Annual Meeting Sermon 2016
This is the most important Annual Meeting at Redeemer that I’ve been present at. What we are going to do today is big. Never in my ministry have I heard God’s call to a community of people more clearly than I do today. And never in my ministry have I seen a community of people listening harder to God’s call, and wanting more to answer that call, than all of you. This is going to be, I think, the best year at Redeemer.
Our God is an incarnate God. An embodied God, who became physically present in our world, and who even now is present in the physical and regular “stuff” of our lives. God speaks to us, calls to us, through the everyday normal events of our daily lives, and of our life together in this church.
This past year many at Redeemer, many of you, have been listening hard to God speaking to us in the everyday stuff of our community life – in the new paint in our parish hall, in the numbers in our budget, in those who come to our church to find food, fellowship and support in the many groups we host, in the faces of our children and our elders, in the faces of each other, in the faces of those in our wider community.
And this is what we’ve been hearing. We’re a church of many strengths. We have fabulous talented compassionate leaders (that’s all of you), we have generous givers, we have people who take mission very seriously and do amazing things to help our neighbors near and far, we have a community that loves and cherishes children and gives them a haven from the pressures of growing up in this confusing world and the strength and confidence they need to change it, and we have a wonderful building that we can really use to help those in need in our community.
A side story – Andrew told me the other day about a clergy lunch we hosted in our Great Hall on a Tuesday. Because it was Tuesday, we couldn’t have it in the Meeting Room, the EfM group was doing their Bible study in there, so it was in the Great Hall, but it was kind of a problem because the Lex Eat Together cooks were in the kitchen prepping for the hot meal on Wednesday and meanwhile the Food Pantry folks kept walking through the hall to stock up the pantry. And so that was kind of unfortunate. But I was also thinking, so we could have been at someone else’s completely empty church where it would have been nice and quiet, and dead. I am proud that our clergy meeting had to deal with people actually trying to do ministry in the church around them. That’s how we want it to be. That’s Redeemer.
So, we are a church of many strengths. And we are also a church of some challenges. While giving is more generous than ever, we have fewer members, and fewer pledging members, than we did a few years ago. Meanwhile, many of our budget costs are static no matter how many people are here, things like building costs. So our budget is getting more and more stretched. In fact, we just can’t stretch it anymore. Our finance committee actually can work miracles but not this one. The vestry has approved with concern a budget accurately reflects our current situation. It adequately plans for future property needs in a way that previous budgets haven’t always, and it sustains our staffing and program levels for this year, but it has a sizable deficit. Ian is going to give you much more detail on all the numbers downstairs in a way that makes a lot of sense even to an English major like me. And I want to thank our finance committee and our vestry for all the really hard wrestling and soul-searching they have been doing these past few weeks and months. It has not be easy stuff and they have been so faithful to this work.
As I said before, God talks to us through the regular stuff of our daily life. And think God is talking to us through our budget challenges. If we can’t keep doing things the same way, then God is probably calling us to change. So we’ve been listening hard to God’s voice in all those numbers.
Meanwhile, while some folks were thinking about the budget challenge, other folks were noticing God’s voice in another place. Our town is changing. It’s changing in a really interesting way. You probably already know this, but Lexington attracts a large number of people from overseas. My own street has families from France, Holland, Brazil, China, Korea. That’s one street! Your street is probably the same. My daughter’s girl scout troop is about 1/3 Caucasian. Almost half the girls are from China and another third are from India. It’s a fantastic group and the girls learn so much from each other. But if that’s what my daughter’s scout troop is like, it’s not what her Atrium class is like. We are so grateful for all the diversity we have in our parish community, but we don’t really quite look like our town. Why? I don’t know, but I want to know, and I think that somewhere in the answers to those questions is, or maybe just in the asking of them, is a message from God. I think I can see some of the message, some of the gift God might have to share with us, though, when I visit the Food Pantry or Lex Eat Together and see the many wonderful different people we are already welcoming into our building in those ministries.
Meanwhile again, while we were thinking through all of those things, we received a blessing. A blessing from God and a blessing from Don Kendall. Many of you will remember Don, a faithful and really sweet man, a member of our parish who passed away about 2 years ago. Don left a major bequest to our church, a gift roughly in the quarter million dollar range. Isn’t God amazing? I think Don’s pretty amazing, too, and I’m sure he’s smiling at us today. Talk about message from God.
