It's not a small secret that there is one common thread that runs through every Parish Profile, every church mission and vision statement, every articulation of who a church wants to be.
We want to be a place that welcomes and encourages young families to be a part of us.
However, it's clearly one thing to want to welcome young families and another thing entirely to take steps to change who you are so that young families are enabled to be a part of you.
At St. John's over the past couple years, the recommendations from our "Future Families Task Force" have been put into place, trying to lay the groundwork for a stronger and more vibrant ministry with children and youth. We now have a top-notch Godly Play program for kids and Journey to Adulthood program for teens. We have a single staff person, Reyna Masko, coordinating the volunteers who work in those ministries.
And for parents with small children, we have changed as well. In addition to the soft space at the back of the church, we have installed video equipment so that parents in the nursery with smaller children can still see and hear what is happening in the service upstairs. We invite the kids forward every Sunday to kneel at the altar rail and be up close to the Great Thanksgiving.
But there is one thing our parents with smaller children have asked about several times… volunteers in the nursery. While they love having the ability to watch the liturgy downstairs when they need to, for some smaller children the parents would, in effect, need to be downstairs almost every week.
So they are asking you to help.
We are trying to create a rotation of volunteers who will serve from 9:30am-11:30am downstairs in the nursery. With the video equipment, you will absolutely still hear and see what is happening in the liturgy. You will also give the gift of letting a parent with small children have a respite, some time to worship without keeping an eye out for a squirmy toddler. Eight volunteers would make this a weekly rotation. Twelve volunteers would mean you would only serve every month and a half or so. You get the picture.
If you would be interested in serving, please click here to let the parish office know. If you have a teenager who would like to help, and they are over 16, they can function as the second adult. If they are under 16, then we will still need two adults, but your teenager will be most welcome to be an extra hand.
We have young families at St. John's. In fact, we have an increasing number of them. They love being a part of you… and would like your help so they can be even more engaged.
Let's all demonstrate to them just how much we, as a congregation, value them and their children.
Yesterday was a powerful beginning to the season. We expanded "Ashes to Go," adding a second location at the south end of town. We surpassed previous year's records, imposing ashes and handing out information about Lent and Holy Week at SJE to dozens of people. Over and over again, people told us how grateful they were for this opportunity, this invitation into the Lenten Season that met them right where they are.
The Ash Wednesday liturgies were well-attended too. At the noon liturgy, we enrolled three people into their Final Preparation for Confirmation, Reception, or the Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows. They joined me in the imposition of ashes. At the evening liturgy, Father John wound up unable to serve when Joanne fell and broke her wrist, requiring surgery. He had been planning on celebrating that bilingual Eucharist, but we all told him to stay with Joanne as she is cared for and I celebrated the bilingual liturgy in his stead.
And this Sunday, the First Sunday in Lent, we will have our Lenten Mustard Seed Sunday. The children will be placed at the center of our worship, joining me in the Gospel Procession, sitting at the chancel steps with me for the homily, and standing with the other ministers at the altar for the Great Thanksgiving of Holy Communion. Be sure to bring your kids for what is always a special Sunday, as they help teach us about what repentance means.
Also, according to church tradition, we will begin this Sunday's liturgy at all three services with the Great Litany. This is one of the oldest pieces of distinctively Anglican worship, the first piece of worship translated in the English Reformation—far before the prayer book itself. I trust you will find it a grounded beginning to this season of prayer.
As you walk these Great Forty Days, I hope you find yourself brought closer to God. Take some time to review the Lent & Holy Week Bookmark (available online here and also at the Parish Information Table). Find a way to plug in to something that can support you in this journey of penitence, fasting, and prayer.
The wilderness journey may be hard at times, but we know from Scripture that it is here, in the wilderness, that we most often encounter our God.
It's hard to believe, but I only have twelve more Sundays with you before our Mutual Renewal Leave begins. (If you didn't yet get a copy of the Renewal Leave FAQ document, you can download one online here).
I know I am ready for a break, ready to step back and return to the sources that nourish me for my own life and ministry as a husband, daddy, and priest. I'm grateful for the space you and the Vestry have created for this… and I'm already looking to the future with renewed excitement.
