The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
And Ezra said to all the people, “This day is holy to our Lord; …do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Today is our Annual Meeting, a day set aside holy to the Lord, to look back at the year past and forward to the year to come. It’s in our parish bylaws that we do this every year, that we all as a community come together to hear what’s what, to vote for new vestry members, to look at the financials and talk together about the future. And we do so, as we do each year, beginning in worship, with words from scripture to sustain us and ground us. The words we hear convey a message for us, something God wants us to hear, wants us to listen for in our common life together. And wonderfully, our scriptures today tell us of people in other times and places who did this exact same thing – maybe not holding annual meetings, but gathering together, looking for the Spirit together. Stories from the Bible, of people who are reading…the Bible. Scripture about reading scripture. It’s very meta.
First, in Nehemiah from our Hebrew Scriptures, the scribe and priest Ezra reads aloud from the scriptures to the people who have returned from the Babylonian exile. They are rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and struggling to reconstitute themselves as a people, and when they hear the scriptures read and interpreted, they are overwhelmed with the sadness of their long exile and the distance they feel from their God. Ezra consoles them, saying, no, it’s ok! Don’t weep! God loves you. Go feast and celebrate this new beginning! The joy of the Lord is your strength.
In Luke it’s Jesus who reads to the gathered assembly, his hometown synagogue in Capernaum. He reads Isaiah to them and interprets the meaning, and they are delighted with how well their golden boy can preach. As we’ll hear next week, once he gets going with his sermon they aren’t that thrilled with the content of that sermon, but we’ll save that for another time. In this week’s passage, Jesus begins his new ministry with scripture, with the people gathered and sharing in the hearing of that scripture together. And this scripture, he says, is fulfilled in their hearing.
All similar to what we are doing here today. The people gather together, someone reads aloud the scripture, and then offers interpretation of that scripture for the people who hear it. And the commandment is given to the people listening: rejoice, hear this good news, the joy of the Lord is your strength. This scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. This is what we do as people of faith when we need to make a new start. And today in our annual meeting, we are doing just that. Before we get into the review of 2021, before we get into nuts and bolts and numbers for 2022, we ground ourselves in scripture and tradition; we wait to receive the good news of the sweet, sweet Spirit here among us. It’s been a long year. It’s time for a new start.
Our mission as people of St Michael’s is to follow Jesus Christ and joyfully live out his love in this world. Our work and ministry is all about growing deeper in our faith, growing our community to be more and more one that reflects and includes all God’s people, taking our part in the long history of God’s people as we care for those still to come. And in these days of fretful distress and disaster, we have needed to keep that mission front and center for ourselves here.
In 2020 we kept marveling at the new possibilities of our new hybrid community, one where people could join and come together online from all over the country and even the world. In 2021 that hybrid format became more and more a reality. We’re still figuring out what that means – there are those sitting here in the pews, and there are those sitting there at home, and we’re all gathered in the one and the same Spirit. We are such incarnational people that when we don’t see one another regularly in the flesh, we can forget this – but we have this much greater community than what you see here in the pews, we have those gathering online too, sometimes equivalent in number to who’s here in person. And besides those here on Sundays, we have those who are participating in our small groups and weekday worship, those serving in our Saturday Kitchen and Homework Help. This community is greater than our eyes can see, connected in many different ways.
Our community has continued strong. But in some ways 2021 really seems, looking back on it, like it was an interim year. It was the year the pandemic didn’t end after all. It’s so wearying now to be worrying over the virus yet again and doing so much on Zoom. But we need to remember and remind ourselves of all the good that came about for us as a community last year. I had forgotten that all the way up until Pentecost on May 23, we had no congregation gathering here in the pews. We had a few people in church putting on the service, and all the rest of you were at home. We had no early service until we started a small Zoom meeting kind of service in Lent. But at Pentecost, we jumped back into church with joy, so happy to be with one another physically again – first with the pews all taped off for social distancing, then a little closer together, and at last, on St Jude’s Day in October, starting to sing together again at last. Worship is what anchors us and connects us most of all as a faith community, and we have kept it up throughout this pandemic – indeed, we’ve added to our worship through the pandemic, with our three online daily office services and so many people joining who had not really joined before. And so many leading who had not led before – we have so many lay officiants in worship that it would take too long to name them all now, isn’t that amazing? Worshiping God in beauty and holiness, recharging ourselves, feeling the Spirit, knowing ourselves to be one community – online, in person, hybrid, all of it fed us and our faith this year.
How else did we stay connected to one another? We celebrated a new member welcome entirely online a year ago, including several new members who don’t live in NYC. We’re due for another one of those, only we’re waiting in hope that we can do it in person too – we have a number of new people who have joined in this last year. The vestry did its opening retreat on Zoom (pray God, we’ll do it in person this year), and vestry members made time for two series of one-on-one conversations with me, walking circles through parks or meeting over Zoom, as we talked through life and church and all of the above. Small groups met online, lots of them – Julie will have more to say about those, but so many have talked about deep friendships formed, faith strengthened, in those groups. So many thanks due to all the parishioners who have served as facilitators of these groups over the past year. Even Shrove Tuesday happened online, the most fun I’ve had in any online Zoom event, hands down. And once we were back in person again, our amazing Parish Life leaders Margaret Jolly and Yang Li spearheaded outdoor hospitality on Amsterdam, offering food and fellowship to worshipers and any and all neighbors who came by. Our in-community connection became an all-inclusive sharing with the neighborhood. That’s definitely the work of the Spirit.
