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Sermon for Third Sunday after the Epiphany, "Report of the Pastor"

Report of the Pastor – January 23rd, 2011
“Where Do You Belong?” – 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

            As you know, I spent last week in Ohio in my second semester of classes for my Doctor of Ministry degree. One of the two classes I took was about the Global Emerging Church. Christianity has been and continues to shift in center – no longer primarily a European and American religion, Christianity is bigger and growing in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. We studied the theologies of the third-world, particularly liberation theologies – theologies that focus on freedom from oppression and God’s preferential option for the poor. And a recurring theme in all that we read and learned was this: theology can’t be just about studying God, reflecting on God and the scriptures. Theology must be praxis. And praxis is the combination of reflection and action. Reflection that doesn’t require any action is useless theology. And in fact, inaction is a choice too – an action whose laziness or apathy speaks volumes! Good theology, meaningful theology involves reflection and intentional action.
            People of faith in all places are called to claim a theological praxis. We think, we study, we learn. But then we act. We live out. We respond in action to God’s calling on our lives. Our two scripture lessons today help ground us in that understanding. First, a reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. We’ve talked about the Corinthians a few times this past year. They were an early house church community of faith, and Paul had lots of very frank words for them about how to get along as this new body. Here, Paul is writing in response to what he’s heard about divisions in the community – specifically that people seem to be separating themselves based on who baptized them, claiming that they “belong” to Paul or Peter or Apollos – lining themselves up with the leadership of that particular apostle. Paul responds, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or where you baptized in the name of Paul?” He continues insisting that all Paul is about is proclaiming the gospel and the power of the cross. We belong to Christ, and we’re called to be united in the “same mind and the same purpose” – sharing the good news. You might say that this reading represents our grounding – our reflection. And so our reading from Matthew’s gospel, then, represents our call to action, our response.
            In Matthew we follow Jesus as, following his cousin John’s arrest, Jesus begins taking up John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As he’s walking by the Sea of Galilee, he sees brothers Peter and Andrew fishing. He says, with no introduction, at least not one that’s recorded, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” We read “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” This scene is repeated with James and John, sons of Zebedee. And our passage closes with Jesus teaching, healing, and proclaiming the good news. This is a passage of action. Disciples are called, and they respond. This is not a time for solitary reflection. This is a time for them to choose, act, follow. They lay down their nets and they go with Jesus. Good theology, good discipleship involves reflection and action. And that’s what our life together as a congregation involves too – reflection and action.
            Last year at this time, I shared with you my goals for my ministry in the covenant between me and you, the congregation. Since I was still in my first year with you, my goals reflect my hopes for building relationships. That was my first goal: build relationships with the church family – and the second: learn about the community and establish connections. I began with an ambitious goal – to visit everyone in the congregation. That was a new year’s resolution of sorts. Like all good resolutions, I didn’t meet my goal 100%. Please don’t be offended if I didn’t make it to visit you this last year. But I did get to spend a lot of time getting to know many of you better, and of course my hope is that we will continue to build our relationships – me with you, and you with each other. Maybe one of your own challenges this year can be to get to know someone better who also attends this church, that you’ve seen sitting across the way.
            A second goal was to give attention to the youth ministry program of the church. Our children and youth ministry coordinator position launched just a couple of months after my arrival here a year and a half ago. We hired Derek Hansen as our youth coordinator, and he did a wonderful job of kicking of a youth group, but of course, you know that Derek followed a call to seminary, and is now partway through his program there and serving a church as a student pastor. Luckily, Lori Greabell stepped in as interim, and eventually a permanent replacement as the Youth Coordinator. Lori has been doing a fantastic job – she spends time here and at Collamer on Sunday mornings, she’s expanded our youth program by adding a junior youth group for our thriving younger youth, and she’s been working with youth groups from Fayetteville and Manlius to provide even more exciting opportunities for our young people. My personal best experience was in sharing confirmation class with several of our young people last year. They survived my quizzes and accepted my bribes of pizza, even if it was only Little Caesar’s pizza, and in turn, I got to lead young people through a sacred journey, even if sometimes it takes time for the preciousness of that journey to sink in. We often speak of young people as the future of our church. But youth and children are not our future – they are our present. They are an essential and vital part of the life of our church right now. Jesus said “let the children come” and I don’t think it was just words to him. In fact Jesus said that unless we became like children, we could never enter the kingdom of heaven. I hope that we continue to work for our young people to be a welcome part of all we do here. We can help, guide, shape, mentor them, and share with them the faith that together we follow.     
