Today is Annual Meeting Sunday for St. Dunstan’s. Episcopal churches do this every year. Later today at 1PM people will gather on Zoom – we’ll get back to doing it in person one of these years! – and we’ll elect our vestry members and other positions, and receive this year’s budget, and some other updates on priorities, projects and finances. Anyone who considers themself a member of St. Dunstan’s is welcome to join us – or even if you’re not sure you’re a member yet but are just interested in how we do business.
On Annual Meeting Sunday I like to have my sermon be a reflection on where I think the church is and where we’re going. And I always hope that the readings assigned for that Sunday, on the calendar we share with many other churches, give me something to talk about. Well, this year, when I looked at the lessons assigned for today, there wasn’t just one or two that seemed to fit… they ALL did. So we’re hearing all the lessons today – it’s a lot of Scripture! And after each lesson I’ll say a little bit about what call or affirmation it bears for us.
I want to get one thing out of the way before we continue. When we get to talking about the finances, later today, you’ll hear that we’re starting this year with a deficit budget. Our best guess right now is our expenses might be about $11,000 more than our income, in 2022.
The Finance Committee and Vestry didn’t try to squeeze our budget to narrow that gap any further, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, we had a $9000 budget deficit last year, which mostly worked itself out over the course of the year. For another thing, more than half our pledging households increased their pledges for this year. That feels like a mandate to keep doing what we’re doing.
We do have some work to do on the longer-term financial stability of St. Dunstan’s. If you have an interest in that, whether it’s planned giving or creative uses of our facilities or new kinds of partnerships, let me know; that’s a team I’d like to start building, this year. But for the time being: Your Finance Committee and Vestry feel confident about moving forward with this budget, and the priorities it represents, in faith and hope.
Let’s continue with the assigned readings for this Sunday – and let’s hear them as words from God to us, the people of St. Dunstan’s, for this day and this year.
The First Reading: Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-12 (Click to read!)
This is a text from a time of rebuilding. Judea and Jerusalem had been conquered, almost 150 years earlier. Many people had been killed; most of the rest of God’s people had been taken into exile in Babylon, among strangers and far from their homeland. After fifty years, a new emperor decided to let those who wanted return home, and provided resources for them to start rebuilding Jerusalem.
The time of rebuilding was complicated. There were different priorities about what should be restored first. Should we rebuild the walls so we feel safe? Should we rebuild the Temple so we feel centered? The people who were left in the land resented the returnees. People wanted different things. People needed different things. It must have been a challenging time to be a leader.
This text echoes another scene that took place not quite 200 years earlier, before the Exile. Rummaging around in the Great Temple, the High Priest Hilkiah finds the book of the Law of God – the Torah – and brings it to the young king Josiah. When Josiah hears the words of the book of the Law, he realizes how far his people have fallen from God’s plan for them. He calls an assembly of all the people, and reads them the Torah. And Josiah recommits himself to the covenant relationship between God and God’s people.
The text tells us that “all the people join in the covenant,” but Josiah’s reform seems to be largely top-down. Josiah orders that images of other gods and their places of worship be destroyed. Josiah commands people to observe the holy feast of Passover. Maybe that’s why Josiah’s changes didn’t really change things.
What happens in Nehemiah’s time is the same – and different. Nehemiah the governor, and Ezra the priest, call the people together and read them the book of the Law of God. It’s not clear why they do it at this particular time. Maybe it’s just that the walls and the Temple are both rebuilt, and enough people have returned to sort of have a nation again, and it’s just time to remind everyone of who and whose they are.
