Today is Annual Meeting Sunday, the Sunday in January when we pause to take stock of what we’ve accomplished in the previous year, and where we’re feeling led to growth in the year ahead. It’s my custom, as it is for many Episcopal clergy, to have my sermon also be my Annual Meeting address – my reflection on where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s always a bit of an awkward hybrid, this thing that is both sermon and State of the Parish address; but I do really value the way the exercise keeps me grounded in Scripture. This year, the struggle was, WHICH Scripture? The lectionary hands us a bunch of powerful and relevant texts, today. They each have a word or two for us, I think, at this moment in the life of St. Dunstan’s.
The first word is… Time. The year of the Lord’s favor. Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. In our Gospel today, Jesus is talking about time – about a particular kind of time. The Greek used in the New Testament has two different words for time. The first is Chronos, which is clock time, calendar time, linear, predictable, orderly, ordinary. It’s the kind of time that tells you when to leave for work, or when your car will be paid off.
The second kind of time is Kairos. The word points to a special kind of time – often translated as “the opportune time.” It means the right moment, the moment that fizzes with potential, when everything falls into place or when new possibilities emerge. The time when things are brought to crisis; the decisive moment we’ve all been waiting for. In today’s text from the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is talking about kairos-time as he quotes chapter 61 of the book of the prophet Isaiah, and then says, This is the moment; and I am the man. Jesus doesn’t use the word “kairos” here, but he uses it elsewhere, all over the Gospels. It’s one of themes of his teaching, really: recognizing, discerning the right time. Reading the moment and knowing, This is it. The moment to act, to step up, to respond, to make a change. It’s almost as if this were one of the gifts, one of the challenges he offers to those who follow him… reading the signs, recognizing the moment, carpe-ing the diem.
I started to get the feeling that maybe a particular kind of kairos moment had arrived at St. Dunstan’s sometime last summer. Let me back up and offer just a little bit of history. When I came to St. Dunstan’s, we were running some pretty substantial budget deficits – between $40 and $70,000. It made my stomach knot up just to look back at it all, preparing these remarks. In 2013 we used $52k of our reserves to meet our expenses. That was what we needed to do – and we had the funds to do it.
But that year we also decided it was time to make a change. Our reserve funds were getting low and it just didn’t make sense to go on like that. We called a Budget Repair Task Force to make sure we were using our financial resources as wisely and effectively as possible. We did some hard, hard work, and were able to present, adopt, and, though your pledges, achieve a balanced budget for 2014, and again in 2015.
I’ve been rector of St. Dunstan’s for five years – five years and 21 days, to be exact – and for basically all of that time, I’ve been caught in the tension of wanting to keep expenses tight and live within our means, and wanting to build, add, develop, enhance – which often requires some investment. We’ve done pretty well – we’ve been creative, resourceful, and patient; and diocesan grants and special funds within the parish have allowed us to invest in Christian formation, youth and young adult ministry, a new worship service, and more.
And then, this past summer, I started to get this feeling. This feeling that maybe we were entering a new chapter. That maybe it was time to ask the parish to commit to a budget that would sustain and expand all the good things that have been developing here.
I am – you are – so blessed in our parish leadership. Your wardens and treasurers and vestry are, without exception, open-hearted, thoughtful, committed, both wise and smart, both compassionate and playful. I asked the Wardens and Treasurers: What if we presented a budget for 2016 that asks for more – not just because we think we could do more, but because we’re already doing more, and need the parish’s support to keep it up? And the Wardens and Treasurer said, Yeah. It’s time.
So we took it to the Finance Committee – I’m so grateful for our Finance Committee, for those smart, skilled people who oversee the financial life of our parish. And the Finance Committee said, Yeah, it’s time. And we took it to the Vestry, and the Vestry said, Yeah, it’s time.
And so, friends, we took it to you, in the fall Giving Campaign. We asked you to raise our pledged giving by almost 10%. It felt audacious and terrifying. And you said, Yeah, it’s time. You did it. Our pledged income in our 2016 budget is fifty thousand dollars more than it was in our 2011 budget. A 25% increase. I don’t even have words for that. I’m just staggeringly grateful – and humbled, and hopeful.
We’re not going to run out and buy a Porsche. We’re going to be just as watchful and mindful in a season of growth as we were in the seasons of scarcity. We’ll keep a close eye on our budget this year, make sure we haven’t overcommitted ourselves, and strive to plan wisely for the future. But I think it’s OK to take a moment here to just … exhale, and smile.
That kairos moment of Jesus, that moment in the synagogue, was of cosmic importance; but he teaches us that we should expect kairos moments in our lives and our institutions and communities, too. Moments when God’s will is fulfilled in our hearing, before our eyes. Moments when God’s purposes take hold, when human impossibilities give way to God’s possibilities.
I want to be clear that, while I’m talking about money, I’m absolutely not just talking about money. Money stands for something. You absolutely wouldn’t have stepped up the way you did if your parish leadership had just said, Hey, guys, we’d like some more money, please. You give, and many of you have increased your giving, because you believe in our common life, in what we’re doing and building here together. And I want to be clear, too, that while I’m talking about money, I’m absolutely not just talking about money, because there is no way we would be where we are without your contributions of time, energy, skill, food and art supplies, and so, so much more. We couldn’t be St. Dunstan’s if all we had was the money.
