Monday, February 6, 2012

An Invitation to Praise, Understanding, and Action

Today’s gospel reading picks up where last week’s left off. You will recall last week we heard how Jesus taught with authority in the synagogue, to the amazement of all. This week we find him entering a home and learning that one of its residents is ill with a fever. Jesus takes the person by the hand, lifts her up, and she is made well. In fact, she is so healthy, she is able to resume her household chore of serving guests. Word spreads and by nightfall and the front yard of the little house is transformed into the town’s E.R.

The movement from synagogue worship and teaching to addressing real human need is one we do not want to overlook because they are vitally linked in the Church’s mission. Our call is threefold: praise, understanding, and action. We cannot major in one and minor in the other two if we want to live into the fullness God intends for our community of faith.

We might want to pause for a moment and ask some questions about how each in manifested in our midst.

Worship: Does our worship help people to connect with God at a deep level? Is attendance up or down? (A church’s worship life may be spiritual and uplifting, but if its congregation is dwindling it is in trouble). Who plans and leads worship; only a trained, paid professional or various members of the community who are representative of the age, gender, and background diversity of the membership?

Teaching: Thinking about formal programs, who leads and who learns? What is being taught? Who is participating? Thinking about informal settings, what is shared during the pastoral moments in life – births, baptisms, confirmation, marriage, illness, and death? What truths do our actions communicate? This is often very subtle and difficult to see, yet is much more significant than any curriculum. Do people in the congregation feel equipped to meet the challenges of an ever-changing world with God’s message of good news?

Addressing Human Need: Does the church take care of its own: emotionally, spiritually, and materially? Does it have a focus beyond itself? Here is a question that has been around for some time: if the St. Paul’s closed tomorrow, other than our members, who would miss us?

Praise, understanding, and action: we pursue God’s call as a church as we do these things and as we seek to do them better.

Did you know that the largest weekly gathering at St. Paul’s takes place on Friday evenings when A.A. meets here? The second largest gathering takes place at 10:30 on Sunday morning. In terms of numbers, the next largest gathering is Monday night when the Food Pantry is open. Then comes the 8:00 Sunday service. We can round this out in descending order with attendance at Sunday morning education programs, choir rehearsals, altar guild work, and finally two tellers coming together on Monday morning to count the offerings.

Here is some more data: Last year we raised money for the Hope for Haiti project by doing tasks for one another and every $10 earned paid for one brick to rebuild the cathedral in Port-a-Prince. Our approach was recognized nationally, and in the end – coming close to our goal of 300 bricks – we tallied 10% of all that was raised throughout our diocese. In addition, we continue to support The Boys Home and Jackson-Field Girls Home with Christmas gifts for its residents. The Food Pantry ministry is growing by leaps and bounds and its clients gratefully and enthusiastically received our October distribution of shoes, coats, sweaters, blankets, and books. Change the World – our new, low-key initiative – has raised over $500 for various causes.

More data: we continue to offer innovative, imaginative worship experiences at various times during the year. Last year’s Wednesday evening Lenten worship services were deeply moving. Our ribbon project on 9/11 is something we will long remember and proved to be the exact right way to reflect on that auspicious occasion. The Olde James River Jazz Band has become an All Saints’ Sunday fixture (and look for them to stake their claim on Pentecost starting this year!). The Cantata after the fourth Sunday in Advent inspired us all. And Al continues, in an ever so subtle and graceful way, to execute my order to teach us new hymns.

Last data: We continue to build on our unified vision for Christian Education; focusing all our ministries for children and young people around the Baptismal Covenant and the belief that every one us has a role to play in the process of Christian formation. An every-growing number of adults and young people are being prepared for Confirmation on June 3rd. The Women’s Study Group appeals to more and more of our members, while the Men’s Saturday Morning breakfast is in transition. We are blessed by the ministry of Juel Carr and Miko Taylor in the Nursery and are helping to fortify them for what, at least according to the prayer list, looks like a busy couple of years of extending hospitality and care to the youngest members of St. Paul’s.

Praise, understanding, and action; worship, teaching, addressing human need. This is who we are in Christ and this is what we do; following the example our Savior, Lord, and Guide has set. We are doing God’s work here and we are open to doing even more.

Let me point our one subtle feature in today’s reading. Did you pick up on how the people who were sick and needy “were being brought” to Jesus? That means these folks did not come on their own. Someone had to encourage them to see Jesus.

At our Vestry retreat a few weeks ago we spent the better part of Saturday morning discussing our current budget shortfall; looking at why it has happened and what we can do about it. The Vestry’s top priority to address this situation is to grow the parish. Simply put, we need more members if we are going to remain a healthy, dynamic faith community. There are a number of things we can do at a leadership level to make this happen. There is at least one thing you can do… you can invite friends, neighbors, and co-workers to come to a service or event.

Years ago, when I was a new and unseasoned rector in a church that desperately needed to grow, I announced from the pulpit that I had a foolproof plan to double the average Sunday attendance in just one year. I can still envision the faces in the pews today looking back at me with rapt attention and great anticipation. Here is my plan, I said, each person here needs to get one other person to come and worship with us. And with that I could almost hear the sound a video games makes when the game is over – whaaa, whaaa, whaaa, wha! That was not a plan they wanted to execute.

When word spread around Capernaum that Jesus had encountered a possessed man in the synagogue and cast out the demon, then restored health to a woman with a raging fever, everyone in the area who knew someone in need went to that person and said, “Let me take you to see Jesus.” I find that people in great need typically stay away from church and need a good deal of encouragement to come to a place like this to find solace, strength, and healing. You can be the person who says, “Why don’t you come to church with me this Sunday.”

Those who are ‘healthy’ often don’t sense their deeper need for meaning, direction, and purpose in life. We at St. Paul’s know how participation in the life of this parish feeds us with a spiritual nourishment we desperately need and the world can not provide. Would you be wiling to share this with someone you know who does not go to church? Would you be willing to invite them here?

St. Paul’s is a good parish. We are a place of praise, understanding, and action; of worship, teaching, and addressing human need. We are warm and welcoming, a place of uncommon grace and generosity, combining reverence with joy, giving with receiving, acceptance with the challenge to grow into the full stature of Christ. Who do you know that you would like to invite to be a part of this exceptional experience?