But what is the message? Well, I think, and your vestry thinks, that God is calling us to grow. God is calling us to grown in spirit, grow in wisdom, grow in our community, grow in our connections with our neighbors, grow in service and grow in love.
And that means God is calling us to change. Because, the hard part is, you can’t grow and stay the same. If so, my kids would still be in their footy jammies because those were really cute. But there not going back into those.
Staying the same is not one of our options. Our current model is not sustainable in the long term. Our finance committee has done lots of very helpful projections to show we cannot keep up our programming and staffing levels as they are for more than 2 to 3 more years, unless we do one of two things. We can grow or we can shrink. We could trim our budget, cut back our staffing and programming, have fewer activities going on, and probably in a few years that would mean fewer members as well. We’d probably stabilize as a slightly smaller church. That’s one option. But that’s not the option that your vestry chose, and I don’t think that’s the option any of you would want us to choose. Or, we could eat through Don’s wonderful gift keeping things the same for a few extra years. But I don’t think that’s why Don, or God, gave it to us. What we want to do is grow.
My belief that God is sending us a message a challenge and a call to live into God’s future, to embrace our community, to reach out to others. Any church should always be asking what is God calling us to do here in the community where we are? It’s not my belief that God ever calls the church to shrink. God calls us to grow.
The vestry’s proposal, which you’ll hear more about downstairs, is that we use part of Don’s gift to fund some new experiments, to try new things, to see if we can’t reach out to others and find new ways of being the wonderful loving community that we are. The vestry has put it this way: How do we answer God’s call to grow in engagement, depth and reach as we grow in and with God’s kingdom? Or, to put it another way, how can we invite more people to be more engaged and do more with us to make a difference in our community?
We have already made a huge step to answer Gods call. The renovation of our great Hall, opening our church up to make room for the spirit and room for all, came out of your desire in your heart to reach out and connect to our community, to invite others in, to do something new. This year we want to continue that built on our momentum. We want to live into the hope for the future we pledged when we decided to make our building more welcoming and open.
We already been experimenting; I don’t know if you’ve noticed but we deliberately took on three new things this fall. One was hosting the Lex Eat Together community meal, another was the the Wednesday night contemplative service in Advent, and the third was having the Cookies and Carols dinner here at the church and open to all. It’s not about creating one huge success, but trying lots of little experiments, trying and learning and changing and trying again.
The only reason to make this commitment, to use Don’s gift in this way, is because we hope to be in a different place in 3 years. It is not our plan to spend this money and be in the same place in three years. So we need your help to think about, talk about, pray about, work at, what that different place will be. And we’re going to start that conversation today. After we eat downstairs, we are going to break into small groups to discuss some questions. There will be facilitators at each table to record your ideas. And this is just the beginning of this conversation –throughout February and March we’ll continue with small group meetings, fireside chats, to gather ideas, experiments, gifts and skills. After Easter we will have another all – parish meeting on a Sunday morning to share the results of those conversations and together make some concrete goals and plan next steps to live into what God is calling us to do and to be for our community.
In closing, I want to give you a little snapshot of a vestry meeting that was at my house back in May. It was at my house because it was an unseasonably cold day and there was no heat at the church, we were starting our construction and they had to change out something or other with the heating system, so we all gathered around my dining room table and some members of the finance committee shared some numbers with us that were concerning and challenging. And you know what your vestry said? I can’t remember who said it first, but it wasn’t me. Someone said, well, we are a people of hope. And as we continued the discussion that phrase kept popping up. We are a people of hope.
Later on I was reading a book by a researcher, Brene Brown, that said that hope is actually not an emotion. Psychological research has shown that it’s actually a way of thinking, a cognitive process. She says it’s what happens when three things are in place. “First, we have the ability to set realistic goals, we know where we want to go. Second, we are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and seek alternative routes – we know how to get there and are persistent. We can tolerate disappointment and try again. And third, we believe in ourselves. We know we can do this.” We know God is on our side. That’s what hope is.
And because hope is a way of thinking, hope is learned. We can teach it to each other, and to our children. In fact, you could say that teaching each other hope is what church is for.
We are a people of hope. And I am very hopeful, and excited, about the year to come. It’s going to be fun and interesting and energizing, and we are going to learn a lot about our community, and each other, and ourselves. And we are going to know that God is with us every moment of the way, guiding each step as we seek to answer God’s call. May God bless us in this year to come.