A People Called to Become the Story We Tell

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Feast of the Baptism of Jesus
Mark 1:4-11

A little more than a decade ago, I stood in front of a small congregation in southern New Jersey. There were maybe 60 people in the pews that day.  It had been about 5 years since they had had their own priest. Their beloved vicar of 42 years had died of cancer and there was no priest who would take his place.  They didn’t have the money to call a full-time priest.  And so for a couple of years they shared the minister from the nearby Lutheran Church. I never understood the details of that arrangement but it was clear from the stories that it just hadn’t worked out. They relied on supply priests when they could get one– easier in the summer in this shore community than in the winter months.  And they offered prayer for one another when they couldn’t find a priest.  Toward the end of this 5 year period, another Episcopal church nearby – 13 miles away by car, hundreds of miles away by culture – was looking for a half-time assistant to the rector.  And that rector realized that in order to find a qualified candidate he would need to make it a full time position and so he approached the small village church with a proposal.  
Not long after, in June 2007, I became the half-time Vicar of St. Barnabas by the Bay in the village of Villas, New Jersey and the half-time assistant to the rector of St. Mary’s by the Sea in Stone Harbor.  And so there I stood on my first Sunday, looking out at this congregation of 60 in Villas and looking back at me were the faces of a people who felt defeated, worn-out, and finished.  And here’s what I told them:
The St. Barnabas of yesterday and of today – with all of your hopes and all of your fears, all of your disappointments and all of your accomplishments – this St. Barnabas, sitting in this sanctuary today, is already living in the presence of God. There is nothing magical about my being here and there is nothing magical about our future together. You are, as you are, enough. And, in the presence of God, enough is always more than enough. 
Today, St. Barnabas continues on – their rector, the woman who followed my tenure there, has been with them nearly as long as I have been with you. According to their parochial reports – filed with The Episcopal Church annually just like ours - their average Sunday attendance now hovers around 70 and their pledge and plate income now approaches $80,000 a year. When I was there, that number was closer to $50,000 a year.  St. Barnabas is a growing church, a thriving church.  They have changed the story they tell.
So, why am I telling you this story? St. Mark’s is not St. Barnabas. Our average Sunday attendance fluctuates between the low-80s and the mid-90s year to year.  And while the final numbers for 2017 aren’t yet available, our plate and pledge income has been inching upwards since 2011 and now sits around $280,000. I tell you the story of St. Barnabas because, like them, you have an opportunity to shape the story that is told about St. Mark’s.  You have the chance to not only tell your story but to LIVE your story.  It is not uncommon at St. Mark’s to hear about the old building that is in need of constant repairs – seriously, if we lived to be this old, we’d need some pretty constant upkeep as well!  It is not uncommon to hear about all the children that used to be at St. Mark’s or to hear about how big the choir was.  These are, indeed, stories of St. Mark’s and they are stories that shape us.  But when we allow those stories to shape us at the expense of the other stories, then we are writing our future in a way that need not be.  Because our future is filled with hope and with joy, with blessing and with faithfulness.  And so today, I want to set before you a new opportunity, a new way of being in the world, a new way of telling the story and then becoming the story we tell.
St. Mark’s is a vibrant church. In a landscape where 194 Episcopal congregations have closed their doors in the past 5 years, where the average number of members in Episcopal congregations has decreased by 9% in the past 5 years and the average Sunday attendance has dropped by 11% in those same 5 years, in that landscape St. Mark’s is alive.[1] St. Mark’s is growing and St. Mark’s is thriving.  And today we have an opportunity to build on that history, to tell that story. A story of more than 150% growth in our Sunday School since 2011, a story of 7% increase in membership in the past 2 years, a story of a lunch program that feeds dozens of homeless men and women each week, a story of a congregation that raised and gave away more than $4000 in a three month period to COPE’s backpack drive , to Episcopal Relief and Development for Hurricane Relief efforts and to CROP walk for its emergency programs, not to mention the countless volunteer hours that St. Mark’s members put into these and other organizations in our community.  You did all of this – and more! This is your story to tell and, if you want, it is your story to build on.
The apostle Paul, writing to the churches in Corinth said, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, not written with ink but the with the Spirit of the living God.”[2] In a world where fewer and fewer people are familiar with the story of Jesus, you and I have a story to tell.  In a world where many people only know of Christianity through the lens of the media – a media singularly focused on one expression of Christianity, and that an expression many of us do not even recognize as Christian – in a world like that – our world, you and I have a different story to tell.  It is a story that begins with a loving God who desired so much to be in relationship that that God created a world. It is a story that involves the countless ways in which God reached out to a people again and again to say, You are mine and I love you and I want to remain in relationship with you.  It is a story in which that same God sends his son into the world, to literally be with us – God with us – and then, through the waters of baptism, this same God breaks forth as a dove from the heavens to declare, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[3] And it is a story that is still being written because you are here – and you – and you – and you. . . . We are God’s story.  And we have Good News to share with the world.
