“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” We just sang that line several times as the refrain to our Psalm, and it’s a good motto for us this morning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
This morning’s Psalm takes us through the deeds of God and the character of God, both things we constantly need to refresh our memory of to have any hope of real wisdom. This is especially true in times of grief, or crisis, or change. It’s true when a beloved parishioner dies. It’s true when there’s a fire in the attic of your church’s rectory. It’s true when you’re on the threshold of a new year of ministry. You and I constantly need to keep going back to the beginning of wisdom, to the very place the Psalm points us today -- God’s deeds, God’s character. That’s where we get both the strength to go forward and the wisdom to know where to go. We look at him and say: What has God done? What is God like?
What we’re often tempted to do, as human beings, is to look at ourselves instead. Our own shock, or our sense of loss, or our habits of self-preoccupation, may loom so large that it’s hard to look over their shoulders and see God. I know I felt like that as I drove over here on Tuesday night, long before it became clear that the fire department was going to save our building. Once I got out there, though -- standing over in West Side Park, freezing in my gym clothes, watching the first responders do their heroic work, with some of you who came by and a lot of bystanders and a lot of media -- those feelings changed. I looked over the shoulders of my fear and shock, and I saw the deeds and the character of God, and I remembered who I belong to, who Emmanuel belongs to, and who is in control of the universe.
The Champaign Fire Chief came by on Friday and he told me that he’s done 10 church fires in his 40 years of firefighting experience, and that older churches like ours are nearly always a total loss. This week, what did we lose? Some of an attic – and in fact, that loss may even end up almost being a positive as we begin considering more closely the proposals coming out of the work the Rectory Discernment Group has been faithfully carrying out over the whole past year. But you know, even if it had all gone up – and I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to the first responders that it didn’t – even if it had all gone up, the deeds and character of God would have been enough for us. Jesus Christ would have brought us through. The Gospel would still be true. Our mission would still be our mission.
Let me say just a couple words about our mission focuses as we look back at 2017 on this Annual Meeting Sunday. At our vestry retreat last Spring, Fr. Andy Hook from the Cathedral taught us about the life cycle of ministries in a church. He explained how any ministry that just keeps going along with no renewal or retooling naturally moves through a life cycle, from birth to growth to loss of momentum to decline to death. Usually churches wait till ministries are well into decline to do something about them, but Fr. Hook pointed out that the far more efficient thing to do is give a ministry a new infusion of direction or energy early in its life cycle, when there is momentum happening, and to do that over and over, creating incremental changes that keep the doors to participation open and keep the shape of the ministry flexible and its focus sharp.
Our vestry thought they saw 4 areas of Emmanuel’s life that had good potential for infusions of that kind, and as a parish we’ve worked on those together in several ways this year. I’d have said far more about them today, had the events of the past week been different, but just briefly – We’ve worked on formation through trying new models that are less about information and more about heart and body and habits, and through bringing on Fr. Caleb. A new full time priest is a very big step for a parish! And he is helping us shape ministry more effectively with the increasing numbers of parishioners under 40 and young families that we have these days. We’ve worked on community through the pilot project on a new model for coffee hour and through adding social settings to some formation gatherings, and community developed into a focus of the Rectory Discernment Group as well.
We worked on stewardship via our All Hearts Open program this fall, trying to teach and challenge each other more directly about proportional giving, which is usually the spiritual lynchpin that helps people make that crucial shift of starting to look over the shoulders of their money and notice God’s generosity. And with Deacon Chris’ help we’ve worked on outreach by expanding our collaboration with empty tomb, as well as by continuing to increase the amount of money that flows outward from us in service and support. In none of these four areas have we seen what could be called huge victories, and I’m sort of glad of that, because usually most of the Christian life in its healthier forms involves incremental and slow growth, not dramatic upheaval. If God is going to successfully change you and me, he’ll usually do it bit by bit.
So here we are, being changed bit by bit. Here we are, having Annual Meeting as usual, after what the Fire Chief said could easily have been a total loss. But that total loss didn’t happen. We still have our beautiful church building in its Centennial year, every bit of stained glass and wood intact, and more motivation to celebrate it than ever. We still have the rooms where children and adults and teens study the Gospel of Christ, the rooms where we store sack lunches and make Easter Eggs. We still have the Great Hall where generations of Emmanuelites have met and feasted, and raised a toast to mark Christmas Eve and Easter Vigil. We have our font and we have our altar. We have our Prayer Books and our Bibles and our Hymnals. We have it all. And it’s still our birthday. It feels to me as if this whole place has all been given back to us, straight from the hand of our Lord, a fresh and new birthday present from him in our 100th year. So what are we going to do with it? That’s the real question, isn’t it? Are we going to start taking the gift for granted again? Or are we going to do something with it?
Several of you have asked, as we go forward after the fire, how you can help. I’ll tell you how you can help. You can help by reading the Word of God regularly, and by learning more about how to pray. You can help by putting Sunday Mass first on your agenda every week. You can help by proactively looking for ministry opportunities and ways God can use you here. And I’ll tell you why this is the best possible help each of us could give to Emmanuel as we recover from the fire and re-deploy the precious gift we have in this place.
It’s because how much we do these kind of things – each of us, out of our own conscious commitment, actually deliberately doing them as our baseline -- that is what makes Emmanuel. Whatever Emmanuel is going to be, our acts of faithfulness make it that. Every time one more parishioner prioritizes the basic building blocks of Christian life, receiving the Sacraments and reading the Word and praying and serving and giving, the entire system of this church is affected. Every individual who doesn’t prioritize in that way affects me and you and every single one of us and all the ministries and worship services this church has. And every individual who does prioritize in that way affects me and you and every single one of us and all the ministries and worship services this church has. That’s the simple truth of the body of Christ. And it’s not just how your Christian life affects others, either. Because as you actually live the Christian life, God uses that for you. He uses it to make you, to make each of us, into the kind of person who can do what he wants done in this world, and do it more effectively.
That’s how you can help. Bit by bit, through the slow incremental work of gaining competency as a Christian, letting God make you someone who can look over the shoulders of pain and inconvenience and selfishness and privilege and loss and see him. Letting him make you someone who can take healthy initiative in your church community for the good of the whole. Letting him make you someone who will naturally give testimony to his deeds and reflect his character. That’s how you can help as we go forward. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We can all help by beginning there, in every possible way, over and over again.
Nobody else can do it for you. In the Church, there is no "they." We are all there is, we, the body of Christ, gloriously risen and brought through trial and loss. Each one of us infinitely valuable to him, infinitely important for his work through this community of Emmanuel, which is us. Not "them": Us, letting God slowly bit by bit change our hearts to be more empathetic, more patient, more generous, more empowered, more invested, more community-minded, more wise. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of that wisdom. Let’s start there, and let’s go forward from there together. Happy birthday.