As part of training for ordination, Episcopal priests go through a program called Clinical Pastoral Education. Most of us serve full time as hospital chaplains over a summer, encountering some of the most painful things people can go through, trying to be a spiritual resource to them, and debriefing the whole experience in small groups with professional supervisors. It is intense.
I did my Clinical Pastoral Education at Mass General, a major teaching hospital in Boston, with maybe 20 seminarians from all over the country. It was an incredibly valuable and challenging program, but one of the standout memories for me was the day we each observed surgery. Before we went in to get fitted for scrubs, one of the surgeons gave us a lecture on protocol. I remember thinking you could hear the echos of some previous bad experiences with seminarian observers as he said “If you even think you might be going to pass out or throw up, tell a nurse immediately.”
The surgery they put me in to watch was liver surgery, and the whole thing was fascinating, but the thing I’ve really retained was that about 10 minutes in, it hit me how many people it took to make sure all the different systems of that one patient’s body kept working normally during the process. All these machines with highly trained people running them, each monitoring one system in the body and keeping it steady. And that’s leaving aside the surgery itself; this is just what had to happen to make doing surgery possible! I never realized before that moment how much work in how many different domains of the body it takes simply to stay alive from moment to moment. And then it hit me: this is what God does all the time for all of us. He keeps all these highly sophisticated interdependent systems running so that we can stay alive from moment to moment, except that he does it 24/7 for 7.5 billion individuals. Take that, Mass General surgical team.
The human body is a system, and the Body of Christ is also a system. In his 1st letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul teaches about this at length. The parts work together to bring life, and when they aren’t working well together, the whole body feels it. Our reading from 1 Corinthians today doesn’t directly use the Body image as Paul does later in the letter, but it does point out the different systems of the Body in a way that I think is very appropriate for us to notice here as we have our Annual Meeting. Do stay afterward for the brunch and the business portion of the morning, by the way, if you possibly can.
Paul points out that in the church at Corinth, as in any church, there are smaller groupings that think of themselves as having a particular identity or focus. He describes them as centered around particular leaders: saying “We belong to Paul, we belong to Apollos, we belong to Cephas” and then one group who thinks they’re above all that and says “we’re the ones who belong to Christ, thank you very much.” Group identity could also be centered in who you happen to be friends with, or what agenda you happen to have. But whatever draws a group together, Paul’s point stands: the various systems of the Body can’t just promote themselves. They have to collaborate, as part of one Christian community. They have to be, as Paul writes, “united in the same mind and in the same purpose.”
This kind of unity in diversity is a key plus to the Christian way of life, when we do it well. It’s less and less common in our culture, which allows us to select more and more narrowly who we’ll listen to and who we’ll spend time with. But it’s part of being a Christian alongside other Christians. God invites us to become as people who both know and relish our individual passions and calls and preferences, and can freely put them at the service of the wider mind and purpose of the Body of Christ where God has grafted us in. That’s when the Christian way of life can really work well in community. We can challenge each other a little if needed, we can rejoice that someone else is putting energy into things that we don’t really even like much, and we can pay attention to people who see things differently -- without feeling like it’s a zero-sum game and they need to lose for us to win. In Christian community we can all win as long as we’re letting the Spirit use us collaboratively as members of the Body.
From where I stand, I get the joy of seeing so many of you live this way. The human tendency to pull apart into self selecting preference groups is strong, but I see us resisting it at least some of the time. Our Body at Emmanuel, after all, has lots of systems and lots of needs too, and people serve different pieces of them. How great it is to see people do that without falling into acting like the thing we care about is the really important part of the church. To serve and participate, as so many of you do, without saying “I belong to the Sack Lunches, I belong to the Choir, I belong to the town families, I belong to the campus people, I belong to the Easter Eggs, I belong to the 20s/30s,” but being able to say, “We all belong to Emmanuel. As valuable as I am, the purpose and mind of the Body of Christ here is bigger than me.”
The systems of Christ’s Body in any parish are very complex. There are multiple causes of everything, some of them clear, some of them unclear, and of course the most important ones invisible because they are worked upon us by the Holy Spirit. We don’t have the instruments to measure everything that God has going on among us. But overall, this particular outpost of God’s Kingdom, this multi-systemed Body of Christ at Emmanuel, has had a good year together – certainly financially; your generosity has not just funded all the outreach and service and formation and worship you see in the printed reports today and left us with money in the bank, but you have also made possible the hope the vestry set forth and I shared a couple months ago that we could hire a curate in 2017. We think this is very important strategically for our future, and the position announcement is out there now. Thank you.
We’ve had a good year in terms of participation, with more laity involved in more ministries. I loved that 22 of you came to the Empty Tomb Mega Workathon. I love seeing laity, not just paid staff, interacting with those we feed with sack lunches every weekday. I love it when we’re missing an acolyte and the teenage MC is ready to reconfigure who does what. I loved the hum of cheerful, unstressed activity the Wednesday before Christmas at the Hanging of the Greens. This is all good stuff, though there is certainly still lots of room for growth in that sense of ownership and empowerment.
We’ve had a good year in terms of continuing to follow the movement of the Gospel outward to seek the welfare of the city where God has called us and to love our neighbors, as you’ll see in the annual report where we’ve gathered remarks from community leaders about how they see Emmanuel. But again, lots of room for more growth and creativity.
I also want to mention, though it really wasn’t a 2016 event, that plans are afoot for the centennial of our building in 2017. Some of you will remember the Jubilee and the major capital campaign 25 years ago; our planning committee has decided not to go that big, but they’ll be sharing at the business portion of the meeting today some of what they have in store for us as we celebrate 100 years in our jewel of a building. I think it’ll be fun.
I will save my thank yous for the brunch, but let me again say, as I often have, what a privilege and joy it is to be your rector. Sending out the position announcement for the curate, and watching people on social media say what a wonderful parish it looked like, and how if only they were about to graduate from seminary Emmanuel would be their dream job, made me again fill up with gratitude to God and all of you for calling me as your Rector. I look forward to you folks continuing to make me grow in Christ, and me doing the same for you, for many years to come. And I look forward to seeing what more God has for us, and to our making whatever that turns out to be happen, by the power of the Spirit, together. As the Prayer Book says, May the Lord who has given us the will to do these things give us the grace and power to perform them. Amen.