Endings and New Beginning

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Two stories from scripture

Today we encounter two stories from scripture, two stories that are like bookends, opposite moments in the ministry of each leader. Moses, in Deuteronomy is contemplating the end. Jesus and his followers are on the other end of their story. This is the first time the disciples have seen Jesus work a crowd, have heard his public teaching. They are astonished.

The word in Greek includes a bit of fear. Jesus and his disciples are at the beginning of something new, something powerful, and they are a little bit afraid. There’s some shock. Today’s lessons both include some anxiety, anxiety that a ministry is coming to an end, and anxiety about the ministry that is just beginning.

I don’t know that I could have picked better lessons to accompany this year’s annual meeting. I didn’t pick them, a committee of ecumenical biblical scholars put them together. We preach the text we are given, and this week, I find myself identifying with both sides.

This has been a year with more than its fair share of anxiety, more than its fair share of frustration. There were moments this year when I got down, when I wondered whether the Church (not just Holy Communion, but at my worst moments the whole wide Church) was doomed. For the last several years we have been steadily tracking an increase in membership. I have made that growth a front and center measure of our health as a church.

This year, for our health, for the health of our most vulnerable community members, we had to keep people physically distant. Something ended. And there were times this year I was anxious and distressed, worried about the ending.

There were other endings this year as well. Jae, our organist left to go be music director at another parish. The Rev. Laurie Anzilotti was appointed vicar of another congregation. After nineteen years, Jerome retired as sexton. All of those moves were right, and natural, and good steps for each person. I am proud and happy for them all, but there were moments of grief this year.

I can’t review the year of 2020 without being honest. This was a hard year. I can understand why Moses needs to assure God’s people. Endings, and grief, are difficult. We know that this year.

New beginnings can be anxious too. Jesus today launches something new, he shocks his hearers. He teaches with authority, and it gives rise to nerves. This year we have also tasted something of that anxious newness.

We’ve seen that authentic connection can happen online. New people have joined our congregation, new ministries have been born. We are in the midst of a call process for an assistant rector. People are investing in hope.

This year has been one of record generosity. Holy Communion, you have stepped up, you’ve given to the emergency fund and we’ve been able to keep people in their apartments, keep their water and lights turned on. Frankly, we are also not quite ready to report on the Annual Giving because the campaign was so successful that we are still double checking results, and the vestry is prioritizing some of the generosity to ensure we have room to grow over the next few years.

At the beginning of the month your vestry, including the newly nominated members, got together on Zoom to talk about goals. We’ve been setting goals for a number of years now. These goals have echoes of the past, but there are some new themes. I want to walk you through them quickly.

We always align our goals to our values, named in our mission Statement. The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion is a diverse and welcoming community seeking to walk in the way of Jesus and to reveal Christ’s reconciling love in our city, nation, and world.

Welcome:

  • In 2021, we want to make sure every new person, and every person we haven’t seen in awhile, is invited to a one to one with a clergy member, vestry member, or ministry leader.
  • We will form an online “welcome team” to help us curate and share our content, and to follow up with folks who worship, study, pray, or engage with us. You’ll notice, a number of these goals center on further reinforcing our online presence. Even when we can gather together in person indoors again, we are not planning to walk away from the online space.
  • We know this is a crucial year for Grace Gathering, so we are also making extending invitations for our new worshipping community centering folks who are neuro-diverse, extending invitations will be a central goal for this year.
  • We will continue to prioritize online as an avenue for membership. We may even continue to produce a specifically online service, rather than just turning the cameras on for our “live” services.
  • Finally we are going to evaluate the Pilgrimage class, in order to adapt and grow our central program for welcoming seekers.

