23 January 2011/Epiphany 3A – Matthew 4:18-22
Saint Peter’s At Ellicott Mills, Parish Annual Meeting
For those of us in parishes named Saint Peter’s, this passage, The Calling of the First Disciples, is one that we read over and over again. Perhaps the most important element of this Gospel story of Call is the fact that it is Jesus who offers the invitation. We are not here because we want to be here. We are here because Jesus wants us and calls us to be here. Yet, as we face into an uncertain future (and let’s face it, this is the true nature of life itself), it is that time of the year to stop and ask ourselves the pivotal question: what next? What is Jesus calling us to do?
It is a question the Israelite prophets pondered often in the history of God’s people. It was the question in the minds of the remaining eleven disciples after Good Friday as they huddled together in a room trying to absorb the events of what we now know as Holy Week. But as we know, again and again the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus always has, if not a surprising, an utterly astonishing answer to this question over and over again. And in every instance it results in new people rising to the occasion with the gifts, energy and vision necessary to meet the present need and circumstances.
Which is one way of saying, you are, we are, the “what next” in God’s plans for Saint Peter’s. As I said on Epiphany 2, each one of us is unique and has a unique role to play in the unfolding of God’s next adventure. You are an essential piece of the puzzle, an essential part of God’s unfolding future for Saint Peter’s. What an adventure it is going to be! I am confident that through faithfulness in prayer and study, God will reveal to us a new way to walk, a new song to sing, a new way of being the Body of Christ known as Saint Peter’s – and more affectionately Saint Eaters!
We will all hear this morning that we will be looking back to reconnect with what Saint Peter’s has been all through the years stretching back to 1842 when we began as a mission to the mill workers at Ellicott Mills. That mission, together with Bishop Wittingham’s desire to set up an Anglo-Catholic outpost in what was to become Howard County, has wheat, flour, and bread at its center. The staff of life, bread is also the essential sacrament through which we know Christ, and Christ knows us.
As important as it is to look back, however, it will be more important to take a long hard look at who we are right now. Much has changed in the world since 1842, much has changed in the Episcopal Church, and much has changed at Saint Peter’s. We need to identify those changes, and accept those changes, and discern just what it means to be an outpost for the Gospel in Howard County in the 21st Century. We need to be clear on who we are, and whose we are.
We should not, however, become preoccupied with ourselves, but rather turn our attention to the world. This will necessitate getting to know our neighbors. Next to loving God with all our heart, all our soul and all our might, loving our neighbors as ourselves is the great commandment given to us all. Jesus says there is no commandment greater than these two. That love must begin with getting to know our neighbors. In the 17 years I have been privileged to serve among you, the neighborhood has undergone an axial shift. Across Rogers Avenue lies a veritable field of mission - a vast array of townhouses and single family homes stretching from here all the way up to Ridge Road. Through the years the inhabitants have turned over, I suspect, nearly 100%. Yet, do we know any of the people who are our nearest neighbors? Do we know anything about their needs, concerns and hopes? That is, have we any idea how to serve them and love them as our neighbors?
And we have just begun to reconnect ourselves with Historic, Downtown Ellicott City. Thanks to Julian Manelli, and initial work of Kennette and Guv Mitchell, Katherine Schnorrenberg and Diane Six, Saint Peter's has become a fixture at the monthly Farmer's Market, and we participated in the Christmas-time Midnight Madness. People stop at our table and ask who we are and where we are. They purchase copies of our parish history, while purchasing and munching on baked goods at the Name Your Price sale. The merchants and shoppers in the Historic district, site of our original church building, are also our neighbors. How might we love and serve them in the name of Christ?
As to church growth – yesterday I attended the first of several strategy and planning sessions for the Diocesan Horizons 2015 initiative. We heard a lot of personal stories about how different people came to be members of the Episcopal Church. In nearly every instance, they attended an Episcopal Church because someone took the time to ask them to come. It is as simple as that.
It is possible, however, with the help of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, that we might become a multi-cultural congregation with the ability to serve the still growing Korean and Asian communities of Howard County. The Reverend Barnabas Lee has a vision of bringing people from different countries and different backgrounds together in the name of Christ. To be clear, this means integrating an English speaking congregation, not starting a Korean speaking congregation or separate service. If we do this, it will mean change, but we must always remember: at every Baptism we promise to do all that is in our power to support each new person in his or her life in Christ. Again, each person we baptize is someone new, someone unique and original, something that never existed before! Their needs are new, unique and different. To do all in our power to support them in their life in Christ we need to be about doing new, unique and different things than we have ever imagined. Being the Church is about serving others, not teaching them to become like us. In the end, nothing canever stay the same, least of all the church. Everything is changing. Tich Nhat Hanh, the revered Vietnamese Buddhist puts it best: "It is not because of impermanence that we suffer, but because of our ideas about permanence."
Jesus was all about change. Jesus was all about celebrating the new, the unique, the never before seen gifts of each and every person with whom he came in contact. Each one of you in this parish, each one of you who worships here week in and week out, is a unique expression of God's love for this sinful and broken world. Jesus calls us do to something beautiful with our lives and bear much fruit. As Jesus proclaimed, the world needs you, the church needs you, Jesus needs you. They need your light and your love. There is a hidden place in your heart where Jesus lives.
Perhaps the First letter of Peter puts it best:
A New Life
3-5What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we've been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you'll have it all—life healed and whole.
6-7I know how great this makes you feel, even though you have to put up with every kind of aggravation in the meantime. Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved pure; genuine faith put through this suffering comes out proved genuine. When Jesus wraps this all up, it's your faith, not your gold, that God will have on display as evidence of his victory.
8-9You never saw him, yet you love him. You still don't see him, yet you trust him—with laughter and singing. Because you kept on believing, you'll get what you're looking forward to: total salvation.
10-12The prophets who told us this was coming asked a lot of questions about this gift of life God was preparing. The Messiah's Spirit let them in on some of it—that the Messiah would experience suffering, followed by glory. They clamored to know who and when. All they were told was that they were serving you, you who by orders from heaven have now heard for yourselves—through the Holy Spirit—the Message of those prophecies fulfilled. Do you realize how fortunate you are? Angels would have given anything to be in on this! (The Message – Eugene Peterson)
Right now it is time for us to realize just how fortunate we are. Let Jesus live in you. Let your light shine. Sing a new song! You are not lacking in any spiritual gift. You are the way others will come to know Christ. I know this to be true because I have experienced it myself here in this place. Through worship, through song, through prayer, through service to others, through the light and life that shine through the love of every single person who makes Saint Peter's his or her spiritual home, I have come to know Christ in new, deeper and more exciting ways than I could ever have imagined the day I arrived, Advent 1, 1994.
We have before us an opportunity to move forward with Christ together, to serve the hopes, needs and concerns of the world around us. Today is a new day. You are the way others will come to know Christ. God bless us, everyone.