A Remarkable Day and a Wonderful Opportunity: A Sermon for Thanksgiving Day

This sermon was given at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Thanksgiving Day 2013.

It is based on the Old Testament reading for Thanksgiving Day in year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find that reading here.

I think this is a pretty remarkable day.  We gather here on a regular basis to give thanks.  The word “Eucharist” in fact means “thanksgiving.”   So every Sunday and Wednesday, and many other times during the year, we are here giving thanks together.   Today we are joined in this moment of thanksgiving by people all across this country, unified, giving thanks together.   I think that’s pretty remarkable.

There is another thing that we are all doing together today.  We are telling stories.  I am pretty sure that we will all be gathered around tables later in the day today, reliving memories, recounting blessed and wonderful moments we have spent together, telling the stories of the last year, the stories that give us identity and shape who we are.  Many of us will even take turns, making our way around the table, offering something that we are thankful for before we begin to pass the food.

The telling of stories isn’t a remarkable thing for us.  We tell our story every time we gather together in this place.  But the fact that people all over this nation are unified in this opportunity, in this moment of story telling today…  I think that’s  pretty remarkable.

I think that this remarkable moment, this remarkable coincidence of joint thanksgiving and story telling creates a wonderful opportunity for us, for you and me, for the people of God, because we have a pretty remarkable story to tell.

The people of Israel thought that they were going home.  They had sojourned in Egypt, captives, for over four hundred years.  They had escaped from Egypt and the armies of the Pharaoh through the Red Sea and they found themselves in the wilderness on their way to the land that God had promised to them.  Then something happened.  They didn’t arrive right away.  Their route was not “as the crow flies.”  In fact it was a wandering, circuitous mess through the desert.  For forty years  the people of Israel circled around and missed the mark, making wrong turns, getting back on the path over an over again as they tried to find their way home.

Today, as we join them, in the narrative from the book of Deuteronomy, they are on the bank of the river, they are ready to take possession of the land that God has promised them.  The excitement must have been palpable.  Then their leader and their guide, Moses, says “Wait a minute.  I’ve got about thirty four chapters of text to deliver to you before we can enter the promised land.

Moses give them about five chapters of autobiographical history; his history with them, a stiff necked and rebellious people, whom he had wished at times were not his burden to bear.  And then for twenty chapters he reminds them of the law.   He reminds them of the things that God had called them to do and to be.  And then, in chapter twenty six, as he is wrapping up this recitation of the law he describes a ritual that they are to perform in the inner sanctuary once a year; a ritual of thanksgiving where the first fruits of the land are placed before the altar, given to God in thanksgiving for all of the gifts that God had given to them.

I think that it’s important to recognize that the land was a symbol and a sign of their relationship with God, that they were in fact God’s chosen people.  So the first fruit of the land was an especially appropriate gift to be given in thanksgiving.

The ritual that Moses gives to the people of Israel is very specific and clear about the words that are to be said at the moment when the basket of first fruits is given to God before the altar.  There are only three places in all of the Old Testament where the people of Israel are given specific words to say in a formal liturgical setting and moment.  Two of those recitations are given in this morning’s reading.

As the basket is given to the Priest who is in office at the time the people are instructed to say,

“Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us” (Deuteronomy 26:3b).

I know that the promise is true because I ma here.  And I am a member of this family, of this tribe, of this people, whom God has called out for a special vocation: to be a light to the nations.

Then as the basket is placed before the altar they are to say,

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me”  (Deuteronomy 26: 5b-10a).

Moses is afraid, standing there on the edge of the promised land, that the people of Israel will forget the lessons that they have learned as they wandered in the wilderness.  He is afraid that as they move into this land flowing with milk and honey, and the hardships melt away, the people will forget who brought them to this place.  So he is asking them to do a very specific thing to remind themselves of who they are and whose they are.  He is asking them to give thanks and to tell the story.