Last fall, the vestry hosted Conversation Cafés – more than 50 of you participated.  In those cafes we asked three questions: 1) What keeps you coming back to St. Mark’s? 2) Where do you see God at work at St. Mark’s and 3) What are your aspirations for St. Mark’s?  While the vestry continues to sort through and categorize your answers, we have already found within them God’s story of Good News. 
What keeps you coming back to St. Mark’s? Here are just some of your answers: feeling of acceptance, the diversity of the community, the inter-generational aspects of the congregation, engagement with current world events and local events, the bell choir, the pet blessing, the Easter egg hunt and Christmas pageant, and curiosity about what’s going to happen next. 
Where do you see God at work at St. Mark’s? in the passing of the peace, kids in worship, the music, the flowers, the Wednesday lunch program, the hospitality center, the CROP walk, outreach, social activism, building use by the community, innovation, and in the spring in our step.
And what are your aspirations for St. Mark’s? that we continue to be an active and vibrant church, that we become more deeply engaged in the world around us, that we engage in outreach to the Latinx community, more diversity, increased membership, a well-maintained building, financial stability, more outreach, more outreach, more outreach, a soccer team, a baseball team, and a swimming pool.  Did I mention that people of all ages from St. Mark’s participated in the conversation cafés?
My friends, we have Good News to share and we have Big Dreams to realize and I am confident that we have a future together with God.  But living into this future takes risk.  It takes a willingness to believe that investing in the future, our future with God, is worth the risk.  And I believe that it is.  You and I have an opportunity to become the stories we hear each week in worship – stories of broken bodies made well and broken spirits mended, stories of fears overcome, death trampled down, wilderness wandering ending in a land filled with milk and honey, stories of people’s haunting doubts and people’s abiding faith, stories of a God who breaks into the world becoming flesh – the body of Christ - so that in his death and resurrection we may ourselves become the Body of Christ poured out into world. That is the story of God’s love. That is the story of our faith. That is the story of living into the risk of a future of with God.  And that is the story of St. Mark’s. That is the story we tell. That is the story we become through the telling and through the living. 
In the next day or two, you will receive a letter from the Stewardship Team concerning this year’s Annual Campaign.  I want you to receive that letter and read it and ask yourself a couple of questions: first, “what story does my spending tell and is it a story that leads to new and abundant life?” Then, consider, “how am I being called to become the story that our Scriptures tell? And how can I be more a part of the story that God is telling through St. Mark’s?”  After you’ve spent some time with the letter and with these questions, then please complete the pledge form that is included with our letter and return it to St. Mark’s on or before January 28th.  We have a fully attainable goal of $276,000 this year.  And we have already reached 30% of that goal through the early pledges of vestry, clergy and a few other generous donors.  In the hallway, you will see a new bulletin board display of all the books of the Bible. Each book represents a portion of our goal. When every book in that display has been colored in, we will have reached our goal.  Now, of course, I am always optimistic and so, I want you to know that if we exceed our goal and the Book of the Revelation to John – the very last book on the shelves - is colored in, it is o.k. We do not need to stop there; we will simply pull out the apocryphal books and keep adding to the display! 
Using the books of the Bible to track our fund raising progress may seem like a gimmick.
And, yes, of course it is.  But, I hope it can be a meaningful gimmick – one that reminds you of a simple truth.  The books of the Bible contain the stories of our lives in relation with God.  And our lives as we live them are the pages still being written.  The Rev. John Hill, writing for Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission this week, reminds us that as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus today, we are invited once again to consider the meaning of our own baptism. “Not only have we beenbaptized into Jesus’ mission, to proclaim the hope of God’s reign of justice,peace and reconciliation; we have been baptized into his death to become, ashis risen body, the living sign of that justice, peace and reconciliation forthe world. You and I are a people called to become the story we tell.
So let us now gather at the font and remind ourselves of that story once again.

[1] Office of Research and Statistics, “Episcopal Domestic Fast Facts Trends: 2012-2016,” The Episcopal Church (New York: Executive Office of the General Convention, 2017), https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/19543, accessed October 24, 2017.
[2] 2 Corinthians 3:2-3
[3] Mark 1:11