So, I keep talking about doing more; what more? Our 2016 budget doesn’t include big dramatic changes. It’s a budget that invests in the body. That’s the second word for today, from our second reading, Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth: Body. Paul uses this wonderful metaphor of the body to explain to the church in Corinth, the way you might explain it to a four-year-old, that their church is a body, that all the parts matter for the body’s healthy functioning, and that they really need to work together to get anything done.
The increases in our 2016 budget are investments in areas of our common life that will bind the body more closely together, and serve some of its assorted parts. We’ve increased the hours – not a lot, but some – for our Organist & Choir Director, an investment in developing our life together as a people of song, one of the deep and formative ways we experience ourselves as a body. We’ve increased the hours for our Office Coordinator – not a lot, but some – an investment in developing our parish communication systems, the ways we know what’s going on in the body, and hear about ways to participate, contribute, and be nurtured; and ways that that those who are not yet part of the body may find, and be found by, St. Dunstan’s.
We’ve taken several ministries that had been launched with the support of grants or designated funds, and made them part of our budget, because they’re not experiments anymore – they’re part of who we are. Our Sandbox Thursday evening service, our monthly young adult nights at the Vintage, our Middle High youth program – all serve different parts of this body, and help to sustain and connect those who participate.
We’ve boosted our budget lines for a couple of key areas that help hold the whole body together. Think about what it feels like to be hungry: low-energy, headachy, cranky. We don’t want to be Hangry Church. We want this body well-fed. Sharing meals is powerful; we learn that from Jesus himself. Eating together isn’t just pleasant and practical – it’s a sacrament of sorts. It builds community, helps people gather and focus, and makes it easier to integrate church into daily life. Many of our best and deepest conversations take place over shared meals. And while the occasional “potluck” is wonderful, often people just need to come get fed – in every sense. Our Fellowship budget line provides the funds to make sure we can keep table fellowship central to our common life.
Also this year, we’ve funded a budget line for Welcome and Integration ministry. The people who’ve become part of St. Dunstan’s over the past few years are really amazing, interesting, gifted folks. We’ve got two of them standing for election to vestry right now. It is a tremendous sign of health to have people actively involved in the life of this parish whose time at St. Dunstan’s ranges from fifty years to less than one. And to be a body that is able to incorporate – that word literally means, to make part of the body! – the needs and interests and gifts of newer members. Funding that Welcome & Integration line in our budget ensures that we have resources to do that work well, but it’s also a statement to ourselves that this work matters.
Finally, this year’s budget inches up our investment in Outreach, the ways we support service and advocacy work in our city, our state, and the world. This year we raised the percentage of your giving that we pass on to others to 6%. Of course, monetary gifts are only one way we contribute; we’re seeing broader hands-on participation in some of our Outreach ministries, too. Watch this space! It’s my conviction and hope that, the stronger and better-connected the Body grows, the more we’re able to act together to serve our neighbors and join in God’s work of healing and transforming a broken world.
One last word on the church as Body: It’s important to keep asking, Are any of the parts neglected? Is there an ear or a pinky toe that’s not feeling connected, or getting what it needs? Let’s keep striving to be a Body in which all the parts respect and care for one another, and work together.
One more Scripture passage, with two words for us, church. The passage is this scene from the Old Testament book Nehemiah. And the words are, Celebrate and share.
This story needs a little context. A century and a half earlier, Babylonian armies had conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the great Temple, and taken most of the people away from their homeland, into exile. Fifty years later, the Persian empire conquered Babylon, and the Persion emperor, Cyrus, gave the Jews permission to go home. But being allowed to go home is not the same as having a home to go to. Jerusalem was in ruins, and other tribes and peoples had taken over the surrounding territory. Many Jews stayed in exile, where they had built lives for themselves, waiting to see whether they would someday have a homeland again.
Now, Nehemiah was one of the Jewish people living in Persia. He served in the court of King Artaxerxes, who was king after Cyrus. He was grieved by word from Jerusalem about how bad things were, and he asked the King for permission to go and help rebuild. So Artaxerxes sent Nehemiah to Jerusalem to be its governor, with wood and other resources to support the project. The Bible tells us that Nehemiah and his people rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in 56 days.
The scene in our reading today is a moment of rebirth, a true kairos moment. Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest have called together all the people of Israel who have returned to begin life again in their homeland – men and women and even children old enough to understand. Ezra reads aloud from the books of the Law, the Torah, that tells them how to live as the holy people of a holy God, the customs and practices of their faith that had been largely forgotten during their time of exile. And the priests and Levites walk among the people, helping them understand, explaining, interpreting. And the people are weeping and mourning, because they have been so far from God, so far from the ways of their people and their faith.
But their leaders tell them, It’s okay. Don’t weep, don’t grieve. You’ve lost many years, and suffered much, but we’re home now, and we’re beginning again. This is a holy day, a kairos time, and God is with us. Celebrate! Go on your way rejoicing, eat rich foods and drink wine, and share from your bounty with those who have nothing.
Our thin years here hardly compare with the great exile. But this Body has been through some hard and anxious times, and we’ve arrived with hope and humility at the threshhold of a new chapter, a koinos time. Let’s take this day, and this season, to celebrate – and to share from our blessedness, in every way we can.