Biblical scholars refer to this moment in the book of Deuteronomy as a creedal statement.  This is who we are.  This is what we believe.  And it is this story of exile, of liberation, and the story of God’s promises to us being fulfilled by our possession of this land that defines who we are as a people.  Moses knows that the way to remember who we are and whose we are is to give thanks and to tell the story.

I hope that you recognize a pattern in this reading because we are a bout to do the same thing.  We will stand in a few moments and recite the Nicene Creed.  We will say that the promises that God has made to us are true and that we are recipients of those promises.  We will say that we believe that God is.  We will make our offering here at this altar.  And before we share the meal together, before we celebrate, we will tell the story of salvation history.

Listen closely to the Eucharistic Prayer and you will hear the story of God’s work in the world’ form creation through the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.  We will be telling our story as a people in much the same way that the people of Israel were called to tell their story as they gave their offerings to God in thanksgiving for what God had given them.

When I stared out this morning I said I believe we are being presented with a wonderful opportunity today as our family, our tribe, our nation gathers to give thanks and to tell stories.  Now this is something that is particularly difficult for us and I know that it might be challenging…

As we gather around the table later today, and it has been the tradition in my family for a long time to go around the table one at a time and name something that we are thankful for, what would it be like if in addition to naming what we are thankful for we also articulated where God was for us in that moment?  A secular moment, something that people all across this nation are gathering to do today, could become something more for us and for anyone who joins us at our table; an affirmation and a recognition that God is at the center of our lives.  That the things that we have come from God, are gifts from God, and that God is so deeply ingrained in who and what we are that we can’t begin to imagine that God is not there, when we are giving thanks, when we are telling our stories, when we break bread together.

Oh yeah… that wonderful opportunity?  It’s about evangelism, which is not an easy word for Episcopalians to say.   But it is a word that we need to embrace.  And this is a moment of evangelism for us.  This is a moment for us to deepen our faith, to recognize what is at the core of who we are, and to share that with one another in an intimate and familial setting.  Perhaps if we practice this enough in those comfortable moments we will even be able to do it in moments when we are not so sure how it will be received, in moments where it is a little more uncomfortable to share who and what we are.  Perhaps in that moment we will be fulfilling our vocation as heirs of the promises that were made to our forefathers and will be able to become a light to all the nations.

Amen.

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State of the Parish Address

November 17, 2013

Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church

1833 Regent Street

Madison Wisconsin

 

Good Morning!  And welcome to an event that is surely the highlight of the church year…  Annual Meeting Sunday!

I know that you all are looking forward to a clearly articulated and well presented set of hard data points that will allow us all to immediately grasp the true state of the parish:

numbers, lists, dates,

asset and liability tables,  bank balances and accounting statements,

recent results, historical trends, and projected outcomes…

Yeah…   All of the stuff that makes for a scintillating and uplifting state of the parish report…  And I promise…  We will get to all of that today.  Well… We’ll at least get to some of it.

But before we do I would like to establish some context, to help grind and polish our interpretive lens a little, so that we can approach that data set with some shared understandings and perspective.

To do that I want to tell you about three extraordinary moments that I experienced in the last two weeks:

A Celebration of New Ministry at St James Milwaukee, a small downtown Parish that is facing some extraordinary challenges

A Gathering of the of the Clergy of the Diocese of Milwaukee and the presentation that we heard from two members of the Virginia Theological Seminary Faculty and Staff

And the first Church Development Institute training weekend of the 2013 – 2014 academic year

So first stop, downtown Milwaukee:

The Reverend Drew Bunting has been at St. James for over six months now and finally, after a lot of pastoral work, a season of relationship and trust building, and some serious calendar crunching, they planned a Celebration of New Ministry for November 5th

Drew and his wife April Berends, who is the Rector of St Mark’s Milwaukee, have been in the diocese for several years and, through our contacts at Clergy Day, Diocesan Convention and service on the Diocesan Executive Council,  I have come to appreciate him as a colleague and a friend.  Most importantly however I have come to respect and admire him as the Lead Vocalist and Bass Player of the Diocese of Milwaukee’s own Clergy Rock Band Monstrance in which I a play Lead Guitar.

