Sunday, January 15, 2012

Under the Fig Tree
St C's Annual Parish Address

 January 15, 2012

The Annual Meeting takes place at noon this afternoon, in the parish hall.  I hope you'll stay or come back for it.  My father-in-law likes to say that they call it pot luck because there's a lot of luck involved.  No such fear today; your Vestry has prepared the dinner.  As has been our custom, my words to you during this time take the shape of a reflection on the year behind us and the one before us. 

When you talk to people inside and outside of St Christopher's, you are equally likely to hear either of two pictures of our common life. 

One side will describe to you a place of faithful risk-taking and quiet surprises for the Kingdom of God.  These people will point to the sixteen intentional outreach efforts of our parish this past year.  These people will tell you about the African Children's Choir concert, which raised more than $2,000 for orphans in Uganda and across Africa at the beginning of the year.  They will tell you about the youth-led evangelism effort on the Saturday before Easter and the way a boy with a tuba unexpectedly showed up and dazzled the crowd of thirty or so of our neighbors.  They will tell you about the Taize service undertaken this summer, the praise band that came together that same summer, the  series of outdoor movies hosted this summer for our neighbors.  They'll talk about the renewal of the Cursillo movement within our parish family, the hosting of two ALPHA courses, and maybe most of all, they will tell you about the dramatic transformation of our food pantry, as it has shifted from a closet with a key to a host of leaders and relationships both with the Corpus Christi Food Bank and the poor within and without our community.

People who describe this place this way will talk about the importance of sharing God's love with our neighbors.  They will talk about being good neighbors, and striving to see our neighbors through God's eyes.  The people who describe this past year at St Christopher's as a place of faithful risk-taking and quiet surprises for the Kingdom of God will tell you about ending the year with more friends among our neighbors than when they began.  Whether among the Presbyterians, or the Sea City folks, or in groups like the Portland Garden Club and Hannah's House, new groups which spent time in our building this past year.  And of course, they'll talk about new friends down the street.

This is one picture you are likely to hear if you ask individuals inside and outside St Christopher's about the past year.

The other picture you are likely to hear if you ask individuals inside and outside St Christopher's about this past year is one of drift and decline.  These voices will tell you about the cumulative stress that financial pressure and the loss of key families and other members have placed on the parish family.  They will talk about a pervading sense of being adrift, lacking a focus, and the need for repair and direction.

People who describe the church this way will talk about deeply felt losses.  Some will suggest particular remedies; others will express exasperation and a grief for the way things once were.  In remembering the way things once were, they will talk about the Scripture's call to an intimate Christian community among the faithful and the Gospel's imperative to reach out beyond ourselves in God's Name.  Some will remember times when we did these things better; others will remember that what they see as struggles now are struggles our church has had before and, indeed, has struggled to escape.

This is the second picture you are likely to hear if you ask individuals inside and outside St Christopher's about the past year.

So this, I guess, is the question:  which picture is true?  Which picture tells the truth about us?  Which picture accurately describes the past year in our parish family?

I want to suggest - even insist - that the answer is "both." 

Both.  And this sounds unhelpful, maybe, until we remember that great line from our gospel this morning: Nathanael asking Philip why Philip is excited about Jesus, he asks, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"  The answer of course, is yes, something VERY GOOD has come from Nazareth, but it is equally obvious from Nathanael's sarcasm that the story of Nazareth is at least a story with two pictures, good and bad.  It's not a place he's experienced as a place of life or much excitement.

Philip, on the other hand, has just been asked to become a disciple by the Savior of the world.  He has found great life, much hope, and the way to God made open in the person of Jesus.  Given all this, I wonder if Philip wasn't tempted to be angry with Nathanael.  Tempted to say something snarky like, "Yeah, well, takes one to know one."  But he doesn't.  He's too excited.  Maybe he recognizes the truth behind Nathanael's sarcasm - the deep disappoint Nazareth has been.  He laughs it off.  He answers Nathanael: Come and see.

