Well it’s the end of January and we’ve had the State of the Union speech, the State of the State speech, the Golden Globe awards, the best of 2015 in music, art and dining and we’re looking forward to the Super Bowl (sort of) and the Oscars (with reservations).
It must be time for that church tradition called the Annual Meeting. It’s a canonical requirement and usually takes place in January or February. It’s the time when we elect people to church offices, approve a budget and fulfill our duties as an organized congregation within the Episcopal Church.
Not all Annual Meetings are equal. In fact, rarely are things at St. Luke’s regular or normal, and 2015 was no exception. For one thing, St. Luke’s said “farewell” to your Vicar and “hello” to a new Priest-in-charge. A change in clergy leadership is a big event in the life of any congregation. Along with the change from a full-time priest to a ¾ time priest, St. Luke’s saw the departure of all of its staff at the end of 2014. For a small congregation that is a dramatic transition.
This wasn’t the first time that St. Luke’s went through a major change in personnel. At the end of 2010 the priest and church leadership along with a majority of the members voted to leave St. Luke’s and the Episcopal Church.
Many of the people who had been responsible for the work and ministry here were suddenly gone. Their financial contributions left with them. Less than 20 people were left to manage the church, its programs and ministries, its buildings and property. I can only imagine what a challenge that presented for everyone who was involved.
What I do know is the challenge St. Luke’s faced this year with reduced staff, shaky finances and buildings and property showing years of deferred maintenance. At the beginning of 2015 there was just $6,000 in the bank and the power company was threatening to turn off the lights. There was also a faithful remnant who continued to gather for worship and to serve the neediest in our community. There was also the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, the love of Jesus and the presence of the living God.
Amazing things are possible when faithful Christians who know themselves to be part of the Body of Christ contribute towards the building up of the body. It takes incredible commitment to believe that we are ALL called into this body; that we cannot say to anyone “you do not belong,” or, “we have no need of you.” It takes the transforming power of love to recognize that all people, Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, women or men, gay or straight, rich or poor, housed or homeless, of every race and nation and background are made one in Christ.
We share the same Spirit of God. We are baptized into the one Body. We eat from the same table and drink from one cup. We are members one of another and even when we make a break or set up barriers to try and exclude some or leave this fellowship, by the power of the risen Christ we still belong to God and to one another.
The Apostle Paul knew how easy it is to get crossways with one another and to shame and exclude our brothers and sisters in Christ. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s still happening. Just this past week the leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion voted to censure the Episcopal Church for our affirmation of same-sex marriage. In his response, our newly elected Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry said:
“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.”
We really do need each other. We need every gift from every person. Each one is unique and valuable. The transformation that has taken place at St. Luke’s this past year is because each one in some way has contributed to the building up of the body, to our communal and collective ministry in this place. Clergy come and go. But the call to God’s faithful people is to continue caring for one another, continue rejoicing with those who rejoice, suffering with those who suffer.
Over the course of my ministry I have worked with over 140 churches. Each one has unique challenges and opportunities. Each has a unique history and style. They come in all different shapes and sizes. But the ones that excite me most and bring the greatest joy are those who can answer the questions: “Why are you here? What is your purpose? What is your mission and calling?”
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had an opportunity to make his purpose and calling clear. He had just emerged from his wilderness time alone in the desert. He was filled up with the Spirit and ready to engage his ministry. He started from home, back in Nazareth where he knew the people and they knew him. He started by choosing a passage from Scripture that summed up for him the history of God’s purposes for the people, a calling that had come directly to him and filled him with energy and initiative.
That morning in his home synagogue Jesus gave his keynote address, he cast his vision for God’s Kingdom, he proclaimed his mission and announced his calling. It was bold and exciting and radical. It caught everyone’s attention and it got him in trouble too. He was proclaiming God’s call in a way that made it clear that he would be turning everything upside down. He said:
· The poor will be on the receiving end of the very best news.
· The ones who are captive in jail or in situations that keep them bound up are freed.
· The blind see.
· The lowest and most downtrodden are lifted up.
· The hungry are fed.
· The despised are God’s beloved children.
This church has not lost sight of its purpose and calling even in the most difficult circumstances. For 30 years St. Luke’s has been feeding the most vulnerable, the hungry and homeless in our neighborhood. Over the course of the past year the numbers have increased by over 30%. It’s a challenge. Volunteers have been overwhelmed, resources stretched and the plumbing and facilities have broken down numerous times. But even in the most difficult months when there was hardly any money, you fed everyone and you continued to proclaim the good news of God’s love for all by your words and actions here.
When the congregation declined and rooms were no longer needed, St. Luke’s partnered with SHARE to open a shelter on the property. When the Bridge needed a new location to open its clothing bank along with a drop-in center to provide resources and counseling for people on the street, St. Luke’s entered into partnership with Quest Church to host it here. When members and neighbors were tired of looking at the vacant lot owned by the church on 58th Street, they got together to clear it and to plant the SLUG (St. Luke’s Urban Garden) so that fresh food and neighborliness might grow on this property.
In 2015 we opened up the cottages to ministry interns who are training and working in theology and psychology. That partnership continues to bear fruit. We cleared out our old Sunday School rooms and entered a partnership with the Suzuki Institute, who teach music in order to develop the whole life and character of the children they mentor. Recently we started a relationship with a new church plant in the Mennonite tradition. Pangea is already a beloved sister congregation and we are sharing more than just space as we seek to love God and our neighbor in this place.
The hungry are fed. The poor receive good news. Those without homes find shelter. The naked are clothed. Prisoners are visited. The wasteland produces food and beauty. The sound of music fills the building. These are important reasons why St. Luke’s exists and continues to fulfill its purpose.
None of this is possible without the grace of God and the power of the Spirit. Without a deep connection to the divine source through prayer and worship, we would simply be a social service agency facing intractable societal problems. The heart of this calling is lived out and empowered through our weekly gathering to encounter the risen Christ in word and sacrament. The regular meeting of the Prayer Ministry team is at the center of all we do. Our ongoing encounter with Jesus in Scripture at the weekly Bible Conversation on Sundays provides strength and direction.
As St. Luke’s moves forward into 2016, I don’t have to preach to you about developing a mission statement or a purpose. Every week that we read the words of Jesus in the gospel, our mission and purpose is defined.
Instead our challenge will be to find ways to invite others into a deeper relationship with God in Christ. Our Spiritual Pilgrimage on the six Sundays of Lent will be a wonderful opportunity for everyone to explore and renew their faith. The increased presence of families with children creates opportunities to pass the transforming love of God on to the next generation. Our greater involvement in the neighborhood through Art Walk, the Ballard Speaker Series and partnership with neighborhood groups opens up the opportunity to testify to a life-changing relationship with Jesus.
We are one Body in Christ, and every member is an essential member. We have a calling as God’s people in our own time and place to follow Jesus and to love God and our neighbor. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.
With faith, hope and love,