Sermon for the St. George’s annual meeting December 9, 2018. The Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr.
Let me quote the apostle Paul as he wrote to the Philippians in the reading we heard earlier: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Good morning beloved St. Georgians. I thank our God when I remember you and when I remember all the ways that God is at work in our midst. And I say with Paul, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.” God is up to some good work at St. George’s. Thanks be to God. Thanks be to you, beloved parishioners, for all the ways you are cooperating and participating with God in this place. It’s been almost four years since I began my work here as your rector, and still, I thank my God every time I remember our community and our ministry. It’s good to be here. Can you turn to your neighbor and tell them, “It’s good to be here?”
The text that I would like to focus on this morning is a text from both Luke’s Gospel and the prophet Isaiah.As Luke describes the appearance of John the Baptist who is preparing the way for Jesus, Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah writing several centuries earlier: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” Prepare the way of the Lord. We are in the season of Advent, the four Sundays leading up to the feast of Christ’s incarnation, God becoming human. We often say that it is a season of waiting. Waiting for Christmas. Waiting for Christ to enter the world. Waiting. We also say that Advent is a season of preparing the way.Note that several of our music selections today include the phrase: “prepare the way.” This is our season, as we are waiting, to also be preparing.
Since this is the annual meeting Sunday, I have a few things to say about the parish. I am preparing to do that!And so let me get there by talking about preparing the way for God. This time of the year, we talk a lot about preparing for the holidays. Are you prepared for Christmas? I’m not even fully prepared for Advent and it started last Sunday. The answer really is “no,” I am not prepared. Because when people say,“are you prepared,” what they really mean is “are you ready? Are all your plans in place?” Let’s just say I’m planning to get my plans in place. But let’s go back to Isaiah for a moment.
The word in Hebrew that Isaiah uses to say “prepare” has a different meaning from “get ready.” The word has more of a meaning of clearing. Clear the way. Prepare the path by clearing it of obstacles, smoothing the rough spots, filling in the potholes. So there is,perhaps, a difference between preparing and planning. Planning is buying presents and putting up decorations and making food. Preparing is clearing sometime in the calendar just to sit in God’s presence. Planning is putting things in place. Preparing is making space. Planning involves stocking up. Preparing involves cleaning out. Planning is important, don’t get me wrong. But I think the call of Isaiah is to clear the way, to prepare for the coming of God by making time and making room for God to enter our world. So during this Advent season, we take care not to let our planning overshadow our preparing. For it is when we prepare, when we clear room for God, that God can show us things we could never begin to plan for.
So now I would like to shift into talking about the parish, and I want to talk about St. George’s both in terms of planning and preparing. Both are essential. Let me begin by saying that we do not have enough time in this sermon or in one annual meeting to tell the story of everything we have done in the past year and everything that we are looking ahead to. The vestry and I are “planning” to offer a more complete annual report of 2018 early in the new year, once this year is complete. Be prepared for it!
Planning and preparing. We planned in our budget at the beginning of 2018 to hire three staff members, one new position and two expanded roles. We ended up hiring seven people. Our initial plans did not involve our associate rector, Gay Rahn, retiring or our director of children’s formation and outreach, Carey Connors, going to seminary. Nor did we foresee the opportunity to partner with Christ Lutheran and Trinity Episcopal to hire a young adult missioner. But we were prepared for these opportunities, because we had made some room, both materially and spiritually, for God to do some new work. So, in order of their arrival this year, we welcomed Parish Administrator, Laurel Loch, Parish Secretary, Barbara Miller-Richards, Facility Manager, Riley Mullins, Table administrator, Katie Wendt, Young adult missioner, the Rev. David Casey, Associate Rector, the Rev. Areeta Bridgemohan, and Director of Children’s and Youth Formation, Hecti Musa. Thanks be to God we have an incredible staff of 15 that works so hard and so well to support our ministries and to empower our parishioners to focus on their ministries. As another way to help parishioners plan and prepare for their own ministry, the vestry also put into place a new commission this year,the “connections commission” whose mission is to help connect parishioners who want to get involved with ministries that can use their gifts. As you prepare to get more involved, see the “help wanted” page on our website, and look for upcoming invitations from the connections commission. Part of our preparing and planning in the coming year is going to be calling some new leaders so that current leaders who are ready for a break can step back while they still have energy to give. Although we have a beautiful building and facility, it is the people who gather and minister, work and worship here every day that make St.George’s a church where we can grow and then share God’s love. It’s the people who are the church.
