Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland – Annual Meeting Sunday
January 28, 2018; Epiphany 4B: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
Here it comes. We are not even through the first chapter of the gospel of Mark, at very the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and someone tries to mess it up. The gospel tells us that Jesus went to the synagogue in Capernaum, preached a powerful sermon, and was hit with a double barreled attack by a man who seems to have lost it completely. If you have following the story of Deering high school’s football coach being forced out by over-zealous parents, you have a sense of what Jesus went through that day. Tradition says that the man was crazy – or possessed by demons. This gospel tells us that – giving an example that would be followed by the good citizens of Jackman, Jesus stood up to the bully and shut him down. This is an important message about claiming our authority and not tolerating bad behavior. Focusing on mental illness, however, distracts from the bigger question: Why was this man so upset in the first place? What set him off? The answer can be found in his questions: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are…” I don’t think this man is crazy. I think he is very smart. Having heard just a few words, he knows who Jesus is. He recognizes Jesus as the second Moses, the prophet talked about in our reading from Deuteronomy. Did you notice the word “us”?That man realizes that the coming of Jesus means that his synagogue – and the religion he loves and that has carried him through his life – will change. He is afraid that the community he holds so dear (his “us”) will be destroyed and attacked Jesus out of his fear.
In contrast with the gospel’s message that change is coming, the letter to the Corinthians seems to be a caution against going too far too fast. Like Portland, Corinth was a cosmopolitan city. As in Portland, the Christians in Corinth were proud of their progressive stance. As a sign that the old ways had lost their power, they intentionally ignored of the local dietary laws. Though Paul understood – and agreed with – the correctness of their position, he instructed them not to put up stumbling blocks for others whose views had not evolved as far as their own. He instructed the Corinthians to prioritize love over logic, their hearts over their heads, compassion and caring for others over caring what or what wasn’t exactly right. Paul is introducing a whole new law coming from a whole new Moses: a law not of rules but of relationship — a law of love.
This is important because people with both Capernaum and Corinth perspectives are present in this congregation. There are those who want to keep the creed, the liturgy, and the style of prayer and music that has uplifted them and sustained them their whole lives. There are others whose understanding of God has grown to the point that those things feel like shackles. For the first, change feels like a moral wound. For second, it can’t happen fast enough. I remember a very active person leaving the first time we moved the pews. I had another leave because the atonement theology and patriarchal language in our music and liturgy were too much to take and our pushing ahead was far too slow. Language matters. One visitor recently told me that he came and decided to leave before the service started because he saw God referred to as “Father” in our bulletin. What to do? Following our Anglican forbears, the solution may be found in the “via media” the middle way. Our reading from Mark is a reminder that with Jesus all things will be made new. Our reading from Corinthians tells us that we need to remember that being church isn’t dependent on one style of music or theology or prayer or political perspective. Our reading from Deuteronomy says its something far bigger than all that. These scriptures suggest us a both/and response. They also ask us to take a larger look at what we’re doing. Living as the body of Christ isn’t about rules but about relationship, not about law but the law of love. It isn’t about us. It’s about God. People are spiritually hungry. They are longing for mystery and meaning, for a chance to make a difference in their world, and to make sense of their lives. Their biggest question is not which church to attend but if attending church will help them with these things at all. Our task is to tell them, to show them, it will.
