The Third Sunday after Epiphany
Watch the Sermon Here
So there they were by the lakeside, mending their nets, going in and out on their boats, living their ordinary lives. And then suddenly, life was upended – everything they had thought was normal came to an end. A wandering teacher came by, saying Good news! Come on and follow me! They tossed everything and took off without even saying goodbye. Good news?? their family and friends must have wondered. It’s total chaos! Everything has changed!
Of course, maybe this isn’t exactly how it happened. Mark’s gospel cuts out a lot of details. Our small groups will be studying Mark starting this week, and as they’ll learn, Mark just kind of jumps into things – we never hear about where Jesus came from, what he thinks of himself, what leads him to the ministry of his life and death and resurrection. The book just kicks off, ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ Bam. Here it is, good news! But first, the gospel tells about John the Baptist, not Jesus. When Jesus finally appears on the scene to be baptized, the Spirit immediately pushes him back off screen to the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And then John gets arrested – an ominous note. And with this inauspicious beginning, the Jesus story gets underway.
So here he comes, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Follow me, he says, and the fishermen, busy at the lakeshore, get up and go. No promise that the story is going to get any better from here – the kingdom has come near, but this story started with Satan, an arrest, confusion over who is the main character. And standing there by the shores of the lake, Jesus doesn’t do anything to suggest any different. But all these folks get up and follow him anyway. There’s good news, Jesus says, believe in it. And somehow, they do.
So maybe it’s ok that our new year hasn’t had a terribly auspicious beginning either. It’s been a lot of upheaval and chaos over the last many months. We haven’t known where to focus – on what’s to come, or what’s still happening; on new hope, or on increasing dread. Good news! We have a vaccine. But…it’s taking a long time to roll out, and now we’re running out of supply. Good news! A competent-looking President is starting at the White House. But…lots of Americans pretend the election wasn’t settled, and are even now refusing to acknowledge who’s President. Good news! Democracy is working the way it should – but thousands of people tried to overturn democratic process and bring in authoritarian rule instead. What kind of good news is out there, anyway?
But Jesus stands here with us today, and says the same thing: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” ‘Follow me.’ No promise that the story is going to get any better from here on out. So. In this upheaval, are we ready to believe him and follow? Can we?
Well, friends, here we are at our annual meeting, looking back over 2020. And what do we see? Good news? 2020 seems at first glance to have been a lot of bad news.
- We haven’t been all of us together in person since March.
- We watched in shock and horror as yet more Black Americans were killed by police violence, and as those in leadership refused to condemn it, and we became newly aware of the racism at work in our own lives and community.
- The world economy took a hit. In Meg’s treasurer’s report today we’ll hear of the negative effect on our own revenues and finances. Some of that impact meant that at St Michael’s, we said goodbye to staff members Maryann Younger, Ashot Yeghiazarian, Sham Baksh, Richard Storm, Patty Allen, David Rider, and Eline Dozil.
- And worst of all, we lost some of our beloveds this year – James Morton, Edgar Dawson, Paul King, Gail Sheehy, Alan Robinson, and BJ Lawrence, of our own parish family, and many of us, staff and parishioners, lost family members and friends and even beloved pets. Some of us got sick with COVID, a few of us quite sick. In a little bit we’ll hear about the toll as seen at our own cemetery in Queens.
- Many of us have felt isolated, bored, restless, ill, grieving, angry, outraged, depressed, anxious, and uneasy all year – some days, all of those things at once. We are exhausted now by how hard it has been, and how hard it continues to be.
So Jesus, where’s the good news? The time is fulfilled, he says, and the kingdom of God has come near. Come on! Are we ready?
Well, maybe there’s more to the news of 2020. We started the year an analog parish, knowing we should be doing better. Little digital presence, a moderately useful website, a small social media following and not much more. And now? Now our worship is all online, from intimate personal daily offices to larger Sunday spectacles. Now our adult groups and classes meet online, talking deeply about issues of race, spiritual life, daily worries. Now we have members who have only known us online, joining us from far and near in all we do.