Last week, I spent Monday through Thursday in San Antonio, Texas, at the Genesis Gathering. This is the annual gathering of all the ministries in The Episcopal Church who have received funding for church plants or mission enterprise zones.
Though it is always hard to be away from my family for that length of time, I can readily say that this was one of the best conferences I have yet been to with this group. Not only were each of the presenters excellent, but as us—as church planters and mission developers—continue to grow in relationship with each other, there is a tremendous harvest of support and insight.
I was particularly struck by one church planter who has spent a significant amount of time knocking on doors in the neighborhood where she plants churches. She said, "People think Episcopalians can’t knock on doors. The first time we went out, everyone was so anxious about talking about God. But they came back and everyone had stories to share about the people they met. It is about that, it is about being ready to honor the people you meet."
This has certainly been my experience when I have been out in the community. Whether it is leading Theology on Tap, going to community events, or teaching whiskey school, it is a tremendous gift to meet people who, for whatever reason, don't currently attend church. There is a beauty in their story, often a painful one, but one that is worthy of honor. One that needs to be listened to.
Our first Vestry meeting ended with a new member on the Vestry asking us about how we have done evangelism… and how we might do it better. He talked about how much he loves this community, how many broad and diverse offerings we are, how we have created a space here where so many different people can feel at home… people who don't always feel at home elsewhere. How can we better invite people into this space?
It's a good question, likely one the Vestry will spend a good part of this year chewing on. We've come along ways, with the creation of a Digital Evangelism Team, with the training of parishioners in the Diocesan Church Development Institute, and even with the Vestry now beginning each meeting with a moment of witness, a practice exercising in sharing our faith with each other.
But there is more work to be done. Because there are still a lot of people out there, people yearning for a church home, people looking for a place where people are united across the divides of race, economics, culture, and politics—choosing to find their unity in Christ, while still celebrating the rich diversity of the other.
And I look forward, when I come back from Renewal Leave in September, to having some more conversations with you. I look forward to learning what you have discovered about yourselves as individuals and as a congregation.
I look forward to discerning alongside of you where God is calling us in the years to come, that more people may be invited into this community of faith.
An annual congregational meeting can sound like a tedious exercise.
Indeed, the arduous work of resolutions and reports, of debate and amendments to the amendment of the amendment can be tiring. However, it doesn't have to be that way. It all depends on how you come to the meeting.
One of the strengths of the Episcopal Church, in my opinion, is that we seek at all levels to have a balance of authority between clergy and laity. Our very system is set-up with the understanding that neither the priest nor the people can get very far in ministry without working together.
That happens on a regular basis as I work alongside the Vestry. Though we have distinct responsibilities and authorities (theirs primarily temporal and mine spiritual), in practice things are never truly that distinct. Instead, we work together, offering advice and seeking to come to consensus decisions whenever possible.
And the Vestry is the one lay committee in the parish that is ultimately accountable to you, the Parish Members. You decide who sits upon the Vestry, with a third of its membership changing each year. You also guide both the Vestry and me, whether through our current Mission, Vision, and Five-Year Plan (now in its final year!), or through resolutions, bylaws, or other insight you bring to any congregational gathering.
As I approach the eight-year anniversary of my tenure as your rector, and the Mutual Renewal Leave that will commence in May, I feel profoundly grateful for the shared governance that is exercised at St. John's. Though many clergy approach times of sabbatical with a bit of trepidation, having trouble letting go and trusting the plates will keep spinning, I don't have any of that anxiety.
Over the past several years, this congregation has weathered conflict and disagreement and come out the other side healthier, stronger, and with better resources for living together in community. People not only readily speak up—more and more we have cultivated the even more important skill of listening to the other. We may not always agree (what group does?), but we work hard to ensure there is always space for people to speak up.
And then we get on with the mission God has entrusted to us.
I look forward to being with you this Sunday. I look forward to Father John celebrating his first bilingual Eucharist at 10:00am. I look forward to the careful consideration you will give to all the items on the agenda for this year's meeting.
