January has become a time for me to look back and take stock. Not because of the New Year—frankly I rarely do New Year’s Resolutions, and certainly not ones involving diet as the 12 Days of Christmas aren’t over yet, and Melissa’s birthday is January 5th. (Let me assure you, celebrating your beloved’s birthday by skipping the cake is not a good idea.) Rather, January includes a ministry trifecta for me including my priestly ordination, my arrival here at St. Mark’s and our annual meeting. So I tend to reread my ordination vows and the sermon my friend Rich preached on that day a dozen years ago; I dust off my very first sermon preached from this pulpit 6 years ago; and I look at the previous year on iCal, or rather, “Calendar” as the folks at Apple are now calling it.
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On that snowy Sunday 12 years ago when I became a priest my colleague and mentor Rich Simpson said this to me: “First: you are called to preach the gospel. There are many in the Church today—on all sides of the theological debates we are engaged in—who are so desperate and so scared that we are in danger of suffering from a kind of spiritual amnesia about what that true calling is all about. As preachers we are not called to defend an ideology (either on the right or on the left) but to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.
“Do so with courage and conviction, trusting that it really is the path toward abundant life. Too many preachers are afraid to trust the gospel because it will upset the status quo. Fear is the greatest enemy of the gospel: fear of lost pledges, fear of empty pews, fear of disappointing the bishop. Don’t be afraid to trust the good news, and know that the true measure of your ‘success’ will not be found by how full or empty the pews are or how well the annual pledge drive goes or what your colleagues say about you.”
Living the gospel of Jesus does indeed lead us to fullness of life. And it is not easy. It challenges us to choose compassion over indifference, the welfare of others over ourselves, love over fear. It is far, far too easy to imagine that this business of being a Christian is about us. About punching our ticket to get to heaven and then skipping along merrily on our way. Or that it’s there to use as a designation when convenient but without much allegiance. Or to imagine God as a cosmic vending machine only to get what we want. But the call of the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, does not focus on us. The focus centers on Jesus himself, on the Living God, and his light which draws all people to him and his gift of forgiveness, redemption, grace, and abundant life. As disciples of Jesus, we have the privilege to share in that call.
My priestly ministry has been shaped by Rich’s call to preach the gospel bravely. Six years ago this month I stood before you with joy and apprehension wondering what the days—and years—ahead might entail. My first sermon to you ended with these words: “Jesus is inviting us into a better story. He wants us to follow him and live a life that is so much more than the ones we live by ourselves. He encourages us to come and see now, not to stand on the sidelines waiting for some elusive future moment. When we engage fully in the things of God, we not only live a better story, we also work with God as co-participants in transforming the world.
“What kind of life is Christ inviting us into as a parish in the days ahead? What role will you take? There will be challenges to be sure—those first followers have no idea of either the great joys or great sorrows in store for them—but it takes those things to make a good story.
“I am tremendously hopeful and confident about the future of St. Mark’s and the work and life we will engage in together as we seek to authentically serve Christ. Jesus has come into this neighborhood too, and invites us to follow him. The journey before us is about to begin, and I hope you will join with me as a disciple of Jesus Christ, as we come and see where he will lead us.”
That’s been the work we’ve been about the past 6 years. How to live as disciples. How to live into Jesus’ call to follow him. Throughout that time we’ve focused on ways we could Connect, Grow and Serve—those marks of discipleship. How we could deepen our relationships with God and each other welcoming others into our midst; how we could strengthen our understanding of faith and the way of Jesus; and how we could serve alongside our neighbors living out the Good News.
Work that we continued this past year. We rectors like to use our annual meeting sermon as a sort-of “State of the Parish” address, ticking off accomplishments from the year gone by and then mentioning those that we hope to accomplish in the year ahead. But that smacks a little bit of the “success” Rich warned me about focusing on. I’m going to let you do that work yourself by reading through our Annual Report if you haven’t already, and focus on just two things from this past year.
First our Youth Group. We’ve watched our youth program grow significantly in recent years and flourish under the steady leadership of Melissa LaBelle with significant help from Kristin Romine and many others. We had 23 teens and adults travel to Harrisburg this past July to clean and sort and love and talk and feed the people of that community sharing Christ’s love. This Fall we had a huge influx of 6th grade students, including many from outside our church who have been invited by friends to join. These teens feel accepted and find a safe place to be themselves, have fun and learn about the way of Jesus. And it has grown beyond the abilities to manage on a volunteer basis. We have begun a search for a Youth Director and are committed to invest in this group of important and beloved members of our community. Children and youth are not the church of tomorrow, they are the church of today. Their gifts and ideas about the faith make a significant difference in our life together, and we will continue to love them and value their contributions to our parish, inviting them into all aspects of ministry.
Second, our Neighbors for Peace initiative. A year ago we began a journey toward getting to know our Muslim neighbors. We’ve had meals together, gotten to know one another through conversations and worshipped together this past Thanksgiving. My life has been enlarged by these interactions. These connections need to be solidified in the year ahead, especially in light of the recent direction of our political administration. Let me be clear, refusing refugees, marking people out based on their faith, and vilifying the other based on ethnicity is antithetical to the way of Jesus. We are called to live into Jesus’ call, life and teachings, and it is my intent that we continue to do so. This work has become much more important than ever before, and we will continue it with vigor in the days ahead.
Which is the center point of our reading from the prophet Micah today. After asking if God wants the sacrifice of animals, the offering of rivers of oil poured out before the Almighty, or even the giving our our firstborn, we get this response: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with our God. As followers of the Living Word, we must accomplish the work of his justice in the world by lifting up and caring for the lowly. As those who journey in the Way, we are called to delight in mercy and kindness to all people including those who are very different from us. As disciples of Jesus, we need to spend our days walking with humility in devotion to our God whose desires for us are summed up in two simple commands: Love God and love your neighbor. And in case we missed the point, Jesus shows us in the parable of the Good Samaritan that everyone is our neighbor. No one is excluded.
As followers of Jesus, we are people of the Word and of the Table. What we hear and do leads us back to the altar—to the Eucharist—to be fed and reminded of the self-giving love of Jesus. As his body in the world, we are called to do the same. Rob Bell writes, “Our destiny, our future, and our joy are in the Eucharist, using whatever blessing we’ve received, whatever resources, talents, skills and passions God has given us, to make the world a better place.” (Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 162) The Gospel compels us to share the message of hope that Jesus has given to us. To be a blessing to the world. To work for justice, to respect the dignity of every human being and to love God faithfully. Friends, we have been doing that work these past years together and before us lies much more work to do.
And so we press on. We move ever forward into the way of Jesus. We work for the kingdom of God which Jesus ushered into our world and which will finally be realized on the day of his return. Until that day we will not lose hope, trusting in Jesus Christ and the unsurpassable love of God for our world and continuing our journey forward as his disciples. May it be so. Amen.