I was a little intimidated but also deeply honored, when Drew asked me to preach at a service where the Bishop and a whole pack of Diocesan clergy would gather with the people of Saint James to mark a wonderful and tender moment in the life of Saint James Episcopal Church.

The moment came; the Gospel was proclaimed amongst the people, the Deacon and the acolytes came back to the chancel, I knelt before the Bishop for his blessing and then I walked to the crossing, stood at the head of the center aisle.  I felt honored and privileged to have been asked to speak to them in such a wonderful and tender moment.

            “Wonderful and Tender”

“Wonderful” – rich with symbolism and pageantry, laden with meaning and promise.

We had followed the cross into sacred space.  We had prayed for Drew, for the community gathered, for the larger church, and for one another.  The congregation was about to present Drew with Gifts symbolizing their ministry together in that place, formalizing the partnership and commitment to mission that they had been developing for the last six months.  The congregation and their Priest were making public vows to one another and beginning a new chapter in the life of that community. 

A truly wonderful moment.

Standing there in a building that had stood in that spot for 160 years, in a community with a rich and vibrant history, a parish that had once been the largest parish in the Diocese of Milwaukee but that is now struggling to maintain its crumbling building, that worships with fewer than fifty people on a Sunday, and that is only able to afford half time clergy, it was also a moment marked by great tenderness. 

It wasn’t tender because of the expressions of love and respect they would wear or because of the gentle grace with which they would offer Drew those gifts of ministry. 

That was a tender moment because the title of the event in which we were all participating included the word “new.”

“New…”  A celebration of “New” ministry.  Just say that word and watch people squirm. 

“New” by definition means that something else has become “Old.”  

“New” implies movement away from past, glorious or painful, and at the same time it announces movement towards the future… promising or frightening.

The real truth is that “New” is just a kindler gentler word for “Change.”  “Change”

Yeah…  So any event that has the word “New” in its title is a tender moment, the kind of tender you imagine when someone takes a meat tenderizer in hand.

Now be at ease…  As you can see I escaped that preaching moment relatively unscathed.  I didn’t use that moment to start swinging any threatening kitchen implements and neither did they.   

I instead pointed out to them the truth that our history as a church, our history as a people of faith, even the scriptures that they had chosen for that celebration… are filled with tender moments:

Moments of challenge,

Moments of movement away from something and toward something else,

Moments of change,

Instances and examples of “New.”

I made the assertion that the tenderness that they were feeling as they celebrated their “New” ministry together was, in some ways, not unique to their context and situation; that it is part and parcel of what we all experience as we live our lives as members of what our predecessors in first century Palestine referred to as “The Way.”   The Christian life is a journey, characterized by challenge, by movement, and by change – or to use our own lexicon, transformation and conversion.

What I didn’t share with them that night, because there was a reception to get to and we could all smell the food, was that, even if we disregard our corporate history, our legacy and heritage of challenge, movement, and change, their tender moment of “New” Ministry is not unique to their situation and context. 

 

This past Thursday the clergy of the Diocese of Milwaukee gathered at Saint Peter’s in Fort Atkinson to participate in a conversation with Dr. Lisa Kimball and The Rev. Kyle Oliver.  

Lisa is the Director of the Center for the Ministry of Teaching, and Professor of Christian Formation and Congregational Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary.

Kyle Oliver is a priest of the Diocese of Milwaukee, a UW Madison and Saint Francis House Alum who has preached from this pulpit, sung in our choir, and who participated in the life of this parish in some significant ways while he was here in Madison.  Kyle is also the Digital Missioner and On Line Learning Lab Coordinator at the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at VTS.

They were here to help the clergy of this diocese to name a Tender moment that we are experiencing as a church.  They started out by talking about the “Nones.”

They weren’t talking about women in black habits who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  They were talking about the growing number of people in this country who, when filling out questionnaires that ask about their religious affiliation check the box that says “None.”

