Sunday Sermon

THE WEALTH OF THE NATIONS

     “They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” Is. 60:6. The Bible is filled with powerful images.  Matthew has this story of the visit of kings from the East bearing gifts.  If I wanted to give authority to the birth of this child, kings bearing gifts and paying homage would confer the right impression.  Luke has a wise man and woman in the Temple recognize the importance of this child.  Simeon breaks into the Nunc Dimittis, “for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior whom you have proclaimed for all the world to see”.  He informs us, his audience, of the identity and importance of this child and Anna proclaims Jesus to “all those looking for the redemption of Israel” Lk.2:28-38.  Important witnesses are introduced in the gospels.  Mark has the voice of God identify God’s Son while John the Baptist points Jesus out as the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  John identifies Jesus as the Creative Word of God and uses John the Baptist to point him out.  Gifts of gold and gifts of prophecy surround this birth, as any important birth of Jesus’ time.  When a Prince is born there are gifts and portents because this person is important to the life of people and nations.

     Epiphany is also an important time for us to consider the gifts we bring to the newborn King.  In the Christmas season I often ask people to try out new roles in the community as readers and cup bearers.  Think about the gifts you bring to this community that will add to the beauty of this service.  We always need singers in the choir.  Any day we can hear the best choirs in the world accompanied by the finest orchestras, and it can make our efforts here seem small.  I believe we are obliged to praise God in every way we can.  Our gifts, “talents” come from God.  We bring our gifts to the stable because this is what we’ve got to give, and I believe it is important for us to give our best work.

     As a child I always brought the cheesiest gift to any birthday party.  My parents didn’t have much and what they had went into the family business.  I was embarrassed to go to birthday parties and as I got older, I refused to go.  They were too busy to press the issue and didn’t really want to ferry me back and forth.  Mom made sure I knew what an imposition I was causing.  I cannot to this day ever come to work unprepared to give it my best effort because I really hate that feeling of giving a tacky gift.  When I come in here it is the best gift I could come up with this week.  Others might do a better job, but this is my personal best.  I have chosen not to lie to myself because it makes life much too complicated.  I am clearly a two-talent person and it causes me discomfort because I believe we are in a situation in the church that requires about double the smarts that I bring to the table.  If leadership were only about being the person with the bright ideas, I’d have this covered.  Leadership is also about being able to persuade others and I have never been good at it.  I’m not making an excuse.  I consider persuasion my growing edge.  The way that I deal with the discomfort of bringing a lesser gift is to always give it my best shot.  That protects my integrity.  I also make sure I am rested enough to perform as well as I can.  That shores up my integrity as well.

     Living with integrity brings me peace.  When I give less than my best effort it hurts me, and I can do without self-inflicted injuries.  There are enough of the other kind.  Why is it important in this small church to always give it my best shot?  I show you by the effort I make how important this work is to me.  It is an Epiphany.  I can’t make it more important to you, but I can give you my example.  Many of you will think that it’s just the right thing to do and we should always do the right thing.  I can tell you that more is involved than simply doing the right.  Everything we do reflects upon us.  The problem is knowing what the right thing to do is in real situations and with concrete examples.  The choir has been discouraged because we have made real changes in our choral offerings.  One of the facts that I deal with as Vicar is that organists are rare as hen’s teeth and Eddie’s health is always a bit shaky.  We can’t afford to pay the big bucks and it is an organist’s market right now.  We have got to learn alternative styles in order to continue to offer music in the service.  Well, members of the choir struggle to get on board with it and there is grumbling in the ranks.  So, at a time when my health was at its lowest point, I started singing in the choir to help encourage them as we deal with the new normal.  Coming down from the choir loft was painful for them.  Offering music that is new to them and to the congregation has been difficult.  Eddie and I have tried to choose music that is interesting and catchy.  We have steadily resisted the desire to go back.

      We believe that looking backwards will turn us into a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife.  Eddie’s gifts as a leader of projects for children help us to balance the discomfort of change in the music program.  We are doing what we can to offer a pleasing worship experience.  It requires us to continually evaluate and look ahead.  We cannot drop the ball.  This is making for a rough transition, and sometimes I feel discouraged because I want to do a lovely service and keeping up the morale of the choir so that we do our best work is complicated.  In fact, doing ministry in this time is complicated.  

