Priests, I think, are not supposed to have favorite scripture passages or liturgical seasons, kind of like you’re not supposed to have a favorite child. But I do. Advent is my favorite season, and the scripture passages we read in Advent are among the ones I treasure most in all of scripture. (There. You’ve heard my confession. Please don’t tell the bishop!)
I love that in our Christian life we prepare for Christmas by remembering the words of those who longed for God to send a Savior, and trusted God to do it; to not remain far off and aloof as a God “above all things” but to come and be “God with us” – to be by our side (and before us and behind us and above us and below us) in this holy mess of a world we inhabit.
I love it that during Advent we remember that all our days of life on this planet are lived in a “between” time, between the first coming of Christ and the promised second coming; between what is “already” and “not yet”; between the beginning of the salvation and redemption of the whole Creation and the day when this beautiful work which Christ has begun in us will be “brought to completion” (Philippians 1).
This “in between-ness” is where we live, and we can respond to this reality in a couple of different ways: We can choose to focus on what is “not yet” — on what needs fixing in us and in our world; or we can choose to delight in signs of God’s ongoing restoration project all around us and on the future which is, in the Christian imagination, bright with hope.
There is good reason to focus on what is broken in the world, and to remember who and what can provide the fix. That’s what we focus on during Lent. But I’m glad that in this particular moment, when our planet is in peril and anxiety is the air we breathe, we are asked to light the candles of Advent and remember that this mess the world is in, is not our final destiny.
This past Sunday, the “Advent Word for the day” was “DELIGHT”(see https://adventword.org/en/home/) and as we review and reflect upon the past year during our Annual Parish Meeting, I want to focus on what I’ve seen among us this year that I hope delights God, and which I hope delights all of us.
First, a little history: After spending several years at St. John’s recovering from a very hard season when the parish community was divided and had grown distrustful of leadership, and the long period of financial hardship that accompanied it, in 2016 St. John’s found itself on the threshold of renewal. The parish was ready to let go of the past and to move into the future with hope.
It was at this time that I received a call from then Sr. Warden, Ken Marsh, who told me that St. John’s needed an interim rector who would love you and help you define a new, “outward-facing” vision as you emerged from years of difficulty that had left you “inward -facing,” licking your wounds. Ken said, our next step is this: We need to remember our call to be “the face of Jesus” among our neighbors in the community. That will give us a healthy sense of purpose again.
So that is what we set about doing. He said you needed to be loved; and that part was easy! I loved you from the first day I met you, heard your story, and heard your hope for the future. And I love you more than ever today.
From 2016 – early 2020, we focused our energies on developing that outward-facing vision. We embraced the vision of building Beloved Community. We began to grapple with systemic racism in us and in our community. Out of that was borne our Community Meals program which started off as a 10-week summer meal program for food insecure children on summer break; and that has grown and evolved through the pandemic years to a year-round ministry involving our whole Wake Forest community. We named it this ministry “Wake Forest Community Table (WFCT)” and at this “table” we now feed food insecure neighbors of all ages twice per week, and we gather the community quarterly to “look upstream” together, as Archbishop Tutu encouraged, to understand what forces are pushing people into the stream of food insecurity in the first place.
In 2022, WFCT was established as an independent non-profit corporation through the remarkable leadership of Joy Shillingsburg, our Outreach Director, and its ministry continues to flourish through the contributions of many St. John’s parishioners, and other people of faith and good will around Wake Forest. This status allows the ministry to seek financial contributions from a wider circle of support which stabilizes it for the future. WFCT is a sign of God’s coming kingdom, for sure — a kingdom which has a little more of a foothold here in Wake Forest because of St. John’s vision to reflect the “face of Christ” in our community; and that is something in which we should all DELIGHT!
The Covid years have been hard on all of us – as individuals and as a parish. In 2019, St. John’s was growing by leaps and bounds. 90 new members joined the parish in that year alone. We were running out of space in our pews and in our parking lot. We had 20 – 25 children processing out to Godly Play most Sundays. And then suddenly in March
2020, we couldn’t gather in person anymore. As the weeks passed, and it dawned on us that it could take many months, even years, to return to “normal”, we pivoted, and applied tremendous creativity to gathering online and outside whenever possible.
In 2022, we are now celebrating our return to in-person gatherings without mandatory restrictions, but we are forever changed by our experience of the pandemic. We were fortunate to survive the Covid years even while three parishes in our diocese sadly faced closure. During these years we are grateful to have not just survived, but even thrived in some significant ways:
First, the pandemic years helped (forced!!) us to develop the capacity to gather online and begin to learn how to integrate in-person and digital communities for worship, fellowship, and faith formation. The need and desire for this “hybrid” community remains, and so we have a whole new ministry area in which to grow and explore. We also had to learn to be flexible in how we worship in-person. Our Worship ministry, led by Head Verger, Elizabeth McDuffie, helped us pivot, and pivot, and pivot again on how we administer Communion. An ad hoc team led by Lois Sauer helped us spread out in the pews and manage the ever-changing guidelines on masking and seating restrictions.
Second, the pandemic years gave us time and space to equip ourselves as a growing church – to work with the help of Ministry Architects to build the communications/ technology and organizational infrastructure to invite, welcome, and connect with a growing number of neighbors in our community who are seeking a church like St. John’s. This work is not yet complete, but it’s well underway and the implementation of our new Ministry Match tool and Ministry Engagement Team, led by Roxanne Johnson, are an example of the fruit of this work. In addition, a new Small Groups ministry (for spiritual growth & formation) is being developed under the leadership of Beth McCauley, and new fellowship groups are being formed under the coaching of Suzi Hetzel. In the months ahead we will see more new faces engaged in more new serving ministries, fellowship groups, and formation groups; and this, too, is something in which we should all DELIGHT!
Third, the pandemic years gave us all cause to appreciate more than ever the value of caring relationships and the need for love in our lives. At St. John’s, even before the pandemic took hold, we began to see the need to be more intentional about cultivating caring relationships within our parish. As the parish grows, it is easier for people to get
“lost” and to be just another body in a pew instead of a real person who is known and loved and who experiences a sense of belonging. Whoever we are, whatever our life experience, gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, national origin, class status, or abilities – we all want to experience being beloved to one another and to God. That is what building “Beloved Community,” both within the parish and in the wider community and world, is all about.
After hearing this concern loud and clear – that we’re doing well with “outreach” but need to focus more on “inreach” (reaching out to each other within our parish) — we responded in 2021 and 2022 by forming our new Parish Care ministry. Kitty Kovacs has done a marvelous job of expanding and forming new teams of folks to call, visit, send notes, and check in on each other; to bring Communion when we’re not able to get to church; and soon, to run errands and/or help parishioners with minor home repairs. Certainly, there’s more to explore and do in this ministry, but we are well on our way.
So, even while some things are still kind of “messy” at St. John’s (particularly with knowing who does what and how to get involved and other matters of parish communication), there are many new processes “under construction” that I pray will serve us well as we seek to grow on our “inward journey” of strengthening our personal faith and becoming Beloved Community to one another at St. John’s, and on our “outward journey” of serving God and loving our neighbor.
2022 has been a lot of work, but a truly DELIGHTFUL year in so many, many ways. Please join me at the Annual Parish Meeting, Part 2 on January 29th after the 9:30 AM service. That’s when we’ll consider all the delightful things that God may have in store for us in 2023!
This comes with Love,