A Sermon for The Annual Meeting of the Parish by the reverend Michael Anderson Bullock,
on 6 February 2022:Isaiah 6:1-13; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
One of the most influential teachers I ever had was a rabbi. He was someone who had the capacity to integrate all sorts of information, thinking, and behaviors into a clear sense of connection, to underscore the reality, importance, and influence of relationships. One of the things he would say to clergy was that every year we should get up and preach an “I have a dream” sermon. What he meant by this was that it is vitally important for leaders (whether they be in a family or a church or any institution) to make a clear statement about what is important to them and how their leadership expresses these values and how, therefore, a sense of vision and common life might be shared fruitfully. Today, at our Annual Meeting, it seems to be a good time for me to share my version of a “dream” sermon.
Amazingly, this is the seventh time that I have stood before you as your priest to preside over the parish’s Annual Meeting. Frankly, I had lost track of the actual number of years, literally having to count them on my fingers to be sure. Time flies, as they say. Yet, as I learned from my rabbi mentor, seven years marks the average shelf life of a relationship. This is to say that there is something about seven years that presents a need for change in a relationship.
In all kinds of relationships, there is what we euphemistically call “the seven-year itch”—“seven” being a loose reference. Nonetheless, this timing contains that point in a relationship where a person must make a choice. Either a person chooses to grow, to develop, to expand both as a person and a partner; or the choice is made to avoid all this for the status quo. Staying the same may provide the stable comfort of familiarity, but it also results in a boring staleness. Yet, choosing to move forward to grow and develop is usually not a picnic. In fact, I have noticed that choosing to grow is remarkably like going into labor. The process can be quite painful and cause us to wonder why we ever allowed ourselves to be in this situation. Yet, as hard as labor pains are (and they are), they also are harbingers of new life.
I mention this to you because I think in my soul, I am experiencing some Braxton-Hicks contractions, and I suspect that the restlessness that I do feel is rooted in the timely fact that I am facing another “itchy” time in my life: a time to choose whether to risk growing and changing or to hunker down and go with the flow. Having said this, let me be clear: I am not thinking about leaving St. Philip’s; but I do need for you to know where I am personally, as I pray and ponder what this next phase of my life and my ministry entail – here with you.
Of course, the pandemic has played a significant role in my own restlessness. It has caused me – it has forced me -- to consider life beyond my routine. In the past two years, all our routines have been upended, and all of us (at least some of the time) have been restless over the absence of familiar paths, recognizable markers, and reliable guidelines. Additionally, I also appreciate that a good deal of my restlessness has to do with the fact that I am continually facing the fact of my mortality. I no longer have the luxury and promise of youth to distract me from the unrelenting reality of my limitations. Now that I am 71 “and a half” -- as my granddaughters would quickly add – everything has shifted. Time is more limited than before, and (as Robert Frost has said), “I have miles and miles to go before I sleep.” I want to end well – no matter what.
And believe it or not, this very personal confession brings me to the substance of my Annual Meeting report.
With specific reference to our life together as St Philip’s, I am restless to have our parish community be more completely what our motto proclaims. You remember it: “Be careful: If you come here, you will grow”. I am eager for us all -- including me -- to grow …to mature into the promise of our baptisms and to grow in our willingness and ability to receive what God-in-Christ gives. I believe that it is time for this to happen because together, we have reached that crossroads in a relationship. We are corporately at the point of the “seven-year itch”; and you and I together must be aware of the unavoidable choosing.
Speaking of “I have a dream” sermons and parish mottos, let me remind you of what I said to the Vestry leadership in July of 2016, when we were seriously considering exchanging dance cards. When asked what my own sense of vocation is, I responded by referring to that piece of scripture that has drawn me and my life from the very beginning. It comes from the Letter to the Ephesians [4:12f]. Amid St. Paul’s speaking of the Spirit’s gifts to those who love the Lord and the ministries that spring from these gifts, Paul identifies what I regard as my own purpose statement. He says: And [the Spirit’s gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers – and here is what gets my motor running – [the purpose of all these ministries, the Apostle says, is to] [equip] the saints, for the work of ministry, and for building up the body of Christ … until [we reach] the full measure of Christ.
