Sermon preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland – Annual Meeting Sunday
A week or so ago, I wrote an e-pistle cover letter called “Be Brilliant at the Basics,” which fits well with where we are and where we are going at this time of the Annual Meeting. Considering the basics, made me think of prayer. The Bible asks us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16-22). Praying without ceasing requires seeing prayer as much more than a “laundry list” of requests for God. Praying constantly is less a filibuster of constant chatter than a continual state of mindfulness and meditation and an awareness of God with every breath we take. Praying constantly doesn’t hide us under a rock. It leads to action that opens our doors. It provides a spiritual framework for what we do and who we are. On this morning of the Annual Meeting, I invite to you to explore this expansive understanding of prayer, using a simple tool I used to use to teach confirmation kids, using the fingers of our hands and the word “Acts” A, C, T, S.
Begin with your thumb, your strongest finger. Here the letter A stands for Adoration. Adoration is about worship, about recognizing a presence greater than ourselves. As we heard in Isaiah, Adoration is about the Angels around the throne of God, saying Holy Holy Holy. It is about smell of incense, the beauty of music, the awe-inspiring mystic and mysterious liminality of worship, the presence of God in word and sacrament, in silence and in song. It is also about the presence of God in small groups like Compline, Contemplative Prayer, World Too Beautiful and Noon Zoom, about finding God in times of quiet, in meditation, in nature, in the soul work at home, in the stitching of a kneeler or knitting or receiving of a prayer shawl. I have heard people say that the church should focus on its work with the poor, suggesting that we get rid of our buildings our resources to become a social service agency. Outreach, advocacy, and service to others have been our shining lights during Covid and are hallmarks of who we are as a people of God. I am so thankful and proud of these ministries. The comments, however, miss the point that service to others is not just a result of our worship; it is a continuation of it. We are not just fed so we can feed others. We are fed while we are feeding them. When we serve others, we are serving God in them, striving to see the face of God in them, sharing God’s love with them, and trying to give them an experience of God’s abundance and love for them. Worship and Service are not either/or, they are both/and, both part of adoration, the first part of prayer – and of living the Christian life.
The A of Acts is followed by C, which stands for Contrition of Confession. This is symbolized by the index finger, not pointed at others, but pointed at ourselves. This part of prayer includes an honest recognition of who we are, the mistakes we have made, and the amends we have done – or need to do – as a result. For me the two years of Covid have been the some of the most challenging, most soul wrenching, times of ministry in my entire career. More than once I have been brought to tears, to a place of utter exhaustion, to feelings of failure and frustration. I have been found myself discouraged by the divisiveness in our society, the selfishness of those who refuse to get vaccinated, the hurtfulness of those who rejoice in taking away the rights of others, and the denial of so many to be honest about our history and what is going on today. At the same time, I have also had to come to grips with a new awareness of white privilege, white fragility, and racism in myself. Another of the bright lights of this past year has been the huge number of St. Luke’s members are exploring these same things through groups, classes, book-studies, and other anti-racism work done with others and on their own. Though we have only begun, this process of Contrition, of Confession, of sharing stories and listening to one another, has helped us move this cathedral towards becoming a Beloved Community which reflects the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.
This leads to the third type of prayer, the T in Acts, represented by our tallest, our middle finger, which stands for Thanksgiving. As difficult as this time of Covid has been, it has also been a time of incredible blessings and good news. As we approach the annual meeting, we have so much for which to give thanks – physical plant improvements like the kitchen, the labyrinth, the choir room, the columbarium, the internet infrastructure; an amazingly generous stewardship response and a miraculous surplus of funds, enabling 2022 to be fully funded; incredible people such as Albert Melton who retired last week, parishioners such as Chuck Hormberger who blessed us to the very ends of their lives, and volunteers and vestry and staff and clergy and community partners friends – all who kept themselves and us going again and again and again. This year saw the beginning of a Beloved Community Committee, a Strategic Planning and Discernment Committee, a Kitchen Management Committee, the engagement of a new Communications firm, and more. We give thanks for a wonderful new influx of young adults, who not only rescued our Christmas Pageant but have formed their own group and brought their energy and enthusiasm to wide variety of areas of our congregational life. More even than that, we give thanks to a God who loves us, forgives us, and offers us hope – even and especially when we feel unlovable, unforgiveable, and hopeless, We give thanks that light continues to shine in the darkness and that though it may not feel like it yet, the new life of Spring and of Easter is not that far away. Prayers of Thanksgiving, an attitude of gratitude, transforms our fears to hope, reminds us, once again, of God’s presence and power with us. On this day of the annual meeting there are so many people to thank, so many who have answered God’s call to Isaiah and said “here I am send me.” Let me say thank you to our wardens and vestry, our clergy, staff and volunteers, and to all the members of the cathedral family who have done so very much. My heart overflows with love and gratitude for you. Let me also say thanks to my wife Shari for her love and support. I could not do this without you. My heart overflows with love and gratitude for you as well.
Thinking of Shari brings me to the fourth letter of the word ACTS. S is for Supplication. Prayers of Supplication – asking God for something – can be divided into two parts, intercession and petition. Intercession – think here of your ring finger – is prayer for others. More than just prayer, they, like marriage vows, are a call to put love in action – to truly love our neighbor as ourselves. Some people have complained that we say a territorial acknowledgement but aren’t doing anything. They miss the point that they are the church – that the territorial acknowledgement is there to help them reflect and encourage them to do something – to be reminded of the need to pray for others and put that prayer in action in real ways. The same is true for pastoral care and so many other areas of church life, where people want to do more… Intercession, that ring finger, reminds us of the responsibility we all share in doing these things.
The final part of supplication – the littlest finger – is petition or prayers for ourselves. This is giving God a wish list of things we want – what people normally think of then they hear the word “prayer.” Note, that this is a type of prayer Jesus rarely used. Instead he focused on God’s will for him instead. Making petition the last and least important reminds me of the words of Archbishop William Temple who said, “The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” What would this cathedral be like if we believed that, if we lived that and we put our own needs at the end, rather than the beginning of our list? We live in a culture and a city where people are hungry for the Good News described in this morning’s second reading. What if we focused our efforts not on those who are here but those who are not here yet, not on those inside our doors but those outside of them?
One of the foundational ideas in Anglicanism is “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi:” – the words of prayer reflect the words of belief – or praying shapes believing. Maybe if we prayed with ACTS – Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, and Supplication – the way we pray would not only shape our beliefs but also our lives. The numbers in the Annual Report are disturbing. No baptisms, only one marriage, many funerals, Sunday attendance about half what it was before Covid, almost no kids. Like the disciples, it’s hard to have been working hard all night long only to have nets that come up empty. Jesus saw the how tired the disciples were. He saw their fear, frustration, fatigue. He also saw their faith, their hope, and their desire to love their God, their neighbor and themselves. Jesus sees those same things in us. Filled with compassion, Jesus told the disciples to not to give up but instead to put down their nets one more time. They did, their nets filled to overflowing, and those fishermen were changed to fishers of men and women who built the church, became the body of Christ, and helped usher in the Kingdom of God. Be brilliant at the basics. If we live into ACTS of prayer and have the courage to put down out nets one more time, 2022 may be a year what happened to the disciples may happen to us.