Sermon for February 7th, 2016 || On the Occasion of the St. Stephen’s Annual Meeting and Celebration of Our Patronal Saint || Propers for 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
Well, this is it: the last Sunday before I start my sabbatical, and then I won’t see most of you until the first beach service in July. I have been so touched by the many cards and emails you have sent me wishing me well, and by the hugs and kind words you have so generously offered.
Yet I have also sensed some anxiety about my being away; in fact, a few of you have expressed this quite openly. So this morning I want to reassure you, but I also want to challenge you.
I want to reassure you that St. Stephen’s Church is going to be fine, because first and foremost, God is faithful. God loves you and God loves God’s church, and as long as you don’t get in the way, God will bless this church in the coming months with more grace than you can possibly imagine. Just take care not to get in the way. Be open. Be prayerful. Let, “Thy will not mine be done,” be your mantra. And listen. Listen carefully to God.
I want to reassure you that in your Vestry Wardens you have two of the finest, most faithful Christian men I know leading this church. Sam and Jeff give new meaning to the term “dynamic duo.” They are both incredibly competent and compassionate men. They are both gifted and natural-born leaders—and I mean Christ-following servant-leaders, like our patron saint, Stephen. I know they will serve you well, because they serve God well.
I want to reassure you that in Dee Woodward you have a highly experienced priest in God’s church, whose particular gift– and passion –is to do precisely this very special kind of ministry, loving and shepherding a congregation while its priest is on sabbatical, or when its priest has left and a search process is underway for someone new. She comes to us with the highest of praise from everyone with whom I have spoken. So I know Dee, too, will serve you well. Besides, she and her husband are serious sailors (they spent a couple of years sailing around the world) and they live onboard a 79’ British Royal Navy fleet tender that they converted into a houseboat. So I think Dee’s going to fit in at St. Stephen’s just fine!
Last, but most important of all, I want to reassure you that this church is going to be fine because you are this church. And you are an amazing and wonderful community of Jesus followers with so much more to offer than you realize!
Some of you will remember when I stood in this pulpit two years ago, and led you on a guided tour of The Book of Common Prayer and what it has to say about your ministry–the ministry of all the baptized. It’s what our prayer book calls “the priesthood of all believers,” meaning the laity…you.
What we read there was this: “…the Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.” Now notice it doesn’t say the Church carries out its mission through its priests, or through its staff, but through the ministry of all of its members. And that ministry, our Prayer Book says, is for you to, “represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever [you] may be; …to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take [your] place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.”
That is how you carry out the mission of this church’s mission, “to live at the intersection of our faith and our lives.” You live at the intersection of your faith and your life by representing Christ and his Church, by bearing witness to him wherever you may be, by carrying on the work of reconciliation in the world, and by taking your place in the life, worship and governance of the Church.”
Now I know that’s a mouthful, so let me put some meat on that for you so it doesn’t just sound like a bunch of religious gobbledygook.
You “represent Christ and his Church” by engaging in some kind of activity outside of the church, that you’re doing explicitly and overtly on behalf of the church. When you share yourself with the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the lonely or the grieving, and you do it in such a way that people know you are there on behalf of St. Stephen’s Church, you are representing Christ and his Church. Taking communion to the homebound, cooking for Father Bill’s, helping with Common Cathedral, participating in B-SAFE, visiting Jessica in prison—these are all things that you, St. Stephen’s, do to represent Christ and his Church to others. And I challenge you to do more while I’m gone.
You “bear witness to Christ wherever you may be,” by how you do whatever it is you do when you’re not here. You don’t have to stand on a street corner handing out pamphlets to bear witness to Christ. You don’t have to invite people at the office to “come to Jesus.” Let the people you engage with outside of these walls be impressed not by what you do, but by how you do it: with integrity, honesty, kindness, patience, compassion and mercy. Let them experience Christ through you. It’s like the old adage attributed to St. Francis says, “Preach the gospel often, use words if necessary.” I challenge you, St. Stephen’s, to remember that when you leave here, you may be the closest thing to the Gospel alot of folks will ever encounter. So live Gospel lives. At work, at home, in the checkout line, and in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
You “carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world” by offering and accepting forgiveness, by being mediators and peacemakers, by resolving conflict rather than instigating it, and by working and praying for wrongs to be righted. You can carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation while I’m gone by continuing to form ties with the Anishiniabeg at White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. It was because of the work that an Episcopal Bishop did there in the late 1800’s that Cyrus Bates became an Episcopalian and later founded this church. I challenge you, St. Stephen’s, to embrace this cross-cultural work of healing and reconciliation with our Native American brothers and sisters, and to encourage our young people to embrace it, too!
Finally, “taking your place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church”: You can take your place in the life of this church by creating opportunities to get know each other better, by reaching out across generations, by owning St. Stephen’s as your community and by stepping up as active members in it. You can take your place in the worship of this church by continuing to show up most Sundays, at our Holy Week services, and please, by helping the Vestry discern what kind of service we should have on Saturday evenings, and what it should look like. And you can take your place in the governance of the Church by serving on any one of the numerous ministry committees that need your ideas, your input, and your energy.
This church is named after an icon of servant ministry. While I’m gone, you have the opportunity to really claim that identity and to be God’s church. Because as The Book of Common Prayer says, “the Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.” Not through its clergy, not through its staff, but through its members. I hope that can be both a comfort—and a challenge to you—while I’m gone.
So I have no doubt that with God’s faithfulness, Sam and Jeff’s leadership, Dee’s pastoral guidance, and each other—you, St. Stephens, will be in the very best of hands.
“May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you, may the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” Amen.