Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 31, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Why did the congregation turn on Jesus? Immediately after he proclaimed that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Then, all of a sudden, they are trying to throw him off a cliff. The simplest explanation, of course, is that the synagogue in Nazareth was holding its annual meeting that Saturday. My friend and colleague Fr. Tim Schenck, the veteran rector of St. John’s in Hingham, writes that annual meetings are “an annual source of stress for clergy, lay leaders, and parish staff.” “Surviving the Annual Meeting is an ecclesiastical rite of passage for clergy and parishioners everywhere.” “You can always tell when a parish has a divisive issue to address since they schedule the meeting on Super Bowl Sunday, secretly hoping fewer people will attend.” He suggests replacing the entire agenda with a haiku: “Budget blah, blah, blah/Something about Jesus Christ/Please up your pledges.”
First of all, most of you did increase your pledges, and thank you so much for that. The jump in giving reflected in this year’s budget is an extraordinary sign of our commitment to God’s mission in this place. Our budget itself is extraordinary. For folks like me who are easily overwhelmed by lots of numbers, any budget is a challenge to absorb and comprehend. So I am all the more impressed when I consider that every one of those numbers itself represents a great deal of labor. Elizabeth Redmond, Karen Kasper, and the dedicated team they lead, work hard to establish those figures based on all the details of our financial life as a parish — the day-to-day inflows and outflows of gifts and obligations, the extra work of keeping track of, and bringing order to, special projects and new initiatives, and the rigorous analysis necessary for the best possible estimation of future income and expenses. The end result is a document that describes and guides everything we do as a parish and assures us that our gifts are under the most rigorous and thoughtful stewardship. To our treasurers, past, present, and future, thank you. And thanks to everyone who works with them, in every capacity.
Saint Paul knew a lot about the gifts of the Holy Spirit and how they work together in a Christian community. He praised and extolled the rare and vital gifts that ensure the propagation and vitality of every church, and his wisdom and eloquence in describing them is exceeded only by that of his insight into love, the most precious and essential gift yet also, ironically, the most abundant. It seems the congregation turned against Jesus because he revealed that his mission and its blessings were not limited to them, that he had not come home in order to solve all their problems and relieve them of their responsibilities as the people of God. They welcomed Jesus as the Son of God because they harbored an unchallenged attitude of entitlement, one so monumental that they expected God himself to bend to their will. When Jesus told them, essentially, that God is not bound by their expectations, and thus his ministry was not one of satisfaction and wish-fulfillment, but rather expanding the love of God to the whole world, and especially those in the greatest need, his challenge meant they could no longer conveniently ignore their lack of grace. So of course they were unhappy, and so ill-equipped to deal with their unhappiness that they lashed out at the messenger. Say what you want about Saint Paul, but you have to admit that in declaring that love is the greatest and most essential spiritual gift, he was on to something.
Annual meetings can be exercises in entitlement, anger, accusation, and blame, but they can also be opportunities to consider and celebrate all the good things that God is doing for us, in us, and through us, everything that is great about the congregation. Fr. Schenck also writes, “At their best, Annual Meetings are wonderful celebrations of parish life. They give parishioners a chance to hear about the breadth of ministry that takes place — both visible and invisible. The Annual Meeting is an invaluable time to take a step back in the midst of the daily grind of ministry to seek the broader view, examine the past year, and look ahead to where God may be calling the congregation in the future.” I would add that all of this is because of love, God’s greatest and most abundant gift. God’s love makes it possible for everyone to participate in the Body of Christ and contribute to his mission by applying their own more particular gifts. God’s love is not just for us, but for the whole world; we share God’s love, and rejoice that living this way takes away our anger and gives us life, and joy, and peace.
So I’m looking forward to the annual meeting we will have here, right after this service. I believe that we are much closer to Saint Paul’s vision of love than we are to Saint Luke’s tale of woe. I believe that God is already doing great things at Saint John’s, and will do even greater things, and as always, the greatest of these is love.