And I very much look forward to continuing to work alongside you, as together we seek to build up the kingdom of God here at St. John's Episcopal Church.
The conversations around gun violence and what appropriate responses Christians could take to be peace-makers in this world seem to have grown in passion and importance.
Here at St. John's, we had a conversation surrounding the various aspects of this issue during Advent. One fruit of that conversation was the forming of a chapter of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship (you can click here to have the office sign you up as someone interested in this work).
However, we also talked about the importance of continuing these conversations in the variety of venues afforded us as a community of faith. To that end, there will be another opportunity for listening, learning, and talking together on Tuesday, February 6. We will be teaming up with the West Michigan chapter of "Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America" to host a screening and discussion of the award-winning documentary: "The Armor of Light."
A special selection at the Tribeca film festival, and an Emmy Award winner in the category of Outstanding Social Issue Documentary, the film follows an Evangelical minister and the mother of a teenage shooting victim who ask, is it possible to be both pro-gun and pro-life?
I am often the odd person out in these conversations. I was raised in an NRA household, am a gun-owner myself who enjoys shooting for sport and for hunting. At the same time, I have found myself concerned about our country's seeming inability to do anything concrete to lower the incidence of gun violence. I am hopeful that this film, and the discussion that follows, will create a place for conversation that brings people together and charts a new path.
We will open this event to the local community, with our members hosting a time of fellowship and conversation with snacks at 6:30pm. The movie will start at 7:00pm and will include a brief break for pizza. Please bring $5 if you want to share in the pizza. The discussion after the film will then be hosted by guest presenters from the West Michigan chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. You can click here to let Cindi know if you are coming (and if you can bring a snack, drink (or both!) to share) and she will sign you up. You can also click here for the event on Facebook so you can share and invite your friends.
I hope you will join us for this conversation. It's an important one to continue.
The audio version of today’s sermon is online here:
The full text of the sermon is below as well.
A reading from the First Book of Samuel (3:1–20)
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” [Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”
Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I don’t know if you are familiar with Samuel, before hearing the first lesson for today, this strange story of a boy sleeping at church and hearing the voice of God speak to him. If you read the rest of the book that bears his name, you would know that he becomes the great prophet leader of Israel, the last of the judges we heard so much about at the end of last summer and fall. You’ll discover that God leads him to anoint Saul as the first king over Israel. You’d notice that when Saul’s pride and sin got the best of him, it would be Samuel who came and spoke words of judgment, who took the kingdom from him and anointed David as the new king over Israel.
But before then, before Samuel became a great prophet, before he even slept in the temple with God whispering to him, Samuel was a longing in the heart of his mother, Hannah. For years and years Hannah longed for a child. She went to the temple at Shiloh—the location of the key shrine to Yahweh at that time, and she prayed for God to give her a son. The priest, Eli, was old at this time. His vision wasn’t very good. And, as we read the rest of this story, we’ll learn that his leadership was far from strong. So when he sees Hannah pouring out her heart to God, he assumes that the emotional woman with the fevered whispered words must be drunk. He tells her to go away. Hannah says to Eli that she is not drunk, she was pouring out her soul before the Lord. Eli answered that the Lord would grant her the request.
And, then, nine months later, Samuel was born. When she had prayed for him, she had sworn that if God would give her a son, she would set him before Yahweh as a Nazirite, that is, someone who is entirely devoted to God, who does not drink alcohol nor even cut his hair. Think of the long-haired strong man Samson, if you know his story. He also was a nazirite. Samuel was born, this child she longed for, and Hannah brought him to Shiloh. She gave him back to this foolish priest to be raised in the temple, so he could be close to God.
But things were not much better in the temple while Samuel was growing up there. He was serving under Eli, learning the priestly duties and all, but we are told at the beginning of today’s readings that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Part of that might be because, in the words of this book, “the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests.” When someone was offering a sacrifice, the servants of Eli’s sons would come in and take the best of the meat. Sometime, even before the sacrifice was offered, they would come and take the raw meat for themselves so they could cook it exactly how they wanted. Once more, in the words of this book, “they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.”
