January 29, 2023

Epiphany IV

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Weekly Prayer Recording

Procreating the Gospel

The Reverend Mark R. Sutherland

Recording of the sermon:

It’s important to warn ourselves against allowing memories of the past to cast an unrealistic shadow over understanding our present and casting gloom over our future remembering it’s affluence not adversity that dilutes the impact of the gospel’s message.

It is customary to use the sermon on annual meeting Sunday to offer a kind of state of the parish review. The problem is when I’ve tried to do this in the past – I fear it becomes rather tedious to listen to a list of all the previous year’s accomplishments – which could be seen as a nice problem to have. However, it’s difficult to single out ministries of particular significance without those ministries not singled out – feeling left out.

In the Rector’s written Introduction to the annual report, I do attempt to convey an accurate overview but again, the details are actually in the ministry reports, and I do not attempt to reproduce these in my introduction.

So can I ask you all to please read the annual report – hard copies will be distributed at the meeting. For those of you who are viewing this via livestream and those of you present today unable to stay for the meeting – though I trust all of you will – you can find the full report on the website stmartinsprov.org under the who we are drop down menu at the top of the screen. The report is actually very interesting. It gives us the most accurate overview of the state and health of the parish by showing the range and depth of our ministry activities in 2022.

If there’s one tag line that sums St Martin’s up it’s a community punching above its weight. For the actual size of our membership, we run a ministry program that would put to shame many parishes twice our size. I believe this to reflect the caliber, skill, and dedication of those of you actively engaged in one ministry or another – and who in most cases – will be involved in several at the same time.

So thank you to you all, for everything you do to ensure that together we can make a greater impact on the world than anyone of us could, alone.

As you read the reports, it might be helpful to note how particular reports belong together. For instance, an area that has really flourished in 2022 has been our small group ministries. It helpful to view Women’s Spirituality group, Gander Men’s groups, 20/30’s group, and Knitting as all aspects of a flourishing area of portal (gateway to the community) ministries using small group settings.

Likewise, we have a very hopeful report from the Finance Committee which shows that despite the economic turbulence and uncertainties in 2022, we ended the year on target and enter 2023 with a continued strong level of financial commitment which demonstrates confidence in the vitality of the parish. You might read the Thrifty Goose which is reporting an incredibly successful year thanks to the dedication of its team and the Estate Sale report alongside the Finance report.

Worship is a handy heading to keep in mind while reading the Music, Altar Guild, and Meditation Hour reports. It’s helpful to read the Pastoral Care and  Education-Formation reports as ministries closely related to our worship life.

While the Property report offers a dizzying list of repairs and improvements – some anticipated and others an unwelcome surprise -it stands alone but it’s also helpful to read the Memorial Garden report in this context.

The Hospitality report is a significant indicator of how 2022 has been a year of coming back together after the disruption and shutdowns of the pandemic – a sign that although we are not out of the COVID woods and maybe never will be, we are determined to celebrate as fully as possible our community life together. The resumption of the St Martin’s feast was a clear signal that our legendary love of celebration is back.

By far the largest report is the Outreach and Philanthropies report, which speaks volumes about the importance we place on serving the wider community. The report very helpfully outlines the different areas of our outreach. The report offers a helpful table of contents at the beginning – even more necessary because of the wide scope of our six outreach ministries. You might also read the Episcopal Charities report in conjunction with outreach.

Having directed your attention to the importance of our ministry reports from 2022, I want to spend what time is left in addressing parish life against a post pandemic wider societal context. Today we are increasingly affected by the process of demographic change signaling significant shifts in societal attitudes to church-going – leading some to now declare that the Christian Church – and particularly our brand of it, is in sharp decline.

This view makes sense only if our current situation is judged against the years of post war boom which is an historical blip that provides a poor benchmark against which church life going forward can be measured. We should also not forget that the post war boom years in church membership were years in which Christianity became subsumed into a suburban, white, middle-class vision of American life. This is a vision of Christian life often sharply at odds with the teaching of Jesus outlined in Matthew’s beatitudes. Jesus taught that big is not best, wealth is not a sign of being blessed, success if not a sign of God’s favor, – neither is grief nor suffering a sign of God’s disfavor. It’s important to warn ourselves against allowing memories of the past to cast an unrealistic shadow over understanding our present and casting gloom over our future.

Even as we mourn the losses associated with inevitability of change, we are also gearing up to grasp the new challenges of returning to a model of church life, more akin to the world in which the Apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthians in our NT lesson this morning:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

So what do we notice in our own St Martin’s community that reflects wider societal context. Living in an increasingly non-churchgoing part of the world, I liken sustaining our parish community as akin to swimming against the cultural and social tide. It’s important that we do not interpret our society’s declining pattern of churchgoing as a reflection of our failure. The post war church boom and current social trends in the other direction both demonstrate to us that it’s affluence not adversity that dilutes the impact of the gospel’s message.

2022 shows that despite a return to in person worship, the pandemic has only exacerbated the longer-term trend of less frequent and intermittent church going. The Episcopal Church has always assessed its strength by the ASA – average Sunday attendance. But this is no longer an accurate indicator of parish vitality. The big learning from 2022 for us is that it’s important to know how to accurately read the signs – which is why a closer reading of the annual ministry reports is essential. From them we note that worship attendance is down but giving is stronger than anticipated. Pledge numbers are stable and the dollar amount is up. The amount of plate receipts – non pledge giving through the Sunday collection and online plate is far stronger than expected.

As I’ve noted the ASA’s appearance of falling numbers is a reflection of changing worship attendance patterns rather than an indication of loss of members. Our overall membership numbers remain stable with around a dozen new members having joined us in 2022. As the culture of church volunteering  is impacted by living more pressured lives, investments of time seem to be our most scarce and precious commodity. Nevertheless, the vibrancy and impact of our ministries is stronger than ever. Despite the impact of demographic and changing social attitudes to church going our parish community remains strong and vital. It’s a mistake to equate size with strength or even more so, to equate size with success.

Organized Church life in New England maybe akin to swimming against the societal tide, yet a better metaphor might be salmon swimming upstream. Think for a moment about why salmon swim upstream. They do so as part of their procreation cycle. Like the salmon we have some mighty swimmers swimming together in the service of the Gospel’s procreation.