This sentiment has always spoken to me and directed me toward what I need to do – for myself and for those to whom I am given. I have learned painfully that not everyone welcomes me and my calling. [Imagine that!!] As the Twelve Step tradition says, “take what you need and leave the rest”. But what I want to do in a more dynamic way with you is to continue to equip you as God’s saints. I want us to continue to accept the work of ministry. I want to continue to build up Christ’s Body, the church – which in our case is You! And I want to join you in continuing to imitate and absorb the God-life we see in the Risen One.
So in fair warning I say again: “Be careful: If you come here, you will grow”. Yes, we all do have “miles and miles to go” in this regard; and I realize that “one size does not fit all”. But we can all follow Jesus, walking, stumbling, running. Perhaps in this way, following Jesus together, we can address in deeper ways the restlessness we all have and find God’s new life.
As a small insight into this new life, I resonate a great deal with today’s gospel lesson. It’s the familiar story of Jesus drafting players and calling them together to be his team and forming them into a partnership that brings the God-life to bear in the here and now. Specifically and tellingly, I am touched by Peter’s example and what impact Jesus’ presence made on him. For instance, when Jesus tries to gift Peter both for his assistance with his boat and for his time, telling Peter to “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch”, at first Peter politely balks. He and his band of fishermen had been out all night doing their jobs but had come up empty. The insult of catching nothing by which to feed his family and pay the bills became compounded by having to dock the boat and clean all the gear for the next try. And now, at his word, Jesus wants Peter to repeat all this? What does a carpenter know about fishing? You don’t fish during the bright daytime; you go out at night. Nonetheless, without explanation, Peter gives in and does what Jesus invites him to do.
Well, you know the rest of the story, but I ask you where would you say the true miracle lies? I suggest that the true miracle stands not with the amazing catch of fish (although I do not pooh-pooh this result). Rather, the abiding miracle of this scene rests in the fact that a deeply dispirited and restless man [Peter] was rejuvenated.
Luke indicates the same, when he concludes this scene with this report: When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus]. [Luke 5:11] These fishermen had their lives rejuvenated, reclaimed, and redirected from coming up empty despite giving their all to being overwhelmed by the abundance of God’s new life. And if this happened to Peter and the boys, it can also happen to us, and that, my beloved in Christ, is Good News – very good news indeed.
This gospel story and what it conveys is, I believe, what St. Philip’s is always meant to be about. And you and I know that there are signs all around us of God’s rejuvenation. Like embers in a smoldering fire, we have God’s life in our midst. All we need to do is open our eyes to recognize it, and then take turns blowing on those embers, allowing God’s fire to burst forth.
Let me briefly and incompletely report to you on the embers I see and what I think needs to be done to tend them.
As terrifying and deadly as the pandemic has been – and still might be, it has ironically revealed many surprising embers of God’s rejuvenation among us. The first ember lies with our technology.
Our technology has allowed us to stay connected with one another and to do the work that God asks us to do, despite the centrifugal force all around us that has pushed us apart. The fact is that we not only have used the technology to bridge the separation; we have also put it surprisingly to great use. From the equipment we have in the office that allows us to be a virtual publishing house, to the technology that has moved us into the television production business -- pandemic or not -- with these tools we continue to be Christ’s Body, and we [in fact] continue to grow.
Right now, we are connected through our Sunday morning, facebook live-stream. Having been gifted with an amazing camera, we broadcast what the in-person’s eye can see. For instance, at the push of a button, our camera swivels all around to capture the entirety of our worship space. (And you thought by sitting in the way back that you were safe! We see you!) And we have learned how to synchronize the video with a crisp audio. [“Beam me up, Scotty!”]. The result of all this has two effects. First, as wonderful as the technology is, when it goes wrong the sense of our powerlessness goes through the roof. It is humbling, to say the very least. Through this equipment, we are necessarily reminded of our frailty and dependence.
