State of the Parish Address
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church – Evanston, IL
Rather than looking back at the year behind us, I would like to use this year’s State of the Parish Address to look to the year ahead. When, during the Annual Meeting, you receive copies of the Annual Report, you’ll have a chance to read from your wardens, from staff members, and from other leaders of St. Mark’s about things that have taken place – fabulous things that have taken place – at St. Mark’s in 2014. There is much to celebrate and remember in our past year. In fact, there is much to celebrate in our past 150 years. But today, I would like to take an opportunity to look forward; to explore with you what lies ahead.
Earlier this month, I was listening to a podcast of NPR’s Ted Radio Hour. Host Guy Raz was interviewing Edith Widder who, in 2005, founded the Ocean Research & Conservation Association and a year later was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant”. Dr. Widder is a marine biologist who specializes in bioluminescence and was describing her experience of being the first person to photograph the elusive giant squid. When the host asked Dr. Widder why she chooses to explore - what keeps her motivated - Dr. Widder replied:
“Exploring is an innate part of being human. We're all explorers when we're born. Unfortunately, it seems to get drummed out of many of us as we get older, but it's there, I think, in all of us. And for me that moment of discovery is just so thrilling, on any level, that I think anybody that's experienced it is pretty quickly addicted to it.”
I gave that some thought – “exploring is an innate part of being human”; we are born that way – created as explorers. That seems right. We learn by exploring, by taking risks. Some of our earliest explorations don’t turn out so well – the toddler who sticks a slightly damp finger into an electrical outlet. Not a great experience – but, a learning opportunity to be sure! But, on the other hand, our earliest efforts at exploration lead to our first scooting, then crawling and then walking. Without such exploration our development stops. Each venture, each risk taken, an opportunity to explore, to learn and to grow.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus calls out to Simon and Andrew, “Follow Me.” He calls out to James and John, “Follow Me.” And, he calls out to each of us – and to the Church – “Follow me.” This is a calling, an invitation to explore, to take a risk with life; to do something completely new and potentially dangerous. It is no mistake that today’s reading begins with the announcement that John the Baptist has been imprisoned for his preaching about Jesus; indeed, following Jesus can be very risky. Elsewhere in Scripture – in Matthew’s Gospel – Jesus says, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3). What if part of that invitation is daring to reclaim that innate part of us – the child-like explorer within?
Jesus calls out, “Follow me” – take a risk with your life. He doesn’t promise there will be no pain. Again, remember John the Baptist. But he does promise a life of fulfillment as we come and take part in the work that God is graciously doing in the world around us.
In 2015, St. Mark’s wardens, vestry and clergy have decided to embrace a period of intentional exploration and risk-taking. We have done this by expanding our budget so that the Community Engagement Coordinator position, currently held by Jacqui Zeng, can be extended for another year. We feel confident that the work that is being done through this role is faithful work - work that is resulting in a greater presence for St. Mark’s in our community as more and more outside organizations utilize our facilities during the week. On Tuesdays, InterPlay classes are offered in Cunningham Hall. On any given Wednesday night, you will find not only Music Night taking place in the choir room but Evanston English Country Dancers in Cunningham Hall, and a Creative Writing Group sharing our space in the library. Adding to this important weekday building use in 2015, will be a Wednesday sack lunch program to feed some of our homeless neighbors. Being done in partnership with St. Matthew’s, this program will be overseen by our Community Engagement Coordinator. And this will be possible because we are willing to take a risk with our budget, because we are able to step out in faith.
In 2015, we have dared to expand our budget to include funds for a seminarian from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary here in Evanston. St. Mark’s has been a seminary field site in the past and it is exciting to become one again. Welcoming a seminarian, appreciating their individual gifts for ministry and celebrating their growth as partners with us in ministry are rich opportunities for St. Mark’s. This will be possible because we are willing to take a risk with our budget, able to step out in faith.
In 2015, St. Mark’s has dared to expand our budget to enrich our music ministries. In 2014, we already expanded the Associate for Music Ministries position from 15 hours to 20 hours per week. But, at that time, we provided no additional funds for program expansion. Despite the lack of additional funds, David Plank has launched a weekly music night that provides opportunity for children and adults to learn more about music, to practice singing together, and to gather as community. In order for this to continue and grow, the budget needed to grow. And so we took a risk with our budget and stepped out in faith.
In 2015, your leadership – wardens, vestry, and clergy – have dared to take a risk with the budget; but, in response, we are also taking a bold step with our giving because we believe the risks we are taking – these explorations – are good and faithful responses to Jesus’ call to “follow me.” Despite our increased giving, you will see a gap between income and expenses in the budget that the vestry has passed. Yes, we dared to pass a budget that is not balanced. You might look at this gap as a deficit with no concrete plan for closing the gap. But I choose to see it as our opportunity for faithful response – a faith line in the budget. And, in faith, I and the rest of St. Mark’s leadership have increased our pledges by an average of 20% in 2015 and we invite you to increase your pledge as well or, if you’ve never pledged before, to take a step out in faith and complete a pledge card for the first time. Why? Because we have faith in God’s call to us to be a people who take risks. We have faith in God’s call to us to be like Simon and Andrew who immediately left their nets and followed Jesus, to be like James and John who left their father and their boat to follow Jesus. We have faith in God’s invitation to us to set aside security, self-interest and approval as our primary values and instead to enter a life that places our value in faithful living with its inherent call to risk, insecurity, and self-denial; to place value on God’s promise rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ.
We have faith that this is what it means to be followers of the way of Jesus, a people who not only talk the talk but walk the walk. Might there be setbacks? Absolutely. What child has ever learned to walk who hasn’t fallen down once or twice along the way? But what child has ever learned to walk who didn’t first muster up the courage to try – to take that first step of faith.
“Follow me” – two of the most challenging and life affirming words that Jesus speaks in the Gospels. And with these words Jesus began calling the first disciples into community and continues with those same two words to call us into that beloved community today. A community that is invited to boldly explore what it means to be a part of God’s work in the world, a community that is invited to take risks, to explore, to discover the power of God working in and among us. That is what we will be about in 2015 at St. Mark’s. That is what I invite you to be about in 2015 at St. Mark’s.