January 31, 2010
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Once a year every Episcopal congregation gathers for its annual parish meeting, as we do today. We receive ministry and budget reports, and we elect new lay leadership. We celebrate what we’ve accomplished, acknowledge our challenges, and look to the year ahead.
At our meeting today you will receive a 30-page report booklet, filled with lots of information about the amazing variety of ministries that you do. I recommend that someone from each household take one home: please take the time to read it later, so that as a member, you become educated about what’s going on here. I guarantee, there will be some surprises for you.
We’re also going to hear about the building of our wonderful and desperately-needed new spaces for ministry that will begin this week –at last! – the construction timeline, and how it will affect us. I’ll tell you a little about the sabbatical I’m taking, starting November of this year, and how my wondering about what to do during that time has led me into some unexpected and exciting possibilities for me and for you.
And finally, we will talk about something I preached about two weeks ago: a parish discernment process we’re calling ReImagine St. Michael’s. ReImagine St. Michael’s will be led by a large and diverse core team, who, over a period of 18 months, will involve every member in a series of small groups, one-on-one conversations, and large meetings. We will be praying and asking ourselves about our history, our passions, what kind of community God is calling us to become, and how we are to be in relationship to the people of our neighborhood and city.
I think we are at a crossroad. I’ve been here for almost 3 decades, and I can tell when we’ve arrived at one. You and I are standing on the edge of a new phase of our history that is yet to be revealed. I believe that we are about to blossom, mature, and live into our potential as a light to the world. It is an exciting time for us.
As we stand at this crossroad, it might be a good time to pause and reflect upon what we are really doing here, and why we are doing it. For our purpose motivates and shapes everything we do.
Last Sunday we heard the section of Luke’s gospel that immediately precedes what we heard today. In his hometown synagogue, Jesus had been reading the passage from Isaiah that proclaimed the ancient, divine promise of good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. Jesus then looked up and had the audacity to state, after a dramatic pause, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” No wonder they tried to throw him off a cliff!
As I said in my sermon last Sunday at the 5pm service, this year I had a completely new way of seeing this passage. I have usually thought that Jesus meant that through his teaching and healing, he was fulfilling these promises for a few, and that someday, either in heaven or in the second coming, they would be fulfilled for the rest of us.
But perhaps Jesus was saying something far more radical, something that reaches across the ages, right to us in this parish: that wherever his followers live in his Spirit, all the hopes of scripture are fulfilled, in that time and place. Wherever people devote themselves to Christ, poor people receive good news, people who are bound or captive are set free, and those who are spiritually blind finally see. Wherever Jesus’ spirit is truly present, these things happen, and the kingdom of God has come among us, in all its glory. It isn’t limited to Galilee of 2,000 years ago, or to the far-off pie in the sky. The kingdom of God is fully here and now, whenever we, together with God, bring it forth.
I think of the kingdom of God as an alternate reality, an alternative to the more common human consciousness and way of life. In this alternate reality, we know that God is always immediately accessible. We know that we are brothers and sisters, all equal children of God, no lowly, no exalted. We are all parts of one mystical Body, living and breathing the one Spirit. Kindness and forgiveness are the norm, and our actions create justice and freedom. Imbedded in every difficulty is the seed of new life, of resurrection. We therefore go through this world with gratitude, love, trust, and wonder.
This is the kingdom of God; it is an alternate reality from the world around us, as a kind of society within society, and it is supposed to be what we manifest in church.
Now the church is not perfect. It does not live in this alternative reality all the time. But at least we consider it our shared ideal. It is at least the direction we aim for, after we’ve fallen down and dusted ourselves off. And so in this parish, we do our best to live out what Isaiah envisioned and what Jesus manifested.
Because we know that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, we try to treat those on the bottom of the social ladder with the respect and dignity they deserve as children of God, and we don’t give the social elites any special deference. We try to help those who are disadvantaged with concrete assistance. Those who are captive to addiction or bound by guilt or fear are offered ways to move into freedom, forgiveness, and release. Those who are oppressed by unhealthy situations at home or work reclaim their dignity and self-respect, because they are treated that way here. You and I are offered spiritual practices that help us move through our particular blindness, so that we might better see things as God sees them. When we find ourselves in conflict with one another, we try to practice understanding, forgiveness, and reconciliation. We treat our hard-working employees with justice, paying them well and giving them good benefits.
All of this is to say that the church is meant to be a manifestation of the kingdom of God. It is a place where we learn to live into the promises of scripture. Here, however imperfectly, we experience the alternative reality that Jesus brought. And this alternative reality is, as St. Paul said in the second lesson, in one of the clearest and most moving passages of all scripture, marked by three things: faith, hope, and love.
Here, you and I learn faith – not just blindly believing 3 impossible things before breakfast every day, - but faith as trust, trust that God is always with us, always moving within to bring good things out of every circumstance.
Here, you and I learn hope – not just a Pollyanna view that everything will always go well for us because we’re special in God’s eyes – but hope that the promise of resurrection is real, that we are not walking down a blind alley, that God brings us new life as we risk walking towards it.
Here, you and I learn love – not just the sentiment – but how to be respectful and kind to everyone, whether they deserve it or not, how to assume the best in others, how to be patient with each others’ weaknesses.
Our community is a school of faith, hope, and love where we learn, through the scriptures and the prayers, and above all, through our shared experience, how to live into the alternate reality we call the kingdom of God.
This then enables us to make the same radical claim that Jesus made, in the midst of his own community of followers: “Today, here and now, the scriptures have been fulfilled in our hearing. The kingdom of God has come near.”
As we celebrate our life together in our annual parish meeting, remember this. We worship and we organize and we volunteer our time and give our money so that all the promises of scriptures might be fulfilled in our hearing. And just maybe, if we learn it here, we will live it out there, and we will participate in God’s redemption of the world.