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The Third Sunday after Epiphany
So there was Jesus, walking along the lakeshore, and first he saw Simon Peter and Andrew busy fishing, and he called them over. They put their nets down and followed him, just like that. And then he found James and John, also fishing, and called them too. They were busy mending their nets, but they got up and followed him. And all along the lakeshore, there were these abandoned piles of nets, piled up and tangled and no longer necessary for the work that lay before them. After a lifetime in one place, off they went after this healer and teacher and show-er of the Way.
Every time I hear this story, it amazes me even more. Jesus calls someone to be his disciple, and there they go, just up and go. They leave their nets, they leave their tax booths, they leave their families and possessions, and they follow him. The ones who say, hang on one sec, Jesus, let me just take care of my business or my family or my situation and then I’m coming, Jesus says something like, forget it, just come. And then even some of these more cautious ones do come; but some of them stay behind and don’t follow after all. They just can’t leave those nets all in that messy heap like that; they can’t just leave the old the way it was. And so they stay. And I don’t know some days which of these two groups I feel more like. Am I ready to go? Or am I just too tangled up in the nets?
This is the annual meeting today, which means that this sermon is sort of a retrospective and a looking ahead. And as I looked back at St Michael’s in 2022, I have to admit, at first all I could see was how we kept getting tangled up in the nets. 2022 was a hard year. There was the news: COVID like an algae bloom that kept poisoning the water, constantly shifting our sense of safety and trust in being together, even while we were craving it so badly. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sudden reminder of nuclear threat and world war; the midterms and all the anxiety about what would happen to democratic processes in this country. The Supreme Court decisions that took away women’s health rights (this weekend should have been then 50th anniversary of progress in that regard), made gay marriage feel precarious again, hinted that some of what we had thought were settled rights in our world could actually be temporary, contingent on who is in charge. That might sound political to some of you. But it was news and policies and movements ‘out there’ that deeply affected our own everyday, and it was hard to hold it lightly.
Then there were the deaths: in our parish community we lost and buried so many beloveds this year. We held the long-delayed services for Gail Sheehy and Dorothy Johnson; we also lost Tricia Vivado, Ed Bagwell, Yvette LeRoy, Elsie Hall, Joyce Dixon, Jane Woodbridge, Deacon Lawrence Schacht, and others. We held 14 burial services here at church in 2022, so many more than our usual number. Out in Queens at our cemetery, sales continued way up from what they were before 2020. It wasn’t all due to COVID, it didn’t necessarily have to do with the news, and yet somehow it felt a part of it. We have been grieving and mourning a lot this last year.
And then there was the difficulty in getting things done. I felt it in my own life, reacting to things as they came and never quite able to think ahead and see where we should be going. Ministries we care about and depend on struggled a bit this year. Making decisions and plans seemed so much harder. Progress on everything from communion visits to our reparations projects started to feel like walking through tangled nets. Staff stepped into more work to make up for the lack of volunteers, and then got tired themselves. People had a hard time signing up for things and showing up to things. Our reparations projects, for example, were hard to bring to focus and action. We believe in the work, we saw some progress in making it happen, and yet we’re still working to get traction on what we want to do. I will tell you, this whatever it is – exhaustion, malaise, what is it? – has not been a unique St Michael’s problem. Clergy colleagues of mine from all over the country reported the same difficulties. Things were just that much harder to get done.
Bad news, grief, exhaustion, tangled nets – that was part of 2022. And yet that wasn’t the whole story. As the year went on, certain things began to happen, sparks began to catch. We celebrated Shrove Tuesday again – a party! at last! – and then barbecued for Youth Sunday, and then again for Welcome Back Sunday, and in between, we began lingering longer and longer over coffee after the service, jostling together in the church and relishing our proximity to one another. And coffee hour is great in the church, by the way! Thank you to Margaret Jolly who believed it was possible, and to Omar Santos who faithfully sets it up for us each week, and all those who come and add in food here and there and make it joyful.
