Once a year I climb into this pulpit to deliver a hybrid sermon and state of the church report. Sometimes, in order to do this, I pretty much ignore the scripture assigned for the day. That was tempting today.
But all this week, I kept thinking about the crowd as they carried Jesus to the edge of the cliff. I found myself grateful to be working in some relatively flat land. Now some of you might be thinking: Mike, there are some good cliffs up in Alton. It’s really not that far…Bear with me for a bit.
Julie, arguably, got the better part of this story from Luke last week. Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus says, today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. At first, the people are delighted. They turn to one another, and say, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” They are proud of this homegrown rabbi. They are impressed. They are raving about Jesus, Luke tells us. Then Jesus turns on them. Jesus says to them, “no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown.”
Reading between the lines, scholars tell us, we can begin to understand why Jesus would antagonize his own people. Jesus is pushing back on assumptions. Jesus is saying out loud what is often only whispered internally. Hearing Jesus preach, the people of Nazareth started saying to themselves, “with this kid in the pulpit, we might be able to rebuild the synagogue. If he does some healing, folks might come from miles around. Maybe I should invest in a vegetable stand just up the road. Maybe we should build ourselves a new inn to welcome the pilgrims…” Jesus tells them, “you are having an adventure in missing the point.”
At the risk of antagonizing you, I am going to confess something out loud. I have been your rector for almost seven years, and there is really one metric that I have been watching internally, in my heart of hearts. That metric, I confess, is Average Sunday Attendance.
I paid so much attention, I can quote from memory. For five years, our Average Sunday Attendance grew, pretty steadily from about 90 worshipers on Sunday to around 170. I was proud of that measurable growth. Last year, the Episcopal Church let the parishes count just the first three months, so the chart stayed pretty much level. But in 2021, the church-wide office said, “count the number of people who worshiped with you in person. Divide that number by the number of weekends you held in-person worship.” In 2021, indoors and outdoors, we averaged 75 worshippers in person.
When I figured that number out, it felt like a kick in the gut. I know it wouldn’t have been safe to have a big average Sunday attendance. I can rationalize my way through this disappointment. I can point to our online worship numbers, sort of. In all honesty, and we say this in print on our parish register report, I don’t think anyone really knows what the numbers for online worship mean.
I am not sure when, or if, we will ever measure 170 on an average Sunday in person again. And today, if there is one take home it is this. I don’t think Jesus cares about how we count Sunday attendance. I don’t think Jesus cares about the metric in which I put so much stock.
Maybe for you there’s a different number, a statistic you are watching in your work or life. Maybe there is some marker, you think will show you, “we’re back.” I’d invite you to ask, would Jesus care about your figure?
How does Jesus count?
Let’s turn to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Maybe you heard this reading and double checked the bulletin to make sure you weren’t at a wedding. That’s where we most often have heard the passage. But before we get to “Love is patient. Love is kind,” Paul is also talking about metrics.
If I can speak with the voice of an angel, but I don’t have love, I am a clanging cymbal. If I have all knowledge, if I have faith that can move mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing. If I give everything away, if I give even my own life, but I don’t do it out of love, there is no benefit. Paul says, measure all you want. Measure everything. You could be the best preacher, the best teacher, the most generous benefactor, but if you are not rooted in love, forget it.
Measure in Love
In the summer of 1996 I purchased my first copy of the soundtrack of the musical Rent. I say my first copy, because I wore out at least two copies of the CDs by the time I got to college. Listen, I was a queer kid growing up in the suburbs of Denver, and Rent was the first piece of art I ever encountered that had multiple storylines featuring LGBTQ+ characters. I saw myself in the story. I saw hope for a more diverse community than the one that surrounded me growing up. I loved Rent.
I’m going to admit to you that my favorite track was “Seasons of Love.” I know the song is a cliche, but honestly, so is this chapter of first Corinthians. Talking about love this much seems like a cliche. It shouldn’t. Jonathan Larson wrote the lyrics to “Seasons of Love” in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Living in Lower Manhattan in the early 90s, he was surrounded by friends dying. Against that backdrop he wrote: “how do you measure, a year in the life?”
He answered, “How about Love? Measure in love.”
St. Paul would agree. I don’t know a more Christ-like way to measure, even if I am about to use the word more than typically would make me comfortable.
Some measures of our church’s life
Measuring in love might make the business-savvy among us crazy. How do you quantify? I can say we have served more people in the past few months at Laundry Love than we ever have before. That’s quantifiable. I can say I have loved working with our new Associate Rector, Julie. Her energy and creativity are matched with a gracious presence that puts folks at ease. I am incredibly grateful to our talented staff, to Cheyanne, Jim, Chester, Mary, and Stephen, our choir members. I’m thankful for Zack, even as he’s getting ready to take his next steps in a new job. I loved working with Heidi and Marc who left us back in October. The Holy Communion staff team responded to this year, and to my sabbatical leave with creativity, and commitment, and with great love for the people of this congregation.
I am so grateful for your vestry and for the folks standing for election. A special word of thanks needs to go to Shirley Mensah, who finishes her second term. Shirley was my senior warden through some of the biggest growth I have had as a professional. She spent time with me over coffee, over the phone, over construction contracts, talking through the big decisions. Shirley has given this parish and me, such a gift. I’m also thankful she’s not going anywhere, that she’s already agreed to keep leading ministry here.
Thanks go as well to Warren Davis and Megan Ondr who both had to leave the vestry a bit earlier in the year.
There are others who have marked this year with love in this church. A couple of them I plan to highlight when I award the rector’s cross on February 13, during the live part of the annual meeting. If you sign in, you will hear it in those awards: I can’t adequately measure the ways this congregation has met the frustrations of this year with love. I can only tell you stories to point the way.
We have had a number of new people join us in recent months. Many have gotten to know us through online worship, which means they’ve heard more from the clergy than anyone else. When we meet in person, I say to them: you might come for the preachers…but you’ll stay for the members. Join us on Zoom for a small group or conversation. When the weather warms up, join us out at the Laundromat or in the Garden. Take some time to get to know the people who worship here. This congregation knows makes a love-spreading difference. The people here make Christ’s love known in their actions as much as in their words.
This year has been gritty at times, frustrating at times, but as I take stock, as I really take stock, I hope we can find ways to measure more creatively, because our time-honored ways of counting simply do not reflect the new reality we are facing, they don’t count the love adequately. I’m not sure you can ever really count love. But finding more loving ways to measure, maybe that is one lesson of the year.
Don’t miss the last miracle
Before I step down, let’s look at that last line of the Gospel. Jesus makes that crowd angry, and they take him up to the brow of the cliff. Ambrose of Milan, the fourth century bishop says, don’t miss the miracle in the last line, “Behold the minds of those furious men were suddenly either changed or confused, and Jesus passed through the midst of them.” Jesus set out on his own way.
May God convert our anger. May God confuse our comfortable ways enough that we might stumble onto the loving way of Jesus, and learn to count what Christ counts. Measure in love. Amen.