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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – Annual Parish Meeting – January 31, 2010

   In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen

Theologian Paul Tillich once said that “Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.” The audience Jesus had that day when he appeared in the synagogue in his hometown experienced something like that firsthand.

Oh, they loved how beautifully he read the scripture and they naturally assumed he would do wonderful things for them as he had done in surrounding towns. They believed that the Messiah would set them up as the grand people of God who would have dominance and supremacy over the gentiles. The “club” they expected God to establish would be exclusively for them. But Jesus confounded them by citing examples when God had passed over them and acted to save strangers—first the widow from the wrong side of the tracks and then the Syrian who was an officer in the army of Israel’s enemies.

They were furious—so worked up and provoked that they attempted to kill Jesus by throwing him off a cliff. He narrowly escaped. Why their indignation? Merely because he reminded them that God’s sense of community was bigger than theirs and he used scripture—the very scripture they exploited to close the ranks on outsiders and keep them on the margins, something religion continues to do even today. More than two thousand years later this passage is a stark reminder that Jesus, the one who comforts and rescues us, is also the one who challenges and upsets us, telling us the truth so plainly that we may want to go to extreme lengths to shut him up.

So here I stand today in my own neighborhood preaching to my kin, my sisters and brothers in God, given the task to talk about the state of our parish life on this the day prescribed by the canons of the church to conduct the business of electing members of the vestry, those members of this congregation who assist in the administration of the church, especially its temporal affairs and finances.

I’ll begin by referencing again the Gospel and the good news that God’s sense of community is bigger than ours; that the church is not an organization for like-minded people to revel in their successes and good deeds but a community of those who are as different as they can be, people who concentrate on what they have in common instead of what separates them. So we have become known in this city and beyond and all over the diocese of Connecticut as a place where that kind of Good News is preached and God’s radical welcome is extended to all—including those, and especially those, out of the norm. No outsiders here. No exceptions.

St. Paul’s is a place where people have found release from the expectations society may put on them, recovery of their sight of the depth of God’s love for them just as they are, freedom from the oppression of those things that have been obstacles that kept them away from church, and the experience of knowing God’s favor as God’s very own beloved ones. At our retreat last November in Lenox, Massachusetts, about forty of our members shared stories that affirm all that—profoundly touching stories that spoke to the wonder and holiness and glory of this place. We must never take this for granted.

Like Jesus in his hometown pulpit, I will preach things like this today that will comfort you and things that will challenge and tell the truth so plainly that—well, maybe I’d better not stand too close to the edge of a cliff. I know that money and finances is on everyone’s mind these days and the church is no exception. Last week our vestry passed the operating budget for 2010. It comes with a very large deficit—an anticipation of as much as $86,000 of red ink by the end of this year. This includes our continuing payment on the capital campaign loan that financed the rebuilding of the organ and the major work on the infrastructure of our church three years ago a portion of that due to pledges not yet fulfilled.

The price tag for all we will get at St. Paul’s is 2010—all of the services and ministries and opportunities and a staff that works overtime to make it all happen with excellence —all those things that keep us coming back—is $641,000. If you have not made a pledge or if your pledge was very small and this information has so moved you, please make that pledge now or perhaps increase the pledge you already made. The vestry has made the commitment to resolve the issue of the deficit by the middle of the year and to this end a task force will be formed in the next few weeks to explore and offer a number of options for their consideration. Stay tuned. You will be hearing more about this.

There is an uneasy sense among our leadership that a factor in the inability to meet our pledge goal this year is because people learned about the Warner Bequest—that St. Paul’s will be the recipient of approximately $900,000 from the estate of long time members of our parish. I say “will” because we have only just received one third of the money last week and don’t know when the remaining will be distributed. Bequests like this are not given by the donors to give us a free ride. The Warners were excellent and consistent pledgers even in their retirement. Their gift is meant to help us maintain our buildings and property, to improve them, and to expand our ministry and mission in ways that our operating budget may not be able to do.

If you look around you’ll find lots of things the bequest money can do to maintain and improve our facilities. Parishes that use bequests to fund a deficit budget shoot themselves in the foot. We cannot do this. We, the living, not the departed, are responsible stewards who need to pay for all the things about this parish that we love and that feed and nurture us.

The vestry has made the decision to begin an endowment fund with $250,000 of the bequest and an endowment committee has been created to oversee this endeavor. If you have any questions about the bequest or about the endowment fund, please be in touch with Nancy Esposito whose contact information you will find in the Announcement Leaflet.

