1 Peter 2.1-5,
+ Seven years ago tomorrow—September 14, 2008—I sat down with the congregation of St. Stephen’s to be interviewed to be their new Priest-in-Charge. On that Sunday, for that congregational meeting, we had 25 people in church, which was just above the Average Sunday Attendance of 24. Our church membership on that Sunday in 2008 was 55 members. We actually have well over the total membership number then this morning here in church.
At that meeting, I sat down to answer questions about what I would do as Priest-in-Charge of St. Stephen’s. I remember one of the questions I was asked was: “Do you call before you make a visit or do you just show up?”
I said, “I always call and make an appointment first.”
Which seemed to be the right answer.
At the end of the meeting, I then asked the congregation a question. I asked, “If you agree to have me, what do you want as a congregation? What are your goals?”
There was some very serious thought before someone offered, “We want to grow.” And someone else added, “We want families.” And someone else, “And children.”
And I said, “We all can do those things together.”
Well, here we are, almost exactly seven years later. Today is of course Dedication Sunday—this Sunday in which we celebrate and remind ourselves who we are and where we’ve been. It’s also a kind of a State of the Union today. It important to look at where we are right now, at this time.
So, where are we, on this Dedication Sunday in 2015? Well, in comparison to where we were seven years, we look at the numbers: Our membership, as of today, with our 19 new members, two earlier new members and a few people that have
(we were 153 last year)
And that was even with the loss of four long-time members this year to death, as well as a few people who have been added to the inactive list. Those we lost to death this year were:
and Georgia Patneaude
Those deaths were hard on all of us. Coming as they did in rapid succession—we lost both Sharon and Pat in one day—there was a moment of maybe slight despair. The fact is, we are going to lose parishioners to death, or to inactivity, or they will move away, or whatever. But that is what being a congregation means. Of course, numbers are numbers. We can delight and rejoice in those numbers. We can proudly hold those numbers and gauge where we are with those numbers.
But ultimately numbers and numbers. Numbers change. Numbers are faceless and person-less ultimately. What matters here is much more than numbers.
What matters here is what we do and how we do it and why we do it. What matters here is what are we doing to make this world better, to making the Kingdom of God more and more of a reality in this world. It’s important for us on this Dedication Sunday to be reminded of those things that make us a bit different than other congregations. I don’t mean that in a smug, self-congratulatory way. Celebrating our growth and all the things God has granted to us does not allow us to be arrogant or full of ourselves. It is a time to be humble and to humbly thank God for these many, wonderful things. And it is important to examine ourselves in a humble way, a way in which we all find ourselves grateful to God and to each other for bringing us here, to this place, in this time and in this wonderful, holy moment.
As followers of Jesus, we have found something in this congregation that we haven’t necessarily found elsewhere—at least in this particular way. For us, who call ourselves members of St. Stephen’s, we know that something unique and wonderful is happening here and has been happening for some time—fifty-nine years, in fact. And all we can do in the face of that happening is give thank God and to continue to do what we are called to do as followers of Jesus. And we do those things well.
For example, our radical hospitality to those who come to us. Our amazing sense of welcoming all people as beloved and accepted children of God within this congregation—no matter who they are or what they are. Our commitment to service beyond these walls. Our commitment to the sacraments and to the Word. Our strong sense that our collective lives as followers of Jesus are centered on the celebration each week of the Holy Eucharist and the hearing of the Word of God in scripture.
These are all things that make us who we are as a congregation here at St. Stephen’s. And they are things that, together, are, sadly, rare in many churches. This is why people are finding us. This is why people are seeking us out.
The Holy Spirit dwells here. I have heard so many people who come in those doors say to me, “Yes, we feel it! We feel that Spirit dwelling here.” That Spirit is here, permeating these pews, these walls, but most of all, permeating us. That Spirit is here dwelling within us.
As we all know—as we all strive and continue to work to make the Kingdom of God a reality in our midst—it is not easy to do anything we have done together as a congregation. It has not been easy to get to this point in our collective lives here at St. Stephen’s. There have been set-backs. There have been trip-ups. There have been frustrations. But, that’s all part of the journey.
We, as followers of Jesus and more specifically, as members of St. Stephen’s, are called here to be, in the words of St. Peter from our epistle this morning, “living stones.” We are called to be living stones—living stones that can be built into a true spiritual home, a royal priesthood of not just believers but do-ers. We are called here at St. Stephen’s to proclaim all that God has done for us here and in our lives. We, as living stones, are called to be building up a new church. We are, by our very existence, showing that something is about to change. The Church—capital C—the larger Church—is changing.
That Church that was a close-minded ivory tower of repressive views regarding such issues as misogyny and homophobia and special privilege, is dying rapidly. And we all know it. We are all sensing it. God is letting us know that a Church built on anything other than love and acceptance is not the Church of Christ.
Essentially that dying Church turned away from the Gospel of Jesus. That Church turned away from Jesus, who commanded his followers to love and love radically and to accept and accept radically.
We are the prophets to the larger Church. We are the ones who are saying, THIS is the future of the Church. We are the living stones building up that new Church.
Royce today in baptism is being commissioned and called to be a living stone in the Church. All of us, by our baptisms, were and are commissioned to do the same thing. We are called to be the Church—a Church in which love and acceptance prevail. This is the Church in which Jesus’ message of love and acceptance is held up and lived out. This is the Church that is striving pave the way for that Kingdom of God in which radical love and full-acceptance reigns, to break through into our midst
It is not easy to do. It is daunting. And it is frightening at times.
But those words of St. Peter are ringing in our ears. You are God’s people. You are receiving mercy. And we are turn are sharing that mercy with others.
So, let us be those living stones building up a new and powerful church. Let us, on this Dedication Sunday, do what we have been doing for 59 years. Let us embody that Jesus whom we follow. Let us continue to spread that Gospel of all-encompassing, all-embracing love and acceptance in all we do here.
The future for us is bright. It is unlimited. But we have to make it a reality. We have to strive forward. We have to labor on. We have to break down those barriers of hatred, and fear and isolation and marginalization so that Christ’s Kingdom can bloom in our midst.
We see it happening, here at St. Stephen’s. We see what the future of St. Stephen’s and the larger Church really is. We see it when we live into that calling of Jesus.
So, let us be living, breathing, strong stones. That is the future. And, let me tell you, it is glorious.
Now, as we celebrate and move forward into that future, I’d like to invite Royce and his family to come forward…