In Diversity:

A lot of language will continue to be shaped by our presiding bishop’s use of the phrase “Becoming Beloved Community”

  • We want to host an online antiracism training and invite the whole congregation. We may choose to build the training with the dismantling racism group of the diocese, or we may build ON that training, which many in our congregation have already completed.
  • We want to more fully develop what we’re calling the Holy Communion “language of love,” specific ways of naming diversity respecting the self-identity of marginalized groups We want to set that language up as a norm, and help one another be intentional about the language we use.
  • Again, we want to highlight Grace Gathering. Our service intentionally will center individuals and families that are marginalized for neurodiversity. Grace Gathering is a huge investment, and we want to make sure we are all aware of what it is and why we are spending so much energy here.
  • We anticipate in 2021 we will finally complete the Capital campaign work, with the installation of new stained glass featuring people of color. When that is done, we want to celebrate those windows, invite the artist and others in the community to reflect what it means to have Biblical windows featuring people of color and women in central roles.
  • We want to get back to LGBTQ+ Pride. Pride was essentially cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic. We want to intentionally return to Pride, perhaps also engaging in other pride celebrations like Tower Grove Pride and Black Pride
  • And we want to strengthen our connections and awareness around other religious traditions.

Community (Inside our Walls)

  • You may have noticed one goal underway, we are increasing our number of and emphasis on small groups, helping people find meaningful connection.
  • We anticipate planning a “welcome back” campaign, reconnecting with folks who have been distant with phone calls, visits, and other invitation.
  • And we plan to continue opportunities to engage, especially in small groups, formation, and worship online. Heidi Olliff, our intrepid Children’s Formation Coordinator reports that godly play numbers have been higher on Zoom than they were in person. Our worship attendance has almost doubled online, compared to in person. WE aren’t going to walk away. We are going to have to work with folks to figure out how to meaningfully continue this community.
  • There’s another set of community goals “inside are walls” that are actually JUST outside our walls, and you’ll notice they have to do with our environment. We want to build on the success of the Garden ministry, headed by some of our newest members Anne Pokokski and Jordan and Erin Houry. We want to expand their work, recruit more volunteers, and grow even more food.
  • We want to explore, intentionally, adding solar panels to our roof to shrink our carbon footprint.
  • We are also, thanks to our new sexton Zack, letting our flower beds go native, requiring less water and helping local pollinators.

Community Beyond our Walls

  • As we’ve engaged questions of housing, with our house on Gannon, we have discovered there is both a need an an appetite to work on issues in housing. We are going to identify three options to expand our work in housing.
  • Our Laundry Love ministry has a real sense that the need is bigger than we are currently serving, and that other congregations might like to join us so that eventually every Tuesday is Laundry Love night, with a different group responsible. We’re going to take the first steps toward that reality this year.
  • Finally, we are going to expand the work of Faithful Action, our loose knit group that sometimes protests, signs petitions, and the like. We are going to formalize the group, with leaders, host a community organizing training, and get started on a campaign to identify one “win” in the local community. It might be tiny, like refurbishing classroom at an elementary school, it might be bigger. It will be something we discern together with our neighbors and we work on with folks outside our walls for equity and justice.

It takes persistance:

Jesus’ followers are nervous because doing something new takes more energy than doing what we’ve always done. Learning curves take persistence. This year you’ve persisted, and we will keep persisting. We are at a frustrating moment in this pandemic. I talked about it at the beginning of Advent, and it seems we’ll be here for awhile. We can see glimpses of the future, but we know we aren’t there. Already, and not yet.

That space is hard, but it is also creative. After the meeting with your vestry, and nominees this January, I have been walking with more hope in my step. We won’t rush. We will wait to worship together indoors in person until the Medical Doctors and PhDs on the task force tell us it is safe. Our Director of Operations Cheyanne will make sure we are keeping everyone’s health at the forefront of our work.

Endings are hard, this year has shown us that. New beginnings are hard work, and there can be real anxiety. But Moses and Jesus also have one message for the people. God is with us, and God is already out ahead of us. Moses assures the people, they will not be without a prophet. Jesus has to quiet the spiritual forces, ready to name that this new thing happening is of God.

I can’t tell you exactly what the future will look like, but I can tell you. Holy Communion will be there, in person, online, over the phone. We will be there. We will continue to build welcoming diverse community. We will continue to seek to follow Jesus. It’s anxious work at times, but we will take those steps.

May God Bless this congregation as we seek to make Christ’s love known.

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