            Stewardship is another focus we’ve had this year. In fact, we’ve just completed our deficit buster campaign, and we can celebrate that through your generous giving we met our 2010 budget, when we began the year thinking it would be impossible. That was possible because of your giving – that was it – your giving, your generosity, your commitment and response to the need we shared. It reminds me that all things are possible with God, even transforming our struggles into blessings. Stewardship is reflecting on why and how we give. Why do you think God gives to us? Sometimes when we think about giving, we get caught up in budgets and spending and debt and making ends meet. Those things are important, for sure. But it’s not why we’re called to give, any more than God gives to us out of obligation. As I’ve said before, even if our budget was fully funded from some other source, we’d still be called to give because that’s what God does, and we’re called to be God’s agents in the world. It is God’s pleasure to give to us out of God’s abundant, endless love, and we’re meant to learn the pleasure of exemplifying this same giving heart.
            Finally, a goal this year, and every year, is finding ways for our worship together, our worship of God who creates us, to be rich, meaningful, and transformational. For me, at the center is keeping in sight always why we worship. We worship because God is God and we are not! We worship because God is love and we seek to love in response. And we worship because we want to know this God, encounter this God, hear from this God, be moved by this God. We’re a diverse body – we’re drawn to different ways and styles of worship, and yet we still seek to find common ground. I’m always eager to hear your thoughts about worship, and what would be meaningful to you. I’m always eager for you to be involved in leading worship. One of my favorite ways of worshipping with you is to take ancient practices and make them new again, as we learn and practice. I was deeply grateful for your openness to working with my on my World Communion Sunday project this year, where we got a taste, a small taste, of worship in the early church. We ever seek to praise the God who created us, just as people have been doing for thousands of years. We come with open hearts and minds to be filled by God’s Holy Spirit.
            As we move ahead in our journey together, my goals will transition, our goals will take shape as we respond to God’s call on this congregation. We reflect on where God has led us thus far, and we respond by following where God is leading us now. This year, I plan on shifting some of my focus to answer areas where I think we can really grow.
            Our focus on mission is a real strength and growing edge in our congregation. You’ve been engaged in mission always, but I’ve had a number of people note how much investment in mission has increased over the last few years. My aim is for us to specifically focus our attention on hands-on mission. Studies show that churches that engage in mission, that are outward-focused, are healthier, stronger in times of crisis, and more likely to be growing than churches that keep an inward focus. Jesus poured himself out in every way to serve others. If we are not about serving others, we’re in trouble.
            We’ll also focus on evangelism as a heightened priority this year – that is, sharing the good news with others, inviting people in, welcoming visitors, following up and making new folks feel at home here. Karen Dunn has done a wonderful job in leading in evangelism, and our carnival in September was a huge success in saying to the community: we’re here, and we want you here too – we have something we want to share. I loved the way the carnival involved nearly every person in this congregation, and showed us what we’re capable of when we are all invested in the work together.
            In the coming weeks, we’ll look at these goals in worship piece by piece. All of these pieces, I hope you will see, are ways of putting our faith into practice – combining reflection with action – not just what we believe about God, but how what we believe, what God has done in us, causes us to change our lives. I want this church to be a significant part of your faith journey, a place where you can learn to live out what Jesus teaches. You might remember me sharing after our Parish Council retreat this fall that my vision if for this church to be a place where lives are changed because of being transformed by the grace of our living God. That is my deepest hope, and all of my other hopes are pinned on this, expressions of this. I want you to find this church to be a place that changes your life, that helps you connect what you believe with how you live.
Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Amen.


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