Eli’s sons would even sleep with the women who were serving at the temple at Shiloh, a gross and evil misuse of the power of their position as religious leaders for sexual ends… a using of people that defamed the very temple they served. Just as much as in the epistle reading today, that when you use a woman who is in a state of sexual slavery as a prostitute (as is so often the case), there is a cost to the temple you are, the dwelling of God today.
Eli’s sons were not good people.
Eli tried. He tried to get his sons to stop. He told them what they did was evil. But they did not stop. And Eli, for his part, did not ever remove them as priests. He allowed the sin to continue, even if he disapproved of it… he remained silent. This was before the brave and courageous days of #MeToo.
And so a prophet arose, a man of God who came to Eli, who said that Eli’s family would fall from power, that his sons would both die on the same day as a sign that it was God doing this, and that God would raise up a faithful priest in the place of Eli and his family.
And it is after that prophecy of judgment that our own reading for today begins.
So you probably have a sense of why it is that the word of the Lord was rare in those days, why visions were not widespread… because so much of institutional and religious power had become so very corrupt, so very sinful. Eli is so old that he has grown blind—but that is really a physical manifestation of his spiritual blindness, of his willful love for his own sinful sons over the work of God, over the people who came to God and were missed by those sons.
But just because the word of God is rare does not mean that God is not speaking. Remember this, beloved children of God, remember this. Just because you have not hear God speaking for a long time, this does not mean that God is not speaking. It just might mean he’s not currently speaking to you.
I have to wonder, from time to time, with all the hand-wringing that goes on in the church, I have to wonder where God’s voice is today.
We see articles and essays on a regular basis noting the declining levels of participation in institutional religion across the board, the rise of those who may believe in God but don’t find church terribly important or helpful. Even congregations like ours, which have seen so many wonderful things, which has seen a growth in giving over the past eight years, have still seen a persistent decline in weekly Sunday attendance.
If you think about it, if a decade ago people attended church every other week, and now they attend about once a month, those people are still members, but your average Sunday attendance has just been cut in half. When people go from weekly to monthly, it gets cut by 75%. There are metrics and numbers all around, and people worry and worry about whether or not the church as we know it will survive the next generation.
My own guess on that score, by the way? It will not.
The church as we know it will not survive.
Because for far too long the church as we know it, Christianity in Western European civilization has been wedded to power and control, to being important, to being the place people should go to if they want to be respectable. The church has loved that power it has wielded over people. Just listen to an Episcopalian talk about how many presidents, how many Supreme Court justices, have been members of the Episcopal Church and you get a sense of just how attracted our own tradition has been to its self-importance, to its supposed power.
Don’t get me wrong, our church has done some wonderful things over the years. Some members of our church did a pretty great job in the civil rights movement. One of our seminarians, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, became a martyr for civil rights. But let’s be clear, as Episcopalians we were largely playing catch-up to other (black, often) denominations. And let’s be clear that there were plenty of white Episcopalians who weren’t opposed to civil rights, but thought the whole thing should move a bit more slowly, that you shouldn’t upset people.
Sure, we ordained women in the late seventies, but still today, women clergy are still paid far less then male clergy and are less likely to be considered for jobs as rectors of large churches or diocesan bishops.
And, true, we are a church that has made a stance of inclusion toward LGBTQ Christians, but we did that was through the method of power—by ordaining a bishop—not by changing our marriage rites, not be ensuring every LGBTQ Christian held a prayer book which said their relationship was just as valid as a straight marriage. We didn’t do it that way.
And we do talk quite a talk about inclusion and welcome in the Episcopal Church, but as one of my best friends, a chair of a department of philosophy, priest, a canon at a cathedral, a partnered gay man and Republican likes to say, “It’s easier to be a gay man in a room full of Republicans than it is to be a Republican in a room full of Episcopalians.”
We like to insist in the Episcopal Church that we are prophetic, but often we are just liberal people talking to other liberal people who think the same way. And let me be clear—as a liberal Democrat—preaching liberal politics does not make us prophetic. Far too often it is just pandering to what people want to hear. Being prophetic is speaking the word of God in a way that upends the world and people’s lives.
It seems, at times, that though opinions may abound, the Word of the Lord is very rare. Visions are not widespread.
