, and play. Our parish events, BBQs and dinners and brunches and all, had more and different people signing up to help and lead, and our Sunday hospitality after services now has new and different faces doing some part of the work – thanks to Lucy Culver and the handsome Ridge pushing us into iVolunteer, and to a team of people willing to step into the shoes of the heroic workers who had somehow always done everything – Tricia Vivado, Joyce Burcham, Denisha Williams, and others could move away, have surgery, and care for their families without our hospitality ministry caving in. This is all practical, hands-on stuff, none of it glamorous, but all of it helping with real needs in our community life. Acting out our faith.

And in order to grow in our understanding of how we live out Jesus, we tried new things in Christian formation and worship, offering emailed study materials for scripture reading over the summer and fall (thanks to Leigh!), going deeper with Godly Play on Sundays and other days too, organizing a second EfM study group. John Cantrell led singing forums last Lent that made our Easter hymns full and robust – what a great Easter it was! And we made subtle changes to make our worship more effective, changing the energy of the beginning of the service and pulling you all back from the Peace (is it me, or are some of you actually coming on time now? Maybe it’s working!). And our new Creative Church space in the chapel became a lively center of activity (sometimes more activity than we’d prefer but that’s ok).

We baptized 11 new members of the body of Christ, and welcomed about 35 official new members of this congregation. And our Sunday attendance is up, and we’re having to print more bulletins.

So you could say that 2018 was a year of discernment, as we pursued our questions of what God is calling us to be. We listened carefully, and we will begin to step forward in that clarity this year, living into our vocation as the body of Christ here on 99th St. But 2018 was also a year of living out our calling right here and now, in ways big and small. St. Paul is right – we are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And that scripture is being fulfilled right here in our midst.

One way to distill all the words that were spoken in our conversations together last fall is quite literally to count them up. And what words came up the most often in our conversations? Four rise to the top: God. People. Community. Love. The people of this place, making community and serving our community in love, learning to love more and more because God is at our heart. Experiencing God’s love in tangible, practical ways in the love of this community for its people and for all God’s people everywhere. We are learning and living that love. We are fulfilling the good news of Jesus – and it is changing us, individually and collectively. God is at work! Amen!