One of my favorite ways to take vacation is to go backpacking – several days out on the trail with only what we’ve carried on our backs, living outside and shedding all the distractions and mental chatter of everyday life. I know this is inconceivable to some of you New Yorkers, but yes, this really is something our family loves to do. In order to prepare we have to lay everything out, taking over a room or two of the rectory with piles of things stuffed into nylon sacks: the sleeping bag and pad, the stove and the bottle of fuel, the cooking pots and a few dishes, clothes, and what always feels like an inordinate amount of food. Since we have to carry it all, we try to select for things that are lightweight, and think through carefully what we’re bringing. I allow myself a few luxuries – the contraption that turns my sleeping pad into a backrest for sitting, maybe a little skin lotion if we’re out in the dry California mountains. And now, maybe even the little inflatable pillow I was just given for Christmas, a true luxury. But mostly I leave behind what doesn’t seem essential. And off we go, with the packs always feeling heavier on the first day than we really wish they did, and feeling just about right by the end of the trip – by then, we’ve eaten most of the food, and our muscles have gotten used to the weight.
And then I’m always slightly dismayed to come back home again. Instead of just putting on that same stinky dirt-stained shirt each morning, I have to choose between multiple shirts and outfits. Instead of brushing my teeth and calling it good, I have to shower and do my hair and pick out earrings. Instead of staring off at a beautiful view for hours, I’m faced with that stack of books and periodicals I haven’t got around to reading, and all those emails that pour in each and every day. Yes, the hot shower and the soft bed feel nice. But there’s a part of me that misses the clear simplicity of life on the trail. All the stuff that pretends to be so necessary in everyday life falls away, in pursuit of the one goal of getting out in the backcountry and connecting with what our friend calls The High One. The stuff we leave behind doesn’t matter one bit when we’re out on the trail. It’s a bummer to have to pick it all back up again when we get home. Maybe that sounds crazy, but there it is.
I think this is why those fishermen Jesus walked by on the Sea of Galilee were so ready to drop it all and follow him. They were plenty busy with their work and their livelihoods and their families; they were mending their nets and tending to their boats and bringing in fish to sell to support themselves…and then Jesus came along. ‘Follow me,’ he said. And it became crystal clear to them in that moment what was really important, and what really wasn’t so necessary after all. The only activity that mattered was getting up and walking after Jesus, and letting the chips fall where they may. Following Jesus Christ has a way of putting things in perspective.
Today is our annual meeting, a chance to look back over our last year of life together at St Michael’s and take stock. With the perspective of hindsight, we can see something of how things went in our community. We call up memories and we sift through them, analyzing for how we did and where we seem to be going now. And we lay some groundwork for what’s to come. So, how about that 2019?
We began the year naming and refining our Core Values, the things that seem to define us in the present, and also state our aspirations and intentions for the future. The vestry did that work following on lots of discernment in the congregation over the past few years, and determined that six statements, beginning and following on from ‘Following Jesus Christ,’ summed us up: continuing with Spiritual Growth, Community, Diversity, Joy, and Stewardship. With help from an outside consultant, the vestry was prodded into setting goals for the next few years – an attempt to shift from just reacting to and rolling with whatever came our way, St Michael’s style. Those goals led us to beginning work on a master plan for our buildings, which we’ll hear more about in a few minutes, and to engaging with our seminarian resident Maryann Younger on a process of inviting, welcoming, and connecting new people into our community. We also launched an outreach committee, which began a survey of the congregation on how we serve our neighbors and our world beyond St Michael’s; and we hired our new Associate Rector Julie with the remit to bring clearer shape and intention to our adult formation programs. All of this a way of focusing how we live out our values in this place.
I personally spent a great deal of my time this year working with our staff here, as we said goodbye to Mother Leigh and found and hired Mother Julie; as we found and hired Patty Allen to focus our communications work and bring about a new website (yay!); and as we tripled our diaconal ministry with the presence of Deacon Elena and our newly ordained seminarian Maryann. The program staff spent time together on two different off-site retreat days for planning and prayer, besides our regular weekly meetings. (We begin every staff meeting with meditation and prayer, led by each of us in turn – and we end every staff meeting with the pastoral staff praying over the needs of you all, our congregation. Prayer is integral to what we do.) Our annual staff fun day was a visit to the Port of Newark with Father David – ship visiting and ping pong – and the year ended with almost all of our staff gathered at the rectory for lunch together, to say thanks for their extra effort over the holiday season. And our staff and the staff out at our cemetery began to get to know each other at last, with visits in both directions over the year and a joint holiday party together at the cemetery in December. We have a really, really great group of people here at work in our church and cemetery!
And we as a whole community had chances to celebrate together: in particular, at Pentecost with our Bishop Allen Shin dancing in the aisle and several of us being confirmed and blessed in the service, and at our dear Edgar Dawson’s 100th birthday celebration in late November, a focus for our ingathering of pledges to this parish. (We will have one more opportunity to celebrate blessed Edgar at his burial service here on February 8 – what glory that we had the chance to tell him directly how much we all love him, before he passed on last week.) We fed ourselves and our community at meals and BBQs throughout the year, and every week at our Saturday Kitchen, and more than 300 times from our altars in Eucharist. Our choirs and musicians lifted our hearts with music in Sunday worship, weekly Compline, and choral Evensong. And our kids and families spent time with the stories of our faith and how we live this all out in our lives, in Godly Play and youth group meetings and our summer Family Camp in Connecticut.
And looking back on it all, I wonder: how are we really doing with setting that first core value of ours first of all: Following Jesus Christ? Have we let that commitment be preeminent, with everything else we do falling into place after it? I think mostly, yes. And perhaps often, no. It’s easy to keep being busy without always knowing why. It’s easy to fret over money in ways that aren’t entirely faithful. It’s easy to think we need all this stuff – on our schedule, in our buildings, in our program offerings – to be happy.
Our psalm today, the wonderful Psalm 27, says, ‘One thing have I asked of the Lord;
one thing I seek; * that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; To behold the fair beauty of the Lord * and to seek him in his temple.’ One thing – one important thing to ask and to seek. Being with God is the foundational one thing to everything else we do in our life of faith.
In 2020, what might it look like to seek that one thing? To follow Jesus Christ instead of all the other things we’ve put in first place? It will probably look and feel different from how we’re used to living our day to day. It will require more time for prayer and reflection along the way. It might mean slowing things down, doing less. It might mean being riskier rather than prudent with our plans, more generous and less cautious with our money. It probably means opening to hear different voices than those just like us as we decide which path to take. It will mean being ready to change course altogether when Jesus comes along to call us another way. We may find we don’t need all that stuff after all. We might even come to like it, traveling light along the path. And I’m talking about this in our individual lives and in our life together at St Michael’s: Praying. Slowing down. Risking generosity. Listening, and following where Jesus leads. Careful, New Yorkers. People might even think we’re crazy.
Follow me, Jesus says, as he strolls by. I’ve got the one thing that will put everything else in order. I Am the One your soul needs. I am what you are seeking, and what you are here for. Follow me and you’ll soon find that you need less of that other stuff than you thought – that, in fact, carrying it along will only hinder you in keeping up with me. After all, we have a ways to go in the journey. So come along.
Let us pray.
Give us grace, God, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of Jesus’ salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works – and live it out in our lives. Amen.