I want to bring clarity around a venture that had its birth in 2009 when the Vestry authorized the formation of a separate non-profit corporation to be called Seabury Academy of Music and the Arts, Inc. in residence at St. Paul’s on the Green – a non-profit Corporation seeking tax exempt status under the IRS Code section 501 (c) 3 that will allow this entity to seek funding from sources such as foundations and corporations cannot make donations to religious organizations. This new avenue for receiving funding will support ARTWorks, the gallery space in the Chittim-Howell House where visiting artists display their work; Exploring Music and the Arts, a summer camp we offer for children in the greater Norwalk community; MidDay Music and Concerts—recitals in the fall and in Lent and continuing through May; and the Chorister Program an important piece of our multi-generational and ethnically diverse fabric that provides excellent music, especially during our times of worship. This new enterprise will eventually take a strain off St. Paul’s operating budget and support these important areas. If you have questions about Seabury Academy, please take them to our warden, Lynden Magnoli who is also on its board of directors.

There are other areas of our life here about which I need to speak the truth plainly—and now I’m really going to stay away from the edge of the cliff. First: Our Children’s religious education—the Sunday School. Mother Stravers and I share a deep concern about the investment of parents in this important facet of their children’s lives. Registration in September produced a good showing but attendance is patchy and inconsistent. What tools are we giving our kids for living into their faith if we don’t teach them the Gospel? How will they make decisions about right and wrong, about loving neighbors and forgiving enemies, and making peace and respecting the differences of those unlike them? Let us help you in their formation as the wonderful individuals God has created them to be. Please take their religious education as seriously as you do their secular education.

Second: We are greatly challenged by the lack of space. You would be surprised at the use our facilities get everyday of the week. The vestry and staff will address this in 2010 but I fear that, given the large deficit in the budget, plans to reclaim the Clay Place, restore it and make it available for our use, may be stalled. Pray on this one, folks, and realize how much of an impact regular giving by EVERONE who considers themselves a part of this community can make on that decision.

Third: Growth. The good news is that it is still happening but we must never get to a place where we think we’re done. I grieve a little when I hear that someone said “We’re big enough now. We have enough people.” What if this community adopted that attitude the day before you arrived? Would you have experienced its radical hospitality? Would you have stayed?

A few months ago I was at a clergy meeting where a local rector told another priest in the group that he figures they need another fifteen families to have a budget that will support the church. I cringed. Does God put a quota on us? I don’t think so. Otherwise a lot of us would be on the outside looking in.

Finally, I want to speak the truth about giving—not just about money but about our whole being. Giving is one of the most God-like qualities to which human beings can aspire. It is enormously good for the heart and the soul and there is strong evidence that people who give of their resources and of themselves are happier and healthier. One thing of which we can be very proud is the giving generated by our “Doing Christmas Differently” which over the past three years has amounted to $14,000 for people in need.

Later this morning at our Ministry Expo you will have an opportunity to consider how you might give of your gifts and talents. In his book, Now Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham makes some straightforward claims that have rather profound implications, one of which is that people are much better at identifying their weaknesses than their strengths.

Just look at Jeremiah. God calls on him to become a prophet to the nations and Jeremiah immediately goes to the place of his weakness—“I am just a boy.” God tells him just how deeply and intimately God knows him—“before I formed you in the womb”—and showed him the scope of his strengths.

God knows each of you just as intimately—not just from the time you first walked in the door but long, long before and God wants to call you out of that place where you are wont to go—that place of your weakness and insecurity to the place of your strengths and gifts. Say “yes,” when you find some area of ministry that attracts you or when you are asked to serve in some way. You won’t regret it.

In the Death of a Hired Man, Robert Frost said that “home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” We all need that kind of a community—one that will welcome us with all our warts and quirks and baggage—and still celebrate every time they see us coming. That vision forms the very foundation of our deepest yearnings and to build that community is the work to which we are called in baptism.

Our Presiding Bishop, Katherine Schori, says that “it is a vision of a world where no one goes hungry because everyone is invited to a seat at the groaning board, it’s a vision of a world where no one is sick or in prison because all sorts of disease have been healed, it’s a vision of a world where every human being has the capacity to use every good gift God has given, it is a vision of a world where no one enjoys abundance at the expense of another, where everyone is at peace with one another and with God, and in right relationship with all the rest of creation.

It is that vision to which Jesus points the way when he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That vision is fulfilled each time we recognize that God’s sense of community is bigger than ours and we reach beyond ourselves to call and welcome another home.

I was watching the evening news this week and there was a clip from Haiti about a group of children passing their time by making go carts out of plastic milk containers they found in the rubble after the earthquake. The news commentator asked a 13-year-old boy what he thinks about when he is making them. He said, “I imagine things that will make life better.”

May our dreaming lead us to make life better for one another, for those who are not yet here, for those nearby and those far away. God has spoken that dream in us. We must not, we cannot let it slip by us.

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