But that doesn’t mean that God is not speaking. It just means that perhaps God is speaking to other people than you and me. We recline in our comfortable churches and small children run in, and tell us that they heard something. Oh that’s cute, we say, and tell them to go back and play. Like Eli, we tell them to go back to sleep.
The house of Eli in this text, make no mistake, the house of Eli will fall. It will fall because God needs a priestly people who will invite God’s children into deep relationship with their creator and each other. And parts of the Episcopal Church may fail… because God needs a priestly people who will invite God’s children into deep relationship with their creator and each other…. and he needs that just as much today as he did in Samuel’s time.
Though it had been a long time since Eli had hear God speak, did you notice that Eli was the one who recognized what was happening to Samuel? And when he did, Eli didn’t rush into the temple to hear the voice of God for himself. Instead, he told Samuel what to do so you can hear God speak to you—even though it had been a very long time since he’d heard that voice, since he’d been open to that voice.
And when Samuel tells Eli what he heard, that God was going to punish Eli’s house, Eli didn’t get angry. He didn’t demand his place be kept secure. He didn’t insist that his parents built and served in this temple, he’d been here a very long time and so he could have his way. No, he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
I do believe God is speaking to Christianity in America. I do believe God is speaking to the Episcopal Church. God is speaking here at St. John’s. It just may be that God is not speaking to the people you and I usually listen to.
But if we can let go of our need for control, if we can let go of our love for having things our own way… if we can let go of our addiction to being told we are right about our self-righteous indignation that we feel at the last bit of foolishness on the news… if we can let go of all of this, and instead come here, to the house of the Lord and be still and listen… If we can listen… God’s voice will invite us to be something new. God’s voice will invite us to be what the world needs today.
God’s voice will invite you to be what the world needs today.
And sometimes, if we listen, it won’t be God who speaks to us, but it will be the person we least expect who says something that nudges right into our heart. It will be the person we least expect who walks up to us in the church and says, “You know what, I’ve been wondering about something.” It could be a child, it could be one of the teenagers making promises before us today in just a few moments, it could be someone who exists across the political aisle, it could be the person at church who drives us bonkers, it could be someone who comes into our church because they are hungry and then speaks a word of God to us if we will listen… it could even be someone who doesn’t speak English, but who senses a calling and will share that calling with us, if we will listen.
No matter who the person is through whom God is speaking to us, through whom God is speaking to you, it is our job, our responsibility when this happens, to be willing to say—no matter the message God brings, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Amen.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
After a lot of work, preparation and training, this Sunday will feature a big moment in the lives of our teenagers.
Children & Youth Coordinator Reyna Masko, along with our J2A Leaders and Second Adults, will formally begin our Journey to Adulthood program with the youth group. That will impact our 10:00am liturgy because it means at that liturgy our teenagers will have a Litany of Dedication and their parents will have a Litany of Offering & Sacrifice. The questions and answers, along with the prayers offered for each group are significant and moving. I hope you will be able to be with us on Sunday to stand up and pray alongside our teenagers.
But that's not all that's happening!
This Sunday is also our Winter Newcomers' & Visitors' Brunch. We'll gather for that brunch at 11:30am in the Parish Hall. Around 30 people are signed up for the brunch—newcomers, visitors, and members who want to be a welcoming presence. With such a large crowd, we could still some help with an extra breakfast casserole, fruit platter, or pastry offering. If you'd like to help, please click here to e-mail Cindi Sanders so she can know. And if you are a newcomer or a visitor and haven't yet signed up, please join us anyway! We'll be sure there is enough for everyone!
Last, but not least, this Sunday is also seeing the beginning of a new change for the St. Cecilia Choir. Our Director of Music, Nick Palmer, knows that not everyone is able to make a Wednesday evening rehearsal who might want to participate in the choir. So, in addition to the Wednesday rehearsals he will now be offering a Sunday rehearsal at 11:30am in the new downstairs choir room. Choir members can then decide whether to attend the Sunday or Wednesday rehearsal—or to attend both, if they are able! If you have questions about the choir, or are interested in joining, you can e-mail Nick online here.