Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." (Nehemiah 8)
Rather than talking twice today—once in the sermon, and a second time at the Annual Meeting—I thought I would combine the two into one “State of the Church” address. Perhaps it will help make up for the postponement of the State of the Union, which we were all looking forward to so much.
Let’s start with the reading from Nehemiah. It may seem a bit obscure, but it’s actually really important. The people of Judah have, after many years, finally returned to Jerusalem after their forced exile in Babylon. They found the city in ruins, so as a first priority they have rebuilt the city walls for safety, and now they turn their attention to their religious life that is in tatters after such a long disruption. Ezra the priest stands up to read the Torah, the law given through Moses, and when the people realize the divergence between its lofty vision of what it means to serve God, and the feebleness of their own efforts, they begin to weep. How far they have fallen! How pitiful is their conformity to its precepts! But in that moment, they also discover that to reintroduce God into every aspect of their lives—as the law proscribes—is a source of great joy. As Ezra reminds them, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
In short, they realize what Abraham Heschel summarized with the maxim, “God is of no importance, unless God is of supreme importance.” Or in other words, unless God touches every aspect of our lives, then God is no god at all, but only a casually important resource rather like a dentist, or an undertaker: useful from time to time, but not all that influential on the way we live. But that is not what the people hear in Ezra’s reading of the law: they hear there that the God who created us has a claim on our life, a claim to be the context for everything we do. Otherwise, it is not God whom we follow, but a mere fantasy of our own ego.
So, for example, if God is not the source and standard for our concepts of justice, then God is not God. Or if God does not touch the way in which we relate to other people at home, at work, or in the community, then God is not God. Or if God does not judge the truthfulness and integrity of our politics, then God is not God. Or if God does not determine the meaning of community in every part of our lives, even where it is most uncomfortable at places like the border, then God is not God. To repeat: “God is of no importance, unless God is of supreme importance.”
Having been the pastor here at St. Michael’s now for nearly four years, it seems to me that our great blessing is that like the people who heard the Torah read by Ezra, this parish has over time committed itself to doing its best to let God be supreme in our life together. We’re not perfect, obviously. But when we worship, we do try to have something to say, rather than just to say something. When we meet together, we do try to be respectful and hear one another out, letting the Spirit work between us. When we hear someone knocking on our door, we do try to welcome them in. When we look around our neighborhood, we do try to see and respond to real human needs. When we come up against political challenges and issues, we do try to let our faith-based commitment to human dignity and justice shape our thinking. When we consider the gifts that God has given us individually, we are quick to respond generously to the needs of others, and of the church. Heschel called such a life, a life that is compatible with God’s presence.
Think back over what evidence from this the last year we have for our genuine efforts to be God-centered people. We housed, cared for and supported a family seeking asylum.
We invited all three of our local congressional candidates to speak to us as a sign of our political engagement—and diversity.
We launched The Restoration Project to cultivate deeper discipleship with Jesus.
We held our first annual all-parish retreat at Camp Stoney.
We began Soul Break, to invigorate our contemplative prayer life.
We experimented with The Well as an intergenerational Saturday evening worship experience.
We continued to reach out to our brothers and sisters in Navajoland.
We provided essential early childhood education to over 70 preschoolers, and supported their sometimes struggling families.
We invested time and resources in taking our J2A teens on pilgrimage to Canterbury.
We supported those who are caregivers for a loved one, or who grieve someone’s loss.
We added new staff to expand our programs in Christian formation for all ages, to deepen our pastoral care, and to enliven our music in worship. (And by the way, I want to add that we have what I think is an exceptionally fine staff. They work hard, they support, encourage, challenge, and joke with one another. And they love the people they serve. Our heartfelt thanks to each of them.)
We did our best to spend and manage money carefully, to honor and make most advantage of the gifts you so faithfully give.
And perhaps most stunningly, almost without thinking, we just decided to put our shoulder to the wheel and pay off our mortgage through one lead gift and then an extraordinary outpouring of generosity to our Easter Challenge. I’m still amazed, and with that done, we have finally finished a project the parish took on over a decade ago, of which we are all the beneficiaries, as we have celebrated today.
And meanwhile behind the scenes we continued to provide food to those who need help through the food pantry; we fed meals to those experiencing homelessness, or who had been released from prison.
Our seniors shared their monthly lunch together. We provided clothes and school supplies to our local public schools. And there are also all the amazing things that so many of you do out in the community that the rest of us don’t even know about.
We didn’t get it all right, we made some mistakes, some people may have felt overlooked along the way. But I think it’s fair to say, that we genuinely tried to let God touch our lives, and through us the lives of others, so that it could not be said that God is of no real importance to us, but is perhaps of supreme importance.
Two years ago, I suggested that we ought to try turning the parish inside out. As you can see, we’ve come a long way in doing just that. But there is more to do. Our Immigration Ministry is considering opening up space for emergency housing, “The Landing,” to offer short-term shelter to immigrants just released from detention, people from Navajoland coming to town for medical care, or maybe even youth groups on pilgrimage. Our own Rite 13 middle-school group needs support and encouragement. Our preschool has greater potential still for addressing the critical issue of early childhood education in New Mexico. “The Well” needs to be established as a regular Saturday evening worship experience. We need to continue to deepen our support for seniors, anticipating the “silver tsunami” that wil affect our whole society as the boomers age. Our Parish Hall desperately needs a makeover, to make it a true place of hospitality. And it may even be time to revisit the Sunday morning schedule, which always seems rushed and leaves us a bit scattered as a community.
But I trust that as people willing to put God first, we are also people who will achieve what God intends us to do. We can take great courage in that, in these days when communities of faithful integrity and with a commitment to truth and justice are so vital to our common future not just as a church, but as a nation and a people. Amen.