- We have to thank for all of this the wonderful Damon Hankoff, our new digital media coordinator, and amazing people like Grace Sue, who did so much of our video editing; John Cantrell, who did the work to get our online worship together through the summer; and Austin Smith, who is now trained and ready to substitute in on Sundays.
So there’s one big piece of good news – our community has expanded in unexpected and wonderful ways.
As the pandemic began, we worried over money, whether we would have enough to carry our ministries forward. We did see revenue go down, and yet at the same time, you all gave more than expected, and we came through in a good and healthy place. We even kept up our support for our friends in Haiti, giving our part to support the teachers and school there in Martel, hit just as we were by COVID shutdowns and economic distress. God made it clear that we have enough to share. There’s another piece of good news.
We’ve been working for the last few years on how we reach out and serve our neighborhood, and when the pandemic began, it seemed we’d lose the ways we’d found to serve.
- We were just in the midst of transitioning our Saturday Kitchen leadership – Marilyn Thompson had led a group of volunteers for so many years, with a weekly serendipity of people and food showing up when needed. Ray Luetters had just stepped in to fill Marilyn’s big shoes, and help organize the program, when the pandemic suddenly halted in-person gatherings. But instead of closing down, our Saturday Kitchen reopened bigger than before, giving more meals each week and managing a greater flow of food and help out to people who need it. We have yet to properly thank and celebrate Marilyn Thompson, something we long to do when we’re together again. But huge thanks to Marilyn, and to Ray, and to John Avery, Jeff Jeffreys, and especially Kris Ishibashi, Eric Morales, their daughter Miranda and her partner Phil, and so many others, who help us feed even more people.
- Meanwhile, our Homework Help program found new possibilities on Zoom, with one-on-one tutoring in a whole new way – thanks to Kris Ishibashi, Donna Humphrey, Becca Dalton and their wonderful ranks of tutors.
- And we’re looking at how better to invite new members to our children’s choirs, especially now that so many musical programs have shut down.
Our desire to help led into possibilities for helping. That’s been a great piece of good news.
We’ve worried for a long time here over how to address issues of racism, how to uphold and live out the diversity we value so much. Last year we started work on reparations, but we hadn’t got far before the pandemic shut things down. But again, online we found ways to continue with our reparations study, and to go more intimately and deeply into the underlying issues with the process of Sacred Ground conversations, and the Being Black affinity group. Thanks to Mother Julie and our reparations committee, the Sacred Ground facilitators, and Carole O’Connor-Edwards and Lynnette Holder, for this risky, powerful work. Our reparations efforts continue now, but at a deeper level, involving more of us. That’s been great news too.
In other words, we worried with the pandemic we’d lose people, lose energy, lose purpose, lose the resources to serve and thrive as a community. But instead, we have more of all of those. We have more good news than we could have foreseen.
And looking back now past 2020, isn’t it interesting to think how well we were prepared for this. With Renewal Works, deepening our commitment to personal spiritual growth, prayer, scripture reading. With our process towards our Core Values – naming for ourselves what is important here, and what makes St Michael’s special: spiritual growth, joy, stewardship, community, diversity, above all following Jesus Christ. With the work toward our Master Plan – putting our core values into practical vision for how we can use our buildings better. With the healthy planning and management at our cemetery, the longterm strategy governing inventory, staffing, and endowments for the coming years. Even with the everlasting effort of developing our corner property – which got our financial situation shored up, and back on track to build our endowments for future ministry. We were prepared – and we didn’t even know that’s what we were doing. We were doing our work mending nets and fishing and being together – and when everything turned upside down this year, we were ready to follow along and do things differently.
So here comes Jesus, strolling along and saying, hey, the time is fulfilled, drop what you’re doing, I’ve got good news for you, trust me! Are we ready to believe and trust in him, and follow? I think so. Because we know that God has been with us, carrying us even when we didn’t see it. We can trust Jesus because through all that was scary and horrible about this year, he kept light shining for us. We trust Jesus because even as we have wept, Jesus has said, Follow me, through this storm and darkness. We’ll go through to the light, together. We’ll be fishers of people – we’ll go out to the world to bring the light of Christ. We’ll be Jesus’ followers through all that comes. We’ve been doing just that. And so we carry on.