Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 01, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Which of the two sons from this parable would St. John’s be? The obedient one, I think we all would agree. Yet we do need to consider the question. Before we get to the self-congratulatory part of the sermon, we need to remember that before the obedient son did the right thing, he said the wrong thing. He sounds like a jerk to us, but to an ancient audience, a son saying such things to his father would be shocking, appalling, scandalous. Is there any trace of that strand of his DNA here?
Most people know little to nothing about the Episcopal Church. Of the few non-Episcopalians who have heard of us, many hold to the old stereotypes. Rich, snobby, elite, “the frozen chosen,” and so on.
And, let’s be honest, I personally don’t feel a need to act like the indulgent, subordinate people-pleaser that many people, apparently, expect clergy to be. While I value etiquette, I’m not afraid to be unpopular. I have no qualms about “offending” people, especially those with an anti-church attitude. At the Pride Stride, so, right after walking for miles on a dreary day in order to raise money to help the Navajo, I was still wearing my collar, and a woman came up to me and said she didn’t think there was much point in going to church, that we did more harm than good. I stood my ground and reeled off the many good works that St. John’s quietly does all the time.
Speaking of which, can we take a minute to celebrate the extraordinary breadth, depth, and diversity of ministry here at St. John’s? Literally from top to bottom, from the choir school to the thrift shop, from left to right, from Marge’s legendary compassion and assistance to the many charitable groups we host, we do a great deal of vital ministry. Our harvest from God’s vineyard is bountiful.
And let’s not define ministry so narrowly. Our worship, our music, our welcome, our love for one another, all of these acts of love glorify God. All are different ways of responding to God’s love with our best efforts, just like the obedient son. And each of these acts of love strengthens the others. Together they are like a choral harmony, praising God and elevating our souls more than any could do alone.
All this happens, of course, because yet again we say “yes” to God, every year when we respond to the stewardship campaign. Today at the Special Parish Meeting, we aren’t so much kicking off the campaign as considering the larger context of how ministry happens here, and what it will take to make sure that St. John’s remains a vital center of ministry far into the future.
It’s no secret that St. John’s has long suffered financial challenges. As far back as I have seen, we have had a structural deficit — that is, we consistently spend more than the sum of our pledges and other revenues. We then fill that deficit by spending from the endowment faster than it can grow. Your leaders have done an admirable job of addressing this reality. Before I came here, a strategic planning process made excellent progress toward the goal of St. John’s living within her means. Most of that came from cutting expenses, and great progress was made, but not quite enough, and now we have reached the point where any other major cuts would jeopardize our ministries, and with them, our very identity.
That’s not just a financial or organizational problem. Let me be clear that I am not talking about individuals here, but rather our collective life as a parish. Our deficit pushes us away from the identity of the obedient son and towards that of the one who said the right thing, but did not follow through once Dad was out of sight. Just like that second son, we are only too comfortable living off our forebears’ resources, sacrifices, and generosity. And while that’s a spiritual problem in itself, a deeper one threatens our very identity.
Looking back on my time as your rector, I realized that every major decision and initiative, and many smaller ones, was driven not by a vision of ministry, not by a joyful and faithful response to God’s generosity, but rather by a reaction to the deficit. Think about it: calling a rector at three-quarters time, incorporating deficit reduction into the Together Now capital campaign, calling a youth minister and abolishing that position after he resigned, exploring the feasibility of building housing over our parking lot, the fundraisers — I could go on, but you get the point. I’m not saying that any of these decisions was bad or wrong… though I did breathe a sigh of relief when we concluded that the housing idea was not feasible. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t be operating this way. Jesus deserves better. His mission deserves better. If you are in a state of perpetual crisis, then by definition you are not in the Kingdom of God.
In case you were wondering, that is not a preview of the Special Parish Meeting. I won’t try to recap it now. There are just two things I want to say about it. First is how impressed I am with the work of the Sustainability Committee. Since I got back from my sabbatical in April, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Paul McGeary, Chuck Everett, Jim LaBelle, Joan Gorga, Karen Kasper, Sue Lupo, and Tom Chmura. You have lay leaders you can truly be proud of. Together we thought long and hard about what makes St. John’s special and the many different approaches to sustainability. The second is that we think we have found a solution, an answer that will make it possible to get our financial house in order, free us from fear, and become motivated anew toward the vision of the Kingdom of God that has always been our calling. See you there.