     We only have so much energy as a community to give to projects, internally or externally.  When that energy is gone it takes a while to refill the reservoir.  This year we introduced two new outreach projects—the Block Party and clothing drive before VBS and the Thanksgiving potluck with clothing drive.  Both were big new efforts that went very well, but it meant that we had less energy for fund-raisers.  Our church budget shows that lapse.  Will has reminded us of it at every Vestry meeting.  It is his job to keep us on track and he does an excellent job as Treasurer.  The roof adds its own problems into the mix and Tim is riding herd on that problem.  Every community has problems and growing edges.  I keep my eye on the ball of how people feel about our handling of those issues.  I believe that so long as we are working together to solve problems, we will continue to have energy to deal with them.  That means that flexibility is more valuable than being the owner of the right solution.  I have almost given up looking for that white whale because I am beginning to suspect it strongly affects leadership.  

     Every time I look out at you while I am preaching, I am struck by the fact that there is enough intelligence sitting in front of me to colonize Mars.  I think of that project as a huge test of human ingenuity.  Well, running a church with a physical plant this size in this lean environment is a test of human ingenuity.  In the last 5 years you have risen to meet the challenge time and again.  In this place having the “right solution” may seem far less important than encouraging whatever solution you can support. I started thinking of the “right solution” as a white whale that I am no longer interested in chasing.  It turned me inward to you and to what we can do together.  The solution is not out there somewhere.  It is in here where the Holy Spirit is at work in you.  If it sounds like St. Paul, there is a good reason for that.

     I would simply offer you a few observations as I prepare for annual meeting.  The service we offer on Sunday morning is meat and drink, it needs to be good.  Things have changed and are still changing—businesses are closing all around us.  If you have trouble believing this, look at one another.  How many new faces did we add this year?  I can tell you because I pay attention to these things, but I want you to think about it.  We added to our number everyone who visited looking for a church last year.  We do a great job of adding new people.  Waiting on people to visit is growth that doesn’t move fast enough.   I was a biologist first, and population growth in that discipline is governed by survival of the fittest.  

     All of us know that we need fundraisers.  I know that we need outreach.  This neighborhood concerns us so much that some of us have considered moving the congregation.  Because poverty is a justice issue in the Bible, we cannot feel comfortable as Christians without regularly and strongly addressing it.  We cannot boil down our projects to either outreach or fundraisers.  We need both and we have the skills to do both.  Mr. Ken Bolen has volunteered to do a rummage sale fund-raiser.  He works in resale all the time and wants to do this for us, including pricing and set-up.  I suggested to him the Springtime, but we did not choose a time because I need to bring it to you and he needs to check his schedule.  I have furniture and kitchenware I am not using that I can bring. The Vestry will decide how to use that money.  In the Fall we have Apple Butter and that still works well for us.  If we divide our year and separate our efforts, we should be able to handle both without wearing ourselves out.  The secret to success is paying attention and giving a good strong effort to what we do together.  What about Block Party and Rummage Sale before VBS?  Folks in the neighborhood could use nice, gently used things at a decent price.   We could do a Pot Luck and clothing drive around Thanksgiving.  Apple Butter making is early October.  But really, folks.  We start with Apple Sauce.  Couldn’t we do it whenever the weather is mild enough to tend the fires without being uncomfortably hot or cold?  Think creatively.

     Carrie’s idea to join with another Church on the clothing drive was genius, as was Jenn’s Thanksgiving Potluck.  Churches working together gives us plenty of new stuff to give away, and a Potluck plays to our strength.  You guys are great cooks!  Maybe there’s another church we could join to do that?  I can’t emphasize enough the terrific feeling among those gathered to enjoy the feast.  Our guests acted like kids at Christmas.  Good feeling in the congregation comes with good function.  This year showed us what we can do together.  We will grow by attracting more members.  Keeping a higher profile in the community will help that.  We are advertising in every media open to us and hope to do a better job every year as people come to know about us and help us.  

      Do you suppose those shepherds had much that was truly special to bring as gifts?  They came and worshipped.  They did not delay because they didn’t have a proper gift to bring.  They brought themselves, their wondering hearts and minds.  I ask you to do the same.  We have got all the right stuff.  I will help you, but I need you to help us decide as a community how best to use our energy.   Don’t look back to what we used to be unless you intend to use that to help us grow.  The right solution may well be a white whale if what we need is a solution that works for us.  The strength of this community is the way it supports its members.  We are doing a good job of it.  Keep it up.

      Epiphany means manifestation, showing.  The Son of God is seen in a newborn child.  Kings show humility by bringing gifts and worshipping this baby.  They also show the importance of the child.  We show our strength by supporting one another in new efforts.  This was an Epiphany year for us, so when I was preparing to preach that theme came to me.  We showed more of what we can do to one another and to our community, and it was very good.  I am excited about the year ahead.  I know we are in a financial crunch, but our fighting spirit is up, so I believe we will come back strong.  Think, dream, pray, reach out.  We are making a difference.  God bless us as we build this Church!

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday 2019 by the Rev. Deborah T. Rankin