Three years ago I stood in this pulpit. It was my first annual meeting Sunday, the first combined sermon and annual address I had given as rector. Three years ago the lessons were the same. Luke’s Gospel features Jesus’ hometown congregation trying to throw him off the town hill because they didn’t like what he had to say. I’m less nervous now than I was then. We know one another well enough. I’ve been preaching for three years here and you haven’t tossed me yet. I also know the topography of our region much better. I know it’s a long drive to a good cliff.
In the address I gave three years ago I used a particular word to describe this congregation, a word that came up again and again in our conversations that first year together. The word was: potential.
Again and again that word came up. This was a congregation with serious potential. We had some great members. We had some real resources. We were well positioned on Delmar. All the bones were there for some good growth, for some real action. Holy Communion had potential.
Some have called “potential” a dirty word, because potential is unrealized good. Potential is dangerous because potential can be squandered. I am proud to say we have not wasted potential here at Holy Communion. We have grown, in membership, in leadership, in outreach. When I first met with Bishop Smith to talk about Holy Communion he said to me: “Holy Communion’s biggest challenge is growing its footprint. Holy Communion needs to have a bigger impact on its neighborhood.” I am proud to report, through the hard work of many volunteers, with the leadership of your vestry and with my fellow clergy members and staff, we have lived into some of that God-given potential. We have grown our footprint.
Our laundry love ministry is now over a year and half old. This year we helped our neighbors with over 800 loads of laundry. We continued our many years of service with our partners at the Trinity Food ministry, and served thousands of lunches. Hundreds of folks have joined us for Theology on Tap, for an unlikely conversation about faith, politics, and life at the Dressel’s public house. Our Christmas and Easter services and our Sunday attendance both grew exponentially. We also more than doubled attendance at the interfaith service at LGBTQ+ Pride in St. Louis last June, and we re-organized the Episcopal Church’s presence in the parade, with dozens of folks walking together to proclaim God’s love to all.
We co-hosted a larger than anticipated conversation about immigration and human rights in Central America with our partners from Cristosal at Washington University. Just two weeks ago eleven Holy Communion-ites attended an anti-racism training and there are plans to launch our own dismantling racism group in the parish. In just a few moments a dozen folks will officially join the Episcopal Church as they are confirmed or received by our bishop. Everything I just mentioned only scratches the surface. Our parish is in the business of realizing God-given potential.
Before I get too big-headed, too enthusiastic, our scripture comes with a question: Now what?
In the Gospel the people of Nazareth at first applaud Jesus for his well-spoken words. “Isn’t that Joseph’s boy?” they ask. In those first verses of our Gospel story there is a sense of pride. This eloquent preacher, he came from us, they think. St. Louisans know a bit about this thinking. I’m always hearing about how the actor Jon Hamm or the hip hop artist Nelly have a St. Louis connection. Jesus has a Nazareth connection. Jesus’ hometown crowd are proud, but their pride comes with an assumption. They assume he’s coming home, that he’ll take his healing minsitry from the villages of Galilee and bring it back to Nazareth. There’s an assumption.
The crowd believe they know Jesus, think they have his number. They make easy assumptions about what will happen next, and they are frustrated, angered, when Jesus does not go with their plan. They drive him out of town.
Real ignorance comes not from a lack of knowledge, but from being at least partially wrong, and yet convinced we know the whole answer.
Zen teachers instill in Buddhists (you knew I couldn’t go to India for two weeks without coming back with head full of wisdom. Don’t worry I’m going to parse it out over several weeks). Zen teachers talk about the importance of maintaining a “beginner’s mind.” Never assume you know the full truth. Never assume you have the faith figured out, that you know the plan.
As Shakespeare said, “the fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
I am proud of Holy Communion, proud of the congregation we have been, proud of the work we have done together. But I also know we are not done. This last year we spent a great deal of time and energy discerning together. We convened conversations, we talked about our values of Welcome, Diversity, and Community. We listened to one another, and we asked God to be in the midst of our conversations.
Your vestry has charted a set of goals for this year and for the next five years. Some of those goals lead to the capital campaign which will have its public launch at the end of this month. Other goals have helped us to prioritize decisions about staffing, resources, and volunteer time.
There’s a temptation in a church like Holy Communion, a temptation to pat ourselves on the back for the work we have done. Today, we can give in to that temptation just a little bit. There is much to celebrate. But tomorrow we know that Jesus is already out ahead of us.
We are a sacramental tradition in the Episcopal Church. We are in the business of sacred sign-making. Any church, even a church like Holy Communion, is in a sense a parable. At our best we witness to something out beyond ourselves. At our best our story points to the wider story of God’s work in the world. The love that is shared within these walls is a sign of the love God has for the world. The ministry that goes on from this place points to the wider ministry of Christ in the world.
Like any sign, we are imperfect. Those of us who are biased may think of this place as perfectly imperfect, but we are imperfect.
I try and say this at the beginning of each of my pilgrimage classes, the classes we host every Fall and Spring for newcomers: “welcome to Holy Communion, we are going to disappoint you.” We are an imperfect church. I am an imperfect priest. This is a place full of imperfect people. The church will let you down. I will disappoint you. Know that going in to this relationship.
We are imperfect, and it is better that we know our imperfections. If we thought they didn’t exist, we would be fooling no one but ourselves. God knows, none of us get it right all of the time. And yet, even our imperfections, even our frailties can be gifts, if we can accept them as such. When we know we aren’t perfect, we know there is room for growth, room for failure, room to be human. When we know we are imperfect we make room for grace, room for God.
Three years ago I stood in this pulpit and dared to talk about potential. Today I will make the same dare. I am proud of the road we have walked together so far, and imperfect as we are, I am hopeful about the road ahead. This is still a congregation with a great deal of potential, God-given potential. God hopes we won’t squander the gift.
God invites us at this time, in this place to continue to serve as a parable, a sign of God’s Welcome, of God’s embrace of Diversity, a sign of the Beloved Community God envisions for this world. Jesus is already out there ahead of us, Holy Communion. He’s already passed through the crowd. We have the potential to keep following Christ’s way. Thank you for continuing to allow me the privilege of walking with you.