Recent studies tell us that:

1 out of 5 Americans are religiously unaffiliated.

One third, one in three, adults under the age of 30 are religiously unaffiliated.

Part of this isn’t new.  It’s really about people starting to be truthful about who and where they are.  They don’t have a tradition that they claim as their own.

27% of Americans surveyed don’t expect to have a religious funeral

            To them Church is irrelevant – it doesn’t sew their life together. 

44% of people spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom”

“I’m not even thinking about the existential questions – I am satisfied with what I am experiencing now”

 

A 2010 Study by Hartford Seminary shows that across the board:

Congregations are less healthy than they were 10 years ago

Congregations across the board have experienced Drops in financial health and attendance

There is continuing high level of conflict in 2 out of 3 congregations

Our membership is aging – 75% old line congregations are comprised of less than 10% young adults

Median worship attendance is down from 130 to108.

One in four congregations  have fewer than 50 people in worship on Sunday mornings.

 

But wait!  There is more!  How do young people see us?   A recent Barna group study says they see us as:

boring

judgmental

overprotective

exclusive

unfriendly towards doubters

antagonistic towards science

shallow

And the truth is that these statistics aren’t new.  We have been asking questions, polling people, sifting their responses, and crunching the numbers for a long time and the results I just cited aren’t going away.

 

So…  Are we having fun yet?  Remember the word “Tender?”  The whole church is experiencing a “Tender” moment.  The world around us is changing culture, society, economics, politics our world is changing.  And we have, in the church, spent a lot of time coming to grips with the truth that we need to change too!…  Yes a “Tender” moment indeed.

Which brings me to the third event of the last two weeks that I want to share with you this morning.

 

Yesterday fifty members of the Diocese of Milwaukee gathered at Holy Wisdom Monastery for the first Church Development Institute Training Weekend of the 2013 – 2014 academic season.

The Church Development Institute is a national program that the Diocese of Milwaukee underwrites here in Southern Wisconsin to bring Organizational Development theories and practices to the life of the church.  It appropriates and adapts ideas that are used in other contexts, it teaches and shares models and methods that have been developed specifically for the church, and it helps people to train fresh eyes on the life of their congregations.  CDI trains people to understand the emotional and relationship systems that are present in parishes and to help facilitate and manage change in ways that are healthy and productive.

The CDI curriculum is a two year cycle and every year a cohort graduates out and a new cohort begins. Yesterday we had a large group of first year students and we began as we always do, by introducing ourselves and giving offering one reason for the excitement that we were feeling as we began another year.  I looked around the room, I saw Henry Peters, one of four members of our parish who graduated from CDI several years ago and who is now interning as a CDI Trainer.  I saw Scott Wright, Peter Luisi-Mills, and Mary Hastings, all of whom are filling positions of leadership in this parish and who will graduate from CDI at the end of this year.  I had a lot of excitement to talk about!   

What I said was, “I am excited to be here because whether we like it or not, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, even if we try to insulate ourselves from it…  the church, just like the world around us, is changing all of the time.  And I am excited to be here learning how to manage and facilitate that change in healthy and productive ways.”

 

The church, just like the world around us, is “New” every day!  Changing contexts, shifting paradigms, broadening perspectives, and new discoveries make “New” a daily occurrence and reality in our lives.  The key is to recognize and embrace that reality in ways that allow us to do what Saint James Milwaukee was doing two weeks ago.

Mother Dorota and I were at Saint James for their “Celebration” of New Ministry.

They had, over the six months that Drew had been with them, moved to a place where they could begin to celebrate the newness, the movement, the change that they are experiencing.  It was a “Tender” moment but it was also a “Wonderful” moment.

 

OK.  So I understand if you are starting to feel like the victims of a little bait and switch here.  This particular moment has been billed as a “State of the Parish Address.”  When I started out this morning I promised, or at least alluded to data sets, numbers, accounts, trajectories and projections.  What you have heard so far this morning has focused on the condition and state of the larger church, and on our relationship to the world around us.