Yet, to the larger point, engaging in this technology has also opened unexpected new doors for our common life and ministry and our reaching out to those beyond our walls. As the recent New York Times “Opinion” article pointed out, there is no substitute for our physical presence in worship -- or in life in general, for that matter. “Virtual” presence has its limitations; but the truth is that you and I need to offer both in-person and lived-streamed worship. And we will.
What St. Philip’s has done and will continue to do has not only kept us in touch with one another; it has also connected us to people we would otherwise never touch. It gives us a way to be together and do the work of ministry; but the technology also provides folks a safe way to check us out, to overcome their negative biases about church, their hesitancies about Christianity, and to be more trustingly open to the gospel and to the God-life that you and I strive to portray.
No, we rarely know who is watching us via the technology; and no, they may choose merely to watch us on the screen in their sweatpants and slippers and nothing more. Yet, the fact is that we are quite literally broadcasting our life and our ministry to more people than have ever physically sat in these pews.
So it is at this point that I am content to allow God to be God and to put these viewers in the Holy One’s hands. We just need to be ready, if and when they come through our doors: to follow through by inviting them; incorporating them into our life and work; equipping them to add their gifts to ours so that together we can be more deeply the church, for the sake of the world.
Our technological tools are an ember; and in thanksgiving to Susan May and the team she trained to be our technicians, I wonder how else we might blow on this technological ember and let the Light of Christ shine more brightly, more creatively among us and with others.
Another ember is how, in a relatively short period of time, we have grown this parish’s historic concern over food insecurity into a dynamically effective, entrepreneurial outreach ministry. From the generalized gathering of food stuffs, St. Philip’s has moved and developed two food ministry programs that are not only faithful examples of risk-taking but also concrete actions that reflect what it means to follow and serve Christ in others.
By now, you know these outreach ministries’ names: “Take & Eat” and the “Pioneer Valley Power Pack” programs. “Take & Eat” began when Jon Cartledge raised the prospect of St. Philip’s participating with Our Lady of the Valley Roman Catholic Church in Easthampton, working in their kitchen to feed those who needed weekend supplements to their weekday “Meals on Wheels” deliveries. We started out timidly to assist Our Lady’s team, but soon gained the confidence and experience to take on the total responsibility for one Saturday’s work per month. From buying food, planning menus, cooking the food, packaging it, and delivering the product to those in need, St. Philip’s staffs all of this operation and feeds about 100 people two weekend meals a month. And God is well-pleased.
In addition to doing the work of this ministry, Jon Cartledge and Elizabeth McAnulty and Julie Flahive (to mention the program’s brain trust) have not only franchised the “business”, to the extent that more than a score of parishioners participate faithfully each month, but St. Philip’s has also reached out to include members of Our Lady and the Westhampton Congregational Church. Embers are glowing here. We need to keep blowing on them.
“Pioneer Valley Power Pack” is the second feeding program that carries the mark and seal of this parish. Two years ago, a woman by the name of Shelley March contacted me and asked if we might provide some space for a new program that she had birthed. I invited Joe Bianca to join in our meeting, where we learned of the extraordinary vision and effort Shelley had in creating, organizing, and executing a program that provided weekend meals to Easthampton school students who qualified for and participated in the Federal school feeding program. Like the “Take & Eat” clientele, these students lacked food when school was not in session. They, too, needed weekend coverage.
So, initially, St. Philip’s opened space for PVPP’s operations on the second floor of the Parish Hall. We also garnered a small crew of parishioners who helped package and deliver the food. But last fall, Shelley called a meeting to announce that her job had changed and that she no longer could provide the program’s leadership. In fact, because of this, she tearfully had begun to shut the program down. Regrettably, over 200 students were left in the lurch.
When Joe and I heard this, we looked at each other and wordlessly decided then and there that – somehow, some way -- St. Philip’s would adopt this orphaned program as our own. With Joe’s indominable drive and passion, we took the huge leap to provide food, package it, and deliver the packs every week to four Easthampton schools, plus Smith Vocational in Northampton.
