State of the Parish Address

St. Mark's Episcopal Church
January 27, 2013

2012 has been a tremendous year for us!  I do not believe that faith can be measured in numbers and yet, as I prepared the statistical report for our meeting, I could not help but be excited for what the numbers are showing – St. Mark’s is growing.  Our average Sunday attendance has increased for the first time in four (4) years.  We had a record number of baptisms – nine, including two adults.   Our church school is 150% larger than it was a year ago and, if the chaotic joyfulness of our 4 p.m. Christmas Eve service was any indication, our children are having a good time learning about the love of God in Christ through formation and worship.  One last number that appears on our parochial report, but does not make its way into our report, is the total number of active members.  In 2012, St. Mark’s welcomed 47 members (including 16 who were restored from inactive status and 2 newborns) and lost 24 (through death or relocation) for a net gain of 23.  This is all exciting news. 

And yet, I am convinced that numbers do not tell our faith story adequately.  Because faith is measured by our commitment to God and to our neighbors, not by the number of spaces we occupy in the pews (though hopefully the two are related!). Throughout 2012, St. Mark’s has witnessed to this commitment and love in countless ways. 
2012 saw new ministries bloom:

  • St. Mark’s involvement with Oakton Elementary School’s Blessings in a Backpack program was launched by Mike Johnson on the Mission and Ministry Cluster.  Each week, children who might otherwise go hungry, receive a backpack of food. 
  •  A Lenten series involving four churches – St. Mark’s, St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s of Evanston and St. Augustine’s of Wilmette – saw between 20 and 50 adults, teens, and children gather for each of four weeks to share a simple meal, to discuss spiritual practices, and to pray together.  Conversations and plans continue for more shared opportunities to work together in 2013. 
  • Several parishioners have become involved in conversations in the Evanston area related to the increasing violence on our streets and, in particular, the shooting deaths of Dajae Coleman (age 14) and Justin Murray (age 19) just a few blocks from our address.  More than 40 signed the letters to President Obama, Senators Durbin and Kirk and Representative Schakowsky demanding that action be taken to reduce gun violence. 
  • And, while we were disappointed that Samuel and Paulo were unable to travel from South Sudan to Evanston for a month of English lessons, St. Mark’s rallied to raise funds, provide housing, and plan for their arrival demonstrating a deep commitment to being the hands and feet of Christ in the world.  A special thank you to Carol Martin, Clark Alexander, Dave Himrod, and Mike Johnson for their tireless efforts and to all who stepped up with offers to assist and prayers of support.

2012 saw other ministries continue in new and exciting ways:

  • Parish Life, led by Pat Bent, in addition to the many celebrations they plan and host, held a BINGO night that brought together parishioners and friends from across the generations for an evening of good food and good fun.  
  • This year’s Christmas pageant was coordinated by the Sunday School teachers and saw the parents of almost every child in the congregation pitch in to help in one way or another as rehearsals and preparations took place on Sunday mornings.
And, all of our “usual” ministries continued through the support and dedication of YOU.  Worship leaders (ushers, acolytes, readers, lay Eucharistic ministers, choir members), the behind-the-scenes folks (altar guild, flower guild, buildings and grounds volunteers), office volunteers, teachers, pancake flippers, reception coordinators, and more.  St. Mark’s commitment to God, one another, and the wider community is visible.

After a year such as this, it might be tempting to sit back and relax.  After all, we’ll need all of our strength and energy in 2014 when we celebrate our sesquicentennial anniversary.  That’s right, 150 years of ministry right here in Evanston.  Tempting as it may be, we are charged to keep moving forward to ensure that our 149th year, our 150th year, our 151st year and even our 208th year each offer a living witness to the work of Christ in our midst. 

This morning’s reading from Nehemiah (8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10) tells the story of the people of Israel who have recently returned to Jerusalem after more than 50 years in exile under Babylonian rule.  When Babylon was seized by Persia in 538 BCE, the Persian ruler, Cyrus, issued a decree commanding the Jews to leave Babylon, return home and rebuild the Temple.   Not all the Jews returned at that time and it was not until the middle of the 5th century BC when Artaxerxes I sent Ezra to lead the Jews to Jerusalem to deliver gifts to the Temple and to make inquiries about conformity to the law in Judah and Jerusalem and to appoint magistrates and judges to teach the law.  A short time later, Artaxerxes I sent Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  Scholars disagree as to the exact details of Ezra and Nehemiah’s return – it is unclear whether they were even contemporaries; however, the story as it is told in our Scriptures – in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah -  tells a compelling story of rebuilding, rededication and renewal.    