A church with the amount of people and activities that St. George’s has needs a dedicated and skilled staff to provide consistency and stability so that volunteers can have what they need to succeed. To be transparent, staff costs are the majority of our budget expenses. This year, we managed to minimize a deficit budget by reducing staff expenses during some significant gaps of time when positions were unfilled. We plan to begin 2019 with our full staff and will not have that same wiggle room.
We are able to hire this wonderful staff and fund all our ministries through the generous support of parishioners. I often say that the finance meeting is one of my favorite meetings because it reminds me of your generosity. The spreadsheet numbers represent your faithful and consistent gifts. Finance is often a “planning”meeting for sure, but it is also a preparation meeting. In those meetings we often have to remember to clear away our negative thinking and prepare a way for God to show us what is possible. Your gifts, gathered together, have showed us what is possible, over and over again. We have grown since I arrived in 2015.At some point, we might say, “haven’t we gotten big enough?” But then more and more people want to join our parish. Our amazing volunteer leaders hear God calling us to respond to more needs in the world. We want to prepare for what God is going to do next right here. To be frank, growing in ministry means growing in giving. Back in September, Bishop Bob Ilhoff asked some of us to think about giving not until it hurts but until it feels good. Give until it feels good. Part of how we prepare the way of God is by clearing away our hesitancy and offering as much as we can with joy. I believe our parishioners together have the resources to fully fund and even to exceed our needs for the coming years.I know many are already giving a very joyful proportion of their gifts to St. George’s. Many of us, though, could consider offering to God a more joyful proportion. This would enable us to even more joyfully share the ministries of this place, to share the welcoming love of God.
There’s more to say, and my time is growing short. As I said, we plan to offer a complete picture of 2018 early next year, from pastoral care to Christian formation, from home communion visits to forums about wholeness, from grace in action locally to mission around the country and world, from the Table in Fredericksburg to Notre Dame in Haiti, from worship and music to fellowship and hospitality, from deaf ministry to newcomers, buildings and grounds to finance and stewardship, from care for God’s creation to time, talent, and treasure; from St. George’s preschool to St. George’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to St. George’s youth, from Youth in Global to Glory Ridge, from young adult community ministry to ecumenical and interfaith partnerships, from racial reconciliation to evangelism, from our first annual “round up” storytelling event to our 300th anniversary in 2020-2021. For now, I want to share one last thing about our planning and preparing.St. George’s is planning and preparing for me to take a sabbatical break next summer. My departing Sunday will be the parish picnic on June 2 and my returning Sunday will be the rally for service Sunday September 8. The theme of my sabbatical is “rooted in wholeness” which was our theme for the Shrine Mont parish weekend in October and for our adult forums this fall and next spring. I am excited to share that I received a generous funding grant from the Lilly Foundation to support some travel and retreat for me and my family and also to support St. George’s in several ways during my absence. I truly hope this time will be a time of preparing the way of the Lord, of clearing away obstacles and smoothing out rough edges. In this season of Advent, I hope each of us can find some mini-sabbaticals, some times to rest, slow down, and listen so that we can prepare to receive God who is coming into the world.
In a few minutes we will cast ballots to elect four new vestry members. As I bring this message to a close, I ask us to set aside our plans for a moment and simply prepare. Prepare our hearts to listen for God’s guidance. God is already at work: in our parish, in our neighborhood, in the world. How is God inviting us to be part of that wonderful work of love and welcome, of grace in action, of giving and receiving? Now is a time in the life of our parish not only to plan but to prepare. Prepare the way.