Jesus said: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
You could hardly have a better set of readings for an annual meeting Sunday. Jesus setting forth his mission statement and witnessing to the empowerment of the Spirit with which God has sent him to inaugurate the Kingdom. Paul laying out the truth that we Christians now are the living body that carries forth that mission statement, each and every one of us given the Spirit and the chance to be agents of God’s Kingdom in our world. Both of those show us the kind of church anybody would want to be in. I wish I could preach on them all semester. But we just have these few minutes to think together about the past 12 months. It seems obvious to me that as we pause for our annual meeting today, we have a lot of thanks to give. We can point to a season in which God has been surprising us with blessings, and maybe laying groundwork for future calls yet to be heard. We – you, really – accomplished a lot in 2015, as you responded to what God did.
Two huge things. First, since last annual meeting, the parish undertook a period of discernment about outreach. A group of parishioners led by Deacon Chris studied scripture, researched local organizations, and came to consensus on options for expanding our hands-on outreach, something people have been asking for here for some time. They took their discernment to the vestry, who agreed that God was inviting us to work through empty tomb, an organization we were already involved with and now have the chance to learn much more from. That is a major victory, and I thank God for everyone who took part and everyone who will take part.
We also spent the entire year, in one way or another, trying to absorb some of the insights and information in Dwight Zscheile’s book People of the Way. There are many books about what it means for churches to notice that we’re living in post-Christendom and learn to minister faithfully in that context, but Zscheile’s is surely the most directly accessible to us as Episcopalians. About 50 Emmanuelites (and that's a lot!), at various times, talked through a wide array of concepts -- like the loss of the establishment era of church life, reconnecting with our core narrative in Scripture, going out to notice what God is already doing in our neighborhoods rather than simply trying to act “welcoming,” prioritizing discipleship, and which aspects of our Episcopal tradition are especially apt for the culture we now live in. As we practice using these conceptual tools to notice and learn from our parish life, it will slowly make all our ministries more effective.
Just those two things would be worth a celebration for any parish. But you did more, this past year. Some of you are stepping into expanded involvement of laity in the 10:15 Mass. A wide cross-section of the parish has been investing in all different kinds of formation experiences and in all different kinds of experiments with turning outward to love our neighbors – both of which also build community and let us have fun together. Some of you made Easter eggs, some of you put on receptions, some of you made food deliveries or did Meals on Wheels. There are more examples than I can name.
In the area of statistics, we are very solidly in the black financially, pledging and Sunday attendance are up modestly, and the number of households at Emmanuel is up dramatically, from 160 to 182. I frankly have never seen God send so many people to a parish so quickly; it certainly wasn’t how I’d have expected things to go here. He must know something I don’t, and over the years I’ve learned that it works best to trust his timing and choices. But it means we will have to prioritize, over and over, building up the fabric of our whole community such that everyone who’s actually here notices and cherishes and takes into account everyone else who’s actually here, plenty of whom haven’t even had the pleasure of meeting each other yet.
We have growing edges too, of course; aside from the continuing issue of building relationships across existing social groups, one of the main areas where this congregation struggles would have to be buy-in and ownership of lay ministry. It’s interesting: some of our offerings and opportunities to serve are getting very strong, immediate response. (If you worked with the People of the Way book, or have just tracked the experience of the Episcopal church the past 10 years, you can probably make educated guesses as to which ones and why.) A total of 36 people were at the table for the kickoff of our current formation series on Anglican basics. After a long time of our sack lunch ministry mostly falling to the staff, 3 of 5 weekdays are now often covered by laity who came forward offering themselves to minister in this way. Just two examples.
Other places in our life, though, are mostly lying fallow. This is true both of areas for lay ownership in existing activities, and of areas where there are simply missed opportunities. As I talked about last week, the fact that our nominating committee couldn’t identify enough available leaders to fill the 2019 vestry class (and that all but one of our vestry classes already had vacancies) is worth remarking. Deacon Chris told me that three years ago when these I Cor 12 passages about every part of the body having a role to play came up, she was preaching then about that same lack of buy-in, these gaps. And I bet some of you remember the charts of ministries from planning meetings well before that, that are still in our files, a third of the list highlighted in yellow as vacant.
I am not a priest who will push people to do a job by invoking guilt or duty; it contradicts the very Good News we’ve been given to proclaim. Having that kind of short-range slot-filling mentality also makes it less likely that a parish will flourish in the long run; it undercuts your goals and undermines your message. It makes way more sense to tell the truth, notice what’s happening and apply your learnings to it, and let the Spirit act.
As I re-read 1 Corinthians 12 this week, I started thinking about the way a body works. Some of you know that I practice yoga, and one of the interesting aspects of yoga is how it makes you pay attention to the different parts of your body, what they actually do, and how they work together. Many poses activate particular muscles or particular areas of the body, and deliberately noticing how that affects you is a large part of the practice. One of the first things you learn to notice is how much tension most of us carry in parts of the body unrelated to what we’re doing. For example, when you make any physical or emotional effort, you probably tense your jaw somewhat, for example. Most people do. So you overuse, or strain, that part of the body to try to compensate -- just because you aren’t paying attention to what you’re actually doing and how it can most healthily get done.
My favorite teacher used to look at us in class, holding a pose that, say, involved a leg stretch, and remind us, “You can’t move your leg with your jaw. Your face doesn’t need to try and be part of this pose. You can’t move your leg with your jaw.” And when you stop trying to, your whole body feels better and the pose starts to do what it’s meant to do. Well, that’s exactly what Paul says about the Body of Christ. You can’t move your leg with your jaw. Agile fingers can’t compensate for a failing liver. Your feet can’t do what your eyes are designed to. It just doesn’t work. And of course, if you clench your jaw every time you move, eventually your jaw gets hurt.
For us, I think that discipline and skill of noticing comes first: who and what is getting overused? Who’s connected and who isn’t? What IS working? Think of how alive we would feel if every part of the body were activated by the Spirit, if each of us learned to notice what was happening in our whole parish community, and where the shape of an opportunity looked something like the personal shape in which God made you? What could we do, if we paid attention to the whole body? Because you can’t move your leg with your jaw. You can’t move your vestry with your newcomers. You can’t move your discipleship with your receptions. You can’t move your ushers with your choir. And when we stop trying to, our whole body feels better and the pose starts to do what it’s meant to do. It really does. I am not making this up.
You and I have, God willing, many years together yet to come. We have experienced gifts I never could have predicted in these first couple years, and if they are anything to go by God will give us plenty of interesting work ahead. I am grateful to get to see what God is up to here, and to try, day by day, to simply follow his lead for your sake. Please pray for me, as I pray for you, and thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.