In preparation for today’s annual meeting, I did some analysis on our attendance. The numbers are striking. If you include our online viewers, our attendance remains strong. However, our regular attendance, particularly at our flagship 10:00 service, has showed significant decline. Our Sunday School and youth programs have also decreased in number. Ten years ago, Lessons and Carols had 400 people in attendance. This year it was 135. What’s going on? I don’t think that the quality of our liturgy, our music, or preaching has gone down. (please tell me if I’m wrong!) Our visibility in and service to the wider community remains high. The number of people coming to concerts and events remains strong, our fair was better than ever, our Thursday night dinners have come back, and we even have comfy pew cushions and a nicely paved parking lot! So what’s going on? You could blame weather (but it snows and is cold and icy every year). You could blame construction (yes, some still don’t seem to know our parking lot is open), sabbatical (some seem to think I’m still gone), sports on Sunday, and the ever increasing secularization of society. You could blame religious conservatives for giving people the wrong idea of what Christianity is about. You could blame religious liberals for giving people the idea that all paths are equal, that what they believe doesn’t really matter and that religious institutions are hopelessly irrelevant and out of date. You could blame church people for encouraging these stereotypes by confusing meetings with ministry, committees with community, and pledging money with a commitment to faith… and for being desperate for bodies but afraid to articulate what they actually believe. You could put all the blame on the leadership up front… or the people in the pews. None of this, however, would make any difference – if like that man in the synagogue in Capernaum, we let fear direct our actions, and loose our focus on the reason, the real reason, we are here.
The thing is, I believe in this place. I believe in you. And, more than that, I believe in a God who has brought us here together did so with a purpose. As I look over 2017, I see an incredible story: of people going through joys and sorrows, life and death, together; of fellowship and fairs and concerts and celebrations; of good-byes and hellos; of thank yous in a myriad of languages and smiles on a myriad of faces; of tears and moments of comfort and solace; of soaring vision, grand celebrations and simple acts of kindness and love. On my sabbatical, I had a chance to travel and learned again how unique and special this cathedral that is also a church is, how different our experience of mission and ministry is from most other congregations in Maine, and how – whether it is in our work with the poor, our striving for justice, our offering of music, our gathering in prayer, our perspective on issues, our our message of hope and way of exploring and living our faith – St. Luke’s and St. Lukans are needed more than ever. I know there is competition out there. The Episcopal Church – and this Episcopal Church – have a way of worship and life, of ancient practices with modern thought, and communion and community that Eastpoint can’t match and the most abundant of Sunday brunches cannot fill… and we are doing it. As we go into the annual meeting today, I want to say thank you. Thank you to our wardens George Cooper and Sam Allen and the members of the vestry. Thank you to the Rev. Suzanne Roberts, Dick Rasner, Alice Goshorn, and other clergy such as Anne Fowler and Dan Rigall who have helped out so much. Thank you to our staff – to Lynne England, Albert Melton, Becky Tatro, Jon Radtke, Marc Hildreth, Joan Carney, Donna Ciriello and John Hughes. Thank you to our vergers and the many many volunteers who help in so many ways. Thank you all for a time of Sabbatical and to Sam Henderson for his coverage and help all year long. Thank you especially to Shari, my wife, for all her love and support all year long. Thanks be to God for this most amazing people and this most amazing place.
As we continue our way through our 150th year celebration, we give thanks to God for an incredible past and an even more wonderful future. We know that to live into that future, we need to grow, not just to survive but to fulfill the mission God has given us. While growth in numbers is important, however, it, if is to mean anything, needs to be a byproduct of spiritual growth. This was an underlying theme in our strategic plan and in our capital and stewardship campaigns. One of the proven ways to do that is by growing staff. I am thrilled that the Rev. Rebecca Grant has joined our staff as a deacon and that our 2018 budget retains the Rev. Suzanne Roberts, while adding a ½ time Canon Pastor starting in July. In this time when we need to get our message out more than ever, I am equally pleased that our budget continues a communications position. I am excited about the new collaborative youth group and am pleased that while the new canon pastor will absorb the duties of our Christian Education Director, our budget retain a lead teacher who will work with our Christian Ed Committee to rebuild our Sunday school program and be more welcoming to families. None of this will happen, however, without your help. It will take a commitment from all of us to keep it going and growing. The best advertising in the world is not as good as a personal invitation. The best program in the world isn’t as good as personal growth. If each of us brought one new friend – or one new family – to church and kept them coming, we could double our congregation and solve our financial problems in a day. If each of us worked on our spiritual lives, doing those things wouldn’t be such a difficult challenge. More than that, we would fill our mission by sharing the God and community of God we love with others. In the end, it isn’t about numbers or programs but about people – about relationships and about love. If we can share that – if we can live that – 2018 will be the best year yet.