Who’da thunk it?! -- Little St. Philip’s housing, running, and developing such an operation. Two weeks ago, we started our program in full force. What an ember! God provides. Thank you, Joe, and great thanks to all the food buyers, packers, and deliverers.
I want to go on; but for the sake of time, I won’t detail other embers; but there are many. For one, our worship continues to be faithful, authentic, and powerfully creative. No more indication of this can be seen than in our music. With the pandemic canceling the choir as we knew it, Karen Banta regrouped the core of the choir and continues to prepare these melodious intrepids to offer beautiful music in our pandemic worship. Another irony of the pandemic’s squeeze is that from this emergency effort to provide music, we have experienced a new level of excellence. Specifically, we have never sung better as a congregation. We have increased the depth and breadth of our music in our worship, and most remarkably we have never had so many offering their musical skills to edify and praise. What an ember! Thank you, Karen, for your faithfulness and flexibility.
Financially, Treasurer Joe Bianca has continuously and clearly given us the scoop on where we stand. It is no secret that we have run a large budget deficit for longer than I have been the priest here; and all of us recognize this trajectory is not sustainable nor faithful. Yet, from the start of our partnership, we have agreed that we will be faithful stewards of the finances, but we will not allow money to drive and define our sense of mission and ministry. Much thanks goes to the Vestry’s of the last six years for keeping to this commitment, and thanks also to you, the members of this church, who have embodied this important vocational pledge.
As Joe’s clear reports indicate [and they have all been linked in the NOW], we not only have expanded our ministries; we have also chopped our deficit in a stunning manner. Having once again budgeted for a $20,000 deficit, the gap being funded annually by our small endowment, the year-end financial report for 2021 registered a deficit of $3400! To requote Robert Frost, we still have “miles and miles to go before we sleep” but chopping $17,000. off our deficit (with no fund raisers) in one year once again speaks to what we can do together, little by little. All of us need to continue to blow on this ember. It is a matter of faith and hope.
The last item I want to mention is an ember that is in danger of being extinguished. That ember has to do with Formation, specifically, adult formation/education. In this parish, education is not a strong legacy. I wish it were, but this is not the case. I raise concerns over adult education because if we are to grow St. Philip’s from the embers that exist now to an illuminating fire, you and I will need to know what the faith is about so that not only will our lives be strengthened; but we may also share our faith with others we encounter, giving some truly “Good News”.
But too many of us have hidden behind the cultural subsidy of the past when it appeared that Christianity and the American culture were the same. But now, that subsidy is gone, and we are forced to compete in the marketplace for people’s souls and attention. And for the most part we are not good at that. Consequently, the time has come when we need to upgrade our faith operating systems . Put bluntly, we need to know our “God-stuff” so that we are confident, capable, and articulate partners in this Resurrection business.
St. Philip’s does a lot of good things, but so does the Rotary (to mention one secular organization). What is the difference between the two of us? More specifically, what does Jesus and our claim on him have to do with the way we live and what we do? Each of us needs to have a personal answer to this question, and as a result, we need to retrain ourselves in scripture, in the Christian tradition, and in our willingness to contribute ourselves as the latest edition of the “Jesus Movement”.
Is it too much to expect that members commit themselves to this? Is it too much to ask that each member of this church participate in at least one formation experience each year? I don’t think so; nor am I suggesting that we regard this suggestion as one more thing to add to our overfilled “to-do” lists. No, it’s not about another thing to do. It’s about choosing to grow into the likeness of Christ rather than staying where we are.
This is the point where Christian education; spiritual formation intersects with Christian evangelism. Here is my pitch: What if someone were to come up to you and say: “I’ve been watching you; and I need to ask you what you know that I don’t know.” What would you say? We need to be prepared because they are watching, and the time will come when they will want an answer – a life-saving answer. We need to go to faith school and retool our souls.
That’s it! The state of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church is … is in God’s rejuvenating hands. Thanks be to God and to you. Amen.