This time, the people seem to matter as much as the leaders. Notice some of the details from the text. Those reading from the book gave interpretation, so that the people could understand what was being read. The people listened attentively, and wept at what they heard – grieving at the long years they’ve spent away from their calling as God’s holy nation. I love how Nehemiah and Ezra respond: Don’t grieve! This day, when we remember who we are – this day is holy. Celebrate! Feast! The joy of the Lord is your strength! And the people eat and drink, and share, and rejoice, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
What call or affirmation might we hear in this text? Studying this text felt really joyful for me this week. I felt a lot of recognition and resonance. We too are in a time of rebuilding – and will be for a while. Experimenting our way into ways of worshipping and gathering and living out God’s call together that are flexible and resilient and hopeful enough to work, in this new season. The contrast between Josiah and Nehemiah reaffirms my conviction that we’re all in this together. That whatever new ways of being we find our way into will work because we listen to each other, and seek understanding, and weep and rejoice together.
Let me say one more thing before we continue. In response to the remaining texts, I’m going to talk about some possible projects and ministry directions that I think God is inviting us further into, this year and beyond. I want to say that I know that what some folks need right now is just the reliability of a holy space (virtual or otherwise), a loving set of people, a place to ask questions, a place where it’s OK to let people know when you hurt. For those folks, the most important work of the next year might be our continued rebuilding and regathering. And that’s OK. It’s better than OK.
There are people who are drawn to church partly because they’re seeking a community to work on mending the world with. And that’s one of church’s most important jobs. But SO IS being a place of consolation and kindness and connection and rest. Nobody should feel any shame if bold new ministry initiatives make you feel like pulling the covers up over your head, right now. OK? OK.
Let’s receive our Psalm.
Did anybody notice the jump in this ancient sacred poem? The place where it seems to suddenly change gears? … Verses 1 through 6 are a reflection on creation – and specifically, on the wonders of the heavens. I get a strong sense of somebody sitting on a hillside and watching the sun set and the stars come out, and just thinking about how amazing it all is. Feeling awe and gratitude at the beauty and reliability of nightfall and dawn, sunrise and sunset.
The poet – maybe David, maybe somebody else – is thinking about how God did a really good job creating the universe. Creating these patterns and systems that make life possible and delight the eye and mind and heart. And it’s that mindset of wonder that makes sense of the pivot at verse 7. God’s perfect law revives the soul! God’s stable rule guides the simple!
Beholding Creation, with loving attention, moves the poet first to praise God, Creator, Source, and Sustainer of all things; and then to prayer – deeply personal prayer. Asking God to help them stay aligned with God’s ways. The poet has a particular concern: they know they’re prone to pride, to thinking themself better or wiser or more important than they are. So they ask God to help them avoid that pitfall… and then commend themself to God’s care.
What call or affirmation might we hear in this text? Care of creation is important to us, here at St. Dunstan’s. We try to learn about God by learning about the natural world. We try to love God by loving the natural world. This ancient poem anchors and encourages us.
Gazing at a sunset, dipping your toes in big water, studying an interesting bug – all of this can be part of our spiritual life, our walk with God. Our delight, wonder, awe, fascination – our concern and our grief – when we contemplate creation can move us to worship. To praise; to conviction; to repentance and amendment of life. To remembering how small we really are, and yet how important our call to tend with love.
This year, let’s do more of that. Let’s feed the birds and tap our walnut trees and cut our carbon emissions and call our elected officials and keep becoming a church that loves God by loving the world. Let’s seek ways to build the community of hope and grief and solidarity and possibility that many of us need, as we face deepening climate crisis.
Paul’s metaphor of the church as a human body is truly inspired. We can immediately see the foolishness of a foot saying, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand.” Or the head saying to the feet, “I don’t need you.” We understand that it takes different parts that are good at different things to make a functioning whole, in our bodies. And that some of the parts that we don’t think are very pleasant or presentable – or that we don’t really think about at all, like, say, the spleen – are actually pretty important.
And Paul tells us: Churches are like that too. You are the body of Christ and parts of each other! And just as in a body, if one part suffers, the whole body suffers, so within a church; we should be guided by mutual concern.