The section we heard read this morning describes the priest Ezra’s public reading of the book of the law.  There are several remarkable aspects of the story.  In the first place, Ezra’s reading of the law is done at the request of the congregation not as his own initiative.  Second, the book of the law is not read in the synagogue, but near the Water Gate – outside the wall of the city – a place which ensured full participation by laity and clergy, men and women, and even children.  The full participation of the community is central to the story’s location.  In fact, if you noticed in the bulletin, there were two verses not read – verse 4 and verse 7.  Here is verse 4:

“The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah. . . Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijab, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam . . .” (Nehehmiah 8:4)

On the one hand, I’m sure Héctor is grateful he didn’t need to read those names.  But, here’s why I wanted to share them with you: they are all lay people.  Ezra, the priest, is surrounded by lay people. The author of this story takes pains to ensure that it is clear that the laity and the clergy are together at this time of renewal.  Can you see where I might be going with this?

St. Mark’s is about to embark on a grand celebration – our 150th anniversary. It will be a time for looking back at all that has been accomplished here.  And, it will be a time, I hope, for looking forward at all the possibilities God may have in store for us.    But this year – 2013 – is not a year to sit back and relax, but rather a year to prayerfully reflect, renew, and rededicate ourselves.   It is a year in which we can all – lay and ordained, vestry member or non-vestry member, male or female, adult or child - begin to focus on living into our 150th anniversary theme – Being, Growing, Living.  This three-word phrase originated as something a bit longer - Being in Place, Growing in Faith, Living from the Center – and is, I believe, an apt description of who St. Mark’s has been, who we are, and who we are called to be when we are at our best.

Being in Place is about discovering or rediscovering a relationship with God through prayerfulness, both individually and corporately.  This is what we do each Sunday when we come together for worship; but, it is also, I hope, what each of us do wherever we are during the week – in our homes, at work, at school, at play. 

Growing in Faith is about an attitude toward living which pushes back our preconceived notions and opens us up to possibilities for change.  Perhaps we can think of it as “pondering the possible.”  The work of the Strategic Visioning Team which has been presented this morning is a good example of this work because it points toward letting go of “the way we’ve always done things” and it also points to the challenge that growing in faith can present to us.  2013 is going to be a year of trying new things and, like any new thing, we may not always get it right.  We might fall down – no, I dare so, we will fall down from time to time.  But when we do, our attitude must be one of picking each other up again, asking for and offering forgiveness for mistakes made, and committing ourselves to moving forward yet again.

And finally, and most importantly, Living from the Center, the acknowledgment that we cannot live our lives separate from our live in the world or separate from our life centered in God.  St. Mark’s has been and must continue to be a church engaged in our community and in our world, not to the determent of our love for and care of one another within our walls, but out of a conviction that we ourselves will be transformed by our encounters with the living God already at work in the world around us, out of a conviction that whenever we come together it is to strengthen us for that work in the world, to refocus on the spirit of God living in the center of each of us.

Let us mark 2013 as a year of renewal and rededication.  Let us not sit back and rest.  Let us not look at one another and hope that someone else will lead the way. I cannot do this work for you.  The vestry cannot do this work for you.  But, together, with God, we can accomplish great things.  Let 2013 be the year in which we rededicate ourselves to working together with great joy.

After Ezra read the law to the people, the people began to weep and mourn. Presumably they had come to realize a great gap between the way God would have them live and the way in which they were actually living.  But, Ezra puts a stop to this and instead announces that this is to be a day of celebration:  “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

The joy of the LORD is your strength. The joy of the LORD is our strength.  Joy in the LORD reflects our dedication to God, our commitment to God’s ways and our faith and trust in God.

Let us go forth and Be, Grow, and Live. Amen.