I am sorry if you are disappointed but I need to admit right now that I am going to leave the data sets for others to deliver when we get downstairs and have had something to eat.

What I want to do in the next couple of minutes, and I promise that is all it will take, is to help shift our focus from the “Tender” to the “Wonderful” so that we can all see why we should be celebrating this new, and I believe extraordinary, moment in the life of the church and of this parish. 

 

Back to the Barna Group’s study.  Young people see the “Church” as:

boring

judgmental

overprotective

exclusive

unfriendly towards doubters

antagonistic towards science

shallow

When Lisa Kimball and Kyle Oliver showed us that list of characteristics they said that there is not a word on that list that our tradition, Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church, is not well equipped to address.

I agree with that statement and I would say further that there is not a word on that list that we, the Body of Christ here at 1833 Regent Street are not especially well equipped to address.

 

We are a vibrant, spirit filled, parish that is moving forward on a spiritual journey with a joy and excitement that is palpable and contagious!

We are the fourth largest parish in the Diocese of Milwaukee, we are debt free, and our buildings are in reasonably good condition.

We are participating in the life of the larger community, hosting Girls Scout Troops, AA Groups, Community Association meetings, recitals, lectures, and offering our own Concert series to our neighbors.

We are actively engaged in study, gathering here in this building, in one another’s homes and in public spaces reading the Bible and stories of Christian Witness in the world.

We are reaching out to the broader community through a newly redeveloped web site and communications strategy that employs social media, printed materials and extensive sharing though word of mouth.

We are a parish that last year gave $40,000 a tenth of our operating budget to outreach, working to manifest God’s light and love in the lives of people whose circumstances have left them, in some cases, without the means to live the life for which we were all created.

We are working hard to engage and embrace the realities of our changing context and the changes in the world around us sending members of our parish to train with the Church Development Institute.

Our elected leadership is engaging in a process of Mutual Ministry Review that utilizes CDI concepts and practices, working intentionally to strengthen the structures and practices that make us a vital and growing parish.

We have been wise and faithful stewards of the tremendously generous gift that was given to us by Tom Shaw.  A bequest that has allowed us to engage a design firm to develop a master plan for our campus and buildings that will assure that our real assets will serve and promote our mission and ministry well into our future.

We have taken the extraordinarily mission oriented step of calling a second full time Priest to serve and minister among us in this place, becoming only the second parish in the diocese to staff such a position, but knowing that this is the way forward for our time, our context, and our community.

We are a parish that is on the move, working to answer God’s call to us, our vocation as the Body of Christ and that alone is cause for celebration.

The Church is changing, is in a constant state of adaptation, movement and evolution each and every day.  It has to change because the world around us, culture, society, economics, politics is changing.  And we, here at Saint Andrew’s, are in a place where we are able, each and every day, to celebrate the “New” ministry that is ours.  What a gift to be in a place like this!

 

But Wait!  There is more…

Hang in there.  I am in the home stretch now…

In one year we will be Celebrating our 100th anniversary as a parish here on the near west side of Madison Wisconsin.  We will recognize and honor all of the “Tender” moments that have gone before, the changes that we have made as our context has shifted and our circumstances have changed.

We will honor the people whose perseverance has brought us to this place, to this physical location and building, and to this spiritual place where we can celebrate and give thanks.  We will honor the sacrifices they made, the work that they did, and the faith that they expressed.

We will also celebrate the future that lies before us, the possibilities that God has placed in our path.  We will even celebrate the “Tender” moments that we will face together.  Because we will face them together, with the strength of a community that has a long history of facing and celebrating such moments; a long history of facing moments of challenge, moments of movement away from something and toward something else, moments of change, Instances and examples of “New,” and of allowing ourselves to be transformed and converted into an incarnate manifestation of Christ in the world.

I hope that you are looking forward to the next year as much as I am, to truly celebrating where we have been and to discerning our future and to growing as the Body of Christ through Worship, Service Learning and Fellowship right here at 1822 Regent Street. 

Peace,

Andy+