Being Church

Sunday, February 2, 2014 ||  On the Occasion of Our Annual Meeting:  Celebrating the Feast of St. Stephen ||  Jeremiah 26: 1-9, 12-15; Psalm 31: 1-5; Acts 6:8 – 7:2a, 51c – 60; Matthew 23:34 – 39||  The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

Today we celebrate our patron Saint, Saint Stephen—an icon of servant ministry.  And because it is also the day of our Annual Meeting, it is traditional at this service for the rector to reflect on where we are as a church community, and where God might be calling us to go. It’s a sort of ecclesiastical version of another address you might have heard earlier this week, a “State of the Church,” if you will.

The state of this church is one of transition.  As I’ve written in the Rector’s portion of the Annual Report, “St. Stephen’s is at a threshold.” And transitions—thresholds—can be both exciting, and scary, places to be.  They are exciting because they have the potential to bring forth new opportunities, new life, and incredible new blessings if we rely on God; and they are scary because they have the potential to bring forth fear,  divisiveness, and negativity, if we don’t rely on God.  We will be known, as the saying goes, by our fruits.

We—you and I—have an opportunity to embrace this transition as the members of the body of Christ that we are. We have a chance here to really be Church.  And that means living into the shared ministry of all baptized believers, of putting our whole trust in Christ’s grace and love (as we say in our baptismal vows), of building up the body of Christ, of seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and of respecting the dignity of every human being— whether we agree with them on everything or not!

As we take time now during this transition to discern the needs and desires of our parish and of discerning God’s call for us as His people, we won’t always agree.  That’s a given.  But we can covenant with one another to disagree like members of the Church, rather than members of Congress! In a Church that proclaims “One Body, One Spirit; one hope in God’s call to us,” there is no room for “two sides of the aisle” finger-pointing.  We can speak our truth here—of course, we must– but we can covenant to speak it from a place of love, or not at all.   We can covenant to be active listeners, more interested (as St. Francis would say) in understanding than in being understood.  We can covenant to be generous-hearted people, who give each other the benefit of the doubt, assume the best instead of the worst, and refuse to pass on hearsay or gossip. We are, after all, followers of Christ!  Shame on us if we do anything less.

When I said last week that we’re at a challenging, and exciting, turning point in the life of this church I meant it.  So despite the anxiety I know some of you are feeling, I have no doubt we are up to the challenge.  I have no doubt that we’re going to come out of this transition even stronger and healthier than we are now.  Do we have work to do?  You bet.  But you need only feel the spirit-filled energy in this place on any given Sunday morning, or flip through the pages of the Annual Report, to know that this is a vibrant community of faith, and God’s not done with us yet!

In the past two weeks a number of you have reached out to me with what I know is genuine care and concern to ask, “What are you going to do without an Assistant?” and to advise me that “Boy, you’re really going to have to set your priorities.” I hope I didn’t sound too corrective in the face of your care, but each time this happened I felt compelled to re-frame the conversation in terms of a plural pronoun.  Because we’re going to figure out together what we’re going to do now, and we are going to discern what my priorities—and what your priorities— need to be.  Being Church is about all of us!

You see, for the foreseeable future we may have only one ordained priest at St. Stephen’s, but we have no shortage of ministers.  Take a look around you.  Get out a mirror. I see a whole room full of ministers out there. In fact, if you would grab a copy of the Prayer Book from the rack in front of you,  let’s open to Page 855. Let’s take just a minute to look at what’s called the “Outline of the Faith” and the section headed “The Ministry.”  I know this is old stuff to some of you, but I am guessing it will be new to many.

Who are the ministers of the Church?” is the first question.  “The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.”  See, you are all ministers!  In the Episcopal Church ministry is something we all share. And this is a chance for us to own that even more than we already do, and not just pay lip service to it like so many churches do.

What is the ministry of the laity?” is the logical next question.  “The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.”  That’s a lot of ministry, right?

Now skip the question about the ministry of a bishop for now, and turn to the next page:  “What is the ministry of a priest or presbyter?  The ministry of a priest is to represent Christ and his Church particularly as a pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.”

And then the last question in this section, “What is the duty of all Christians?”  The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.”

Now, just one more, then you can put the books away, I promise:  If you would turn back again to Page 855 and look at the last question just before the section on “The Ministry.” “Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?” is the question.  And let’s all read the answer together:  “The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.”

See, the only thing you need one of these stiff white collars for is to proclaim and preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments, pronounce blessings, and declare absolution of sins.  We all get to do the rest!  Whether or not each of us has the gifts to do everything else is another question, but looking around this sanctuary I’m willing to bet that together we do.  I’m willing to bet that if we accept our call to be Church… if you and I live into our place here as ministers of the Church, lay and ordained, side by side, working and praying and giving for the spread of the kingdom of God together, that this time of transition will bear good fruits, astonishing fruits, fruits beyond our wildest imagining!  That’s just the way God works.

You know, just a few years after the Resurrection, in the earliest days of the Church, Stephen and a handful of others were appointed to serve the needy precisely because the church was growing and alive — and the apostles couldn’t do it all themselves anymore.  None of us can do it all by ourselves.  But we are Church.  We’re named after an icon of servant ministry. Together, relying on God, we hold the promise of crossing this threshold into new opportunities, new life and incredible new blessings.   We are Church, Christ’s Church, and the Church “carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.”  May God continue to bless us in our ministry together that we may be a blessing to others. Amen.

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