Our outreach ministries began to strengthen and pick up steam, with the new wonderful oversight and energy of Ned Boyajian and Carole O’Connor and endless teams of people showing up to cook and serve food, to tutor and care for kids, to call and write letters, to roll their sleeves up and make tangible our love of neighbor. Our dedicated committee for reparations chaired by Gregory Bryant and Carole O’Connor kept pressing forward, and it became part of the conversation for our renovations, part of our hiring policy, more and more part of our identity and mission.
Our staff and leadership expanded. We said some goodbyes, to Max Santiago, to Michael Hammett, to Deacon Elena Barnum, to Margaret Jolly from our vestry. But we also said joyful hellos to Xavier Fields coming on to our maintenance team, Samuel Francois joining our administration, Deacon Richard returning to ministry here and the Rev. Frank Hakoola lifting our spirits with his preaching and worship leadership. And then Mary Ellen Lehmann at last, bringing us experience and vision for our ministry with children and families going forward.
Our construction got started! After so many rounds of explanations and presentations in January, emails and meetings and lots of preparation, actual physical work got underway in the summer, and every day, we see progress in our work to expand access and welcome to our buildings. The noise has been astonishing. But it’s exciting noise even so.
Our adult formation focused on spiritual practices in small groups, and then particularly on the practice of Sabbath, both in a partnership with Ansche Chesed and as a focus for the women’s retreat, newly restarted in person in May. And that same focus on practice is part of the Revive program, a small group for lay leaders that started last fall and is already having a profound effect. We are collectively deepening our prayer lives, our attention to time, our use of scripture – all of us desiring to grow further in the faith in our own lives and together. It’s deep, quiet, exciting work. And I believe it’s helping fuel all the rest.
Follow me, Jesus says. The nets are slowly untangling, falling away. And we’re walking, together, behind him.
The prophet Isaiah says,
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
We have been laboring under a burden and a yoke for a long time, called COVID. COVID took the stuffing out of us in so many ways. I think we are still coming to terms with all we lost and all that we are mourning. But this community carried on through despite it all. We were nourished by our care for one another – the phone calls, the small groups, the cautious showing up to prepare food for the hungry. We were sustained by solid leaders – Monica Hakoola and others who carried our children’s ministries forward during the long interim, John Avery who tirelessly held up the vision of a renovated church, Beth Ann Day who believed so strongly that we would find the money to do what God was calling us to do. Ray Luetters who led Saturday Kitchen as it fed more and more people….and our staff John and Laura and Raj and Galina and Julie and Omar and Samuel and Damon and Richard and Xavier and Edwin and Frank and Ray and Mary Ellen and Amelie and Eva and Jeff and Dennis and everyone who have planned and cleaned and taught and calculated and videoed and called and visited and set up and organized and cleaned some more. We’ve really got great people here.
And God has worked through those people, and these people here – us. God works through our care for one another and our neighbor, God works through our prayers and song, God works through our planning and meeting to breathe new life into this place. We don’t have to labor under the yoke of fear and anxiety, worry over the future, exhaustion and escapism. The Spirit is at work, and has broken that rod. The Spirit is leading us into new things. The Spirit is calling us away from the nets, the tangles, the smell, the fruitless labor, and guiding us into something new. And we are following.
I’m not making any predictions or pronouncements. I’d like to say 2023 is when it all finally starts to take off and we are flying free. But I remember saying that 2019 was so hard that I was sure 2020 was going to be a better year. And then 2021 felt for sure like it would be better still. So – no predictions about this year. But whether this year we find harder or easier, God is with us. God prevails. The nets are falling away.
The good news is that in God’s time, Jesus is always walking by the lakeshore. We can get tangled up by so many things – by the news, by our own tragedies, our own distractions and troubles. But every time we find ourselves mired back down in those nets, here he comes again. Extending endless grace; offering that persistent invitation. Follow me, he says to us – again and again. Come, let us seek God together, and follow where God leads. Amen.