Our Saturday Kitchen connected people to one another, to resources, and to St Michael’s – the grab and go system and Ray Luetters’ experienced leadership meant we served so many more people, who find a little community as they come for food and share in hot drinks. Neighbors and friends serve in that ministry, our volunteers spanning a range of faith traditions – Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and no faith tradition at all – sharing together in multiplying the loaves and fishes to feed all those who come. The miracle of abundance repeats over and over again in our midst. Come by here nearly any day of the week and you’ll see someone working to prep food for Saturday – whether you know them or not, they’re part of this body of Christ.
Our long-cherished value of diversity solidified and strengthened this year, with our Lenten series on reparations and the emergence of our reparations committee as an active force for change and hope in this place. St Jude’s Day served as a celebration, a wake-up call, and a compass for the future, thanks to the work that Mother Julie and the reparations committee put into it. I’m still hearing about what a marvelous day that was. Next week our reparations committee will bring before us all the recommendations they gave to the vestry a few months ago. There is deep, good work in process here, challenging us to grow and change more and more.
We stepped forward in our stewardship of these buildings too, seeing through a long process that led to the renovations plan we’ve presented to you all in the past few weeks. We have cared well for our buildings; now we will be embarking on work that makes them serve our mission and ministry on into the future. We live out our mission of welcome and connection and growth in new ways online; now we will be able to live that out in new ways here in person, in these buildings, literally bringing in those who could not make their way in, and connecting and serving folks better once they’re here. The buildings house our ministry, they are not themselves our ministry – but the resources of lovely and accommodating and welcoming space are important in this city, and will make our mission flow better on into the future.
We welcomed new staff with Laura Inman and Michael Hammett – children’s choir director and administrative assistant, respectively. We said sad goodbyes to Dusty Francis, Andrea Dedmon, and Deacon Richard Limato. But we had all of us overlapping and together on our summer staff fun day, reviving a tradition we have kept up now for 6 years, halted only by the worst of the pandemic. And in the transition we have kept our focus on children and youth, growing and strengthening the youth choirs and doing the groundwork to hire a new minister of faith formation for children and youth in this coming year. Great thanks to Monica Hakoola who has kept the coordination of our Sunday School and youth groups going through this year, and to all of the wonderful teachers and group leaders who have faithfully cared for our kids.
At our cemetery our staff dealt with continued high numbers of sales and burials, the ongoing fallout of the pandemic crisis. Dennis Werner and all our staff and workers there have put in long hours, serving on the front lines in the hardest times of this pandemic, and they deserve our prayers and thanks. We’ll get to hear from Dennis directly later in the meeting about plans for this coming year.
Here in church in 2021 we baptized three little girls, all of them third generation St Michael’s kids – two Bagwell girls and one Holder-Moseley. And we grieved and buried many of our beloved elders, including BJ Lawrence, Margaret Cotterell, Eleanor Mefford, Kay Clanton, and Dorothy Johnson; and Herb Downer, whose service took place at Heavenly Rest.
And we rounded off the whole year with a Christmas that felt just a little more like the old times, but with modifications: a multigenerational Lessons & Carols instead of the children’s pageant, one Christmas Eve service instead of two, and many of us viewing from home instead of holding candles together here in church. But it was still Christmas, and God was with us, and is still.
And you all gave me the great gift of a sabbatical in summer and fall – something that is still fueling me today. Again, a huge thank you to Mother Julie, to the Rev Bill Doubleday, to our deacons Elena and Richard, and to all our wonderful staff and vestry as they carried things forward in my absence.
In other words, we have continued to live out our core values that we named for ourselves in early 2019, just one year before the pandemic began – thanks be to God for leading us through that process just when we would need it most. We have followed Jesus Christ in ways that took more effort from all of us: growing more deeply in our faith, building our community out beyond our walls, putting grit and work behind our desire for diversity, stewarding our resources for the future, and doing it all with joy, the joy that is the infallible sign of the presence of God (Teilhard de Chardin). Give glory to God – this has all been hard, but God has turned it to blessing.
So we’ll give you some visuals and details for all of that in the meeting that follows this service. But for now, hear this: the joy of the Lord is your strength. This scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing! God has been with us through this year, God has deepened us and nourished us and broadened us and stretched us, and it has not been easy. We have done our part faithfully. And thanks be to God, the real work of this place has not been ours to carry, but is the work of the Spirit.
I leave you with these words from a Sabbath poem by Wendell Berry, written in the fields near his home as he meditates on the hard labor they represent:
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.
The Spirit knows what she’s about. Our strength, our ability to do this, our presence here today, is because of that Spirit. So now rest, good friends. Rest and give thanks for the good news here in this place, and all that God has done here. And so may we make a fresh start again. Amen.