Back to St Christopher's.  Two co-existing pictures.  One of faithful risk-taking and quiet surprises for the Kingdom of God.  One of drift and decline.  And they're both true, depending on who you talk to.  Philip or Nathanael.

Of course, that there are two stories to tell and that they're both being told reveals the common ground that unites the hope of the one story and the disappointment of the other story: everyone involved wants the best for St Christopher’s; everyone involves wants St Christopher's to be a strong, vibrant, living witness to Jesus.  Nobody wants anything less than the full flourishing of God's Kingdom and this church.

This may seem like an obvious point, but I pray that it becomes a crucial point of charity with one another in the coming year.  The alternative to this charity is blame, and blame might feel good for a moment, but it will not help us flourish.  I assume you are here because you want to be a part of God's flourishing God's Kingdom through the people of St Christopher's.  We all want St Christopher's to be a strong, vibrant, living witness to Jesus.

So there are two stories, but one, shared heart.  How then to move forward toward the future we all want? 

In 2012, Larry and I are recommending to your Vestry and the congregation a process that our bishops have just this past week recommended to us: the plan is to begin 2012 with a series of home visits - a kind of every member canvas, but without talking about money.  The plan is for at least two Vestry members and myself to attend each of these small gatherings.  The goal of these gatherings is to listen to you: your disappointments, your hopes, and an important question the bishop commended: what are you personally willing to contribute to the spiritual health of our parish family?  You will hear more concrete details about these gatherings in weeks ahead.

As in all of life, we are learning as we go, and your Vestry and I will need your patience along the way.  We believe that this listening process will help us identify with you the gifts that God has given us to share God's love in and through this community in this time, and this place, and this season.

God has given us unique gifts to share his love with one another and others.  In the newsletter you received this past week, I quoted the theologian who said: "You are... because God wanted on like you."  I believe that the same thing is true of St Christopher's: "St Christopher's is... because God wanted one like us."

The vision is already clear: to reach out to one another and our neighbors with the love and gifts of God - all things for sharing.  The crucial moment before us as we begin 2012 is a taking stock, a taking inventory, of the gifts we believe God has given us, each of us, and committing with one another to a common plan, that we will develop together, by which we reconnect to the joy that we knew when the Lord first called us here, by which we reconnect to one another as a family of two stories but one heart - we all want St Christopher's to be a strong and vibrant witness of Jesus's love, and by which we reconnect to our community - because we don't know exactly who Jesus meant when he said to love our neighbors, but we're pretty sure he at least meant our actual neighbors.  

There will be some good news in the parish finances this year.  Not perfect news, but clear progress.  The questions, therefore, of our discernment are not about money, but about mission and, most of all, identity.  Larry likes to ask: If we receive a million dollars tomorrow, how would it change who we are?

The questions before us that I am committed with your Senior Warden to exploring and living with you are "How can we take together the next step: to move from surviving to always thriving?  What will this look like?  What do we enjoy and how can we share it?"  And, finally, "what are you personally willing to commit to this future?"

Two stories, one heart.  Like Philip and Nathanael.  I hope our story's next chapter is like that of Philip and Nathanael. Philip was excited because he had been made God's disciple.  Nathanael was doubtful because he knew too much about the past.  They committed to walk the road together.  But neither of them had dreams big enough for the goodness God had planned for them:

Jesus said: Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these.  Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

This is my prayer for St Christopher's: that we be a place where heaven is opened, that all people may see and know the person and presence of the risen Jesus.

God bless you, and may God be gracious, surprising, and unfailingly generous to all of us in his family at St Christopher's.

Amen.

4 comments:

  1. Jonathan,
    This is wonderful...love the perspective. Know that I wish St. C's success in it's endeaver to connect with parish families and neighbors. You and the entire parish family remain in my prayers.
    God's speed, perseverence and blessings.
    Ivette Sullivan

    PS. Thank you for keeping me on the email list. St. C's will always be in my heart and in my prayers.

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    Replies
    1. Ivette,

      Thanks for your encouragement and prayers. I'm grateful for both of them, and so glad for your part in the St Christopher's family story. Y'all are very much in my prayers as well.

      Peace,
      J+

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