April 22, 2007 3 Easter (C)
The 170th Annual Parish Meeting
of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church,
Highland Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Continuing Eastertide blessings to all on this auspicious day for us at St. Andrew’s—as in a few minutes we’ll come to the Annual Meeting in the 170th year of our congregational life. That is quite a number, at least on this side of the Appalachians, and it is to enter into a deep sense of continuity--recalling the generations that were here once, but perhaps even more importantly those who will come after us, who may never know any of our names or any of the great and important moments of our lives, our challenges, our successes and failures, our high hopes and darkest fears. But who will say—oh, I don’t know, if the last trumpet hasn’t sounded in the east, in 2037 or even in 2107—that they are so very glad to be members of St. Andrew’s in their time. We might think about them, our grandparents and especially our grandchildren, as they are with us today.
As I read the lessons appointed for Third Easter I was also reading an article by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine [April 15, 2007, pp 44ff]. The article, “The Power of Green,” about how awareness of climate change is beginning to impact the global economy and the political and social relationships of people and nations around the world. In any case, I recommend the article, but I want to share today a few sentences from the end. Friedman says, “An unusual situation like this calls for the ethic of stewardship. Stewardship is what parents do for their kids: think about the long term, so they can have a better future. It is,” he says, “much easier to get families to do that than whole societies, but that is our challenge.”
It struck me that he caught the spirit of the lessons this Sunday, and of the themes we are going to be looking at this afternoon. The wider view. The big picture. Certainly counter-cultural in a world where conspicuous consumption and immediate gratification seem sometimes to be the twin pillars of economic and social well-being.
This great story in Acts describes the major critical moment in the life of the post-Easter Church. The Conversion of St. Paul, on the road to Damascus. Visions and voices and rumbling in the heavens. But the passage goes on beyond that moment, to the process of formation that will follow. Ananias of Damascus also has a vision, and a new vocation. And his home is transformed unexpectedly to become a place of healing, and then the first formal Christian Missionary Training Center. The message, that God has a plan. A bigger picture. A plan that will unfold gradually, in God’s own good time, calling us into new and unexpected directions. Full of challenges. Change. Sacrifice. Growth.
I read in a transcript of a press conference this past week with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as a reporter asked him, given all the crisis and storm of the wider Anglican Communion these past few years, if he didn’t sometimes wish that he might have kept to his former work as Archbishop of Wales and as scholar and theologian. And he replied with this great line: “When God calls you to do something,” he said, “he doesn’t show you the small print.” A great line for Archbishop Williams, for St. Paul, for Ananias, for St. Andrew’s over 170 years, for you and me. The plan unfolds, calling us and challenging us in new and unexpected ways, revealing to us bit by bit where we are in the "big picture."
This of course then at the heart of the Easter vision of the 21st Chapter of St. John: the disciples on the lake, the mysterious stranger on the shore, the invitation to share a meal, the recognition of the Risen Lord, and then the dialogue with Peter, who becomes the type and symbol for the Church, for all of us. “Do you love me?” Remembering all Peter’s failures, his falling short, his betrayal, his inability to do the right thing, in the moment of decision. “Do you love me?” And then this image of Christian life, vocation, destiny. Here’s the “small print.” And for all of us: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” That's the "small print."
We love our life here together. Our friends and family, good times, rewarding and meaningful in so many ways. But the plan unfolds, and we are inevitably reminded that it’s not about us. We are just a small corner in the big picture. Not to be loved, but to love. Not to be served, but to serve.
In any case, what I want to say is that it seems to me that in an odd and unpredictable and rather surprising way, God has assembled a pretty amazing team here at St. Andrew’s. You guys. Us. This week I was looking at some slides from Easter a year ago and from the last Shrove Tuesday dinner and then just looking at you—as I do right now: pretty amazing, really. Personalities, gifts, wisdom, creativity, energy, incredible resources. And what I believe is that it wouldn’t make much sense for God to put a team this spectacular together and then not give us something pretty important to do. Which I think he has.
These words, “Feed my sheep”—think about how we put that into action. How we become his hands to hold, his arms to embrace, his heart to love. And how an important part of that is what we build here, how we are able not simply to tread water but to grow and to flourish in our time and place, and to build for the future.
If we talk about things being a little precarious right now in some material ways around St. Andrew’s, that’s important—the business of this meeting, which I know we will address with appropriate seriousness. No question but that that will be the case, with the great leadership we have on our Vestry and with our staff and truly each and every one of us. We’ll do what we need to do. But I would say even more.
Twenty or so years ago there was a film about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the nun who devoted her life to the care of the dying among the poorest of the poor. And she is asked what her goals were, what she intended to accomplish, and her reply, after a moment of thought, becomes the title of the film. She says, “I want to do something beautiful for God.” Which is of course what she was