Then he returns to the theme we heard earlier in this chapter: that within the church, there are lots of important roles. Prophets, teachers, helpers and healers, leaders, speakers in tongues and interpreters. Earlier he mentioned some others: People of wisdom; people of knowledge; people of deep faith; people of discernment; people of prophetic insight and passion. Paul doesn’t mention some roles that seem pretty central to me – music leader, coffee maker, website maintenance, youth group leader, and such. But we always can add to his list! And all of those capacities are gifts of the Holy Spirit, given by God to help the church be a community where people can find welcome and grace, healing and direction, and ways to do good together.
What call or affirmation might we hear in this text? I think that at St. Dunstan’s we do a pretty good job of making space for people to share their gifts and skills and interests – and trusting that we can be the church God means us to be by doing the things that people are good at and like to do. Speaking as a leader, your interests and energy are one of the top things that I look to for guidance about what we should be doing, where we should be leaning in or pulling back. I believe that God shapes and guides and cares for our church through the people God sends to be part of the church.
When we finished our renovation in late 2019, I figured we’d take a few months to get settled and do normal things, and then put some attention into asking each other: Now what? Where are our interests and energies leading us next? And then Covid hit, and survival and mutual care became our priorities for… two years and counting.
But I think it’s time to stop postponing that shared wondering. We have new members who have joined us in the past few years. We have new skills, interests and passions among our longer-term members, too.
This week the E-News had a link to a Gift and Skill Inventory, a simple online form. I would love for everyone hearing my voice to fill it out. Kids and adults, new and long-term members; friends of the parish, too. If multiple people share a computer, you should be able to fill it out as many times as you need to. We’ll keep sending out the link and reminding you about it for the next few weeks.
Let’s take stock of what we care about, what we’re good at, what we like to do. At the very least, we might find some fun opportunities for skill and knowledge sharing. At the most, we might discover a constellation of interests and commitments and skills among us that we didn’t know was there, and that points towards new ministry possibilities.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus begins his mission. He reads from chapter 61 of the book of the prophet Isaiah, one of the great prophetic texts of God’s people. And he declares: This is it. The year of the Lord’s favor. Look for liberation, and healing, and hope. Because big stuff is about to start happening.
Look, I know I say this a lot, but: Things were not great in first-century Judea. (Remembering that our faith-ancestors have survived hard times before can help us face hard times today. )
Back then, God’s people lived under the rule of strangers. There were armed terrorist groups running around. The wealthy were comfortable, but most people lived in poverty. There was very little effective health care, and lots of people died, all the time, from endemic disease, accidents, childbirth. (There’s a reason people kept mobbing Jesus seeking healing.) Many people felt helpless and hopeless. There was no real reason to think things would get better anytime soon. As Bishop Lee put it in a meeting this week: God’s wholesale remaking of the world was not evident, then, as it is not now.
Jesus’ proclamation – that God’s healing and justice were about to dawn – was no easier to receive then than it is today. In fact, the audience gets kind of mad about it. Who does this guy think he is?? This scene ends with people trying to throw Jesus off a cliff.
What call or affirmation might we hear in this text?
I hope I’m not taking my life in my hands by saying this, but: God’s liberation, and healing, and hope are still dawning. Even here, even now. And we can be part of that, as a church.
One of our priorities this year is to start discerning, together, how to use our Community Project Fund: $70,000 that we set aside as part of our capital campaign, to do something for the wider community. It might be our project or it might be a partnership; it might be a one-time thing or seed money to start something bigger. We hope it’ll be something that gives interested St. Dunstan’s folk a way to be involved – to offer our time and energy, for the good of our neighbors, as well as our financial resources.
I already felt pretty sure that this was the year to begin that work – to start talking and learning and praying together about what this project might be. This Gospel, on our Annual Meeting Sunday, feels like it seals the deal, to me. Jesus says: This is the time for people to be healed and freed from all that binds and burdens them. If we begin to seek the ways that we, as a church, can be part of that healing and unbinding, then maybe even 2022 could be the year of the Lord’s favor.
Today’s readings offer us, almost, a charge for the year ahead. Return and rebuild, together. Welcome one another, deepen our relationships, share our gifts. Love and serve God through creation. And seek out new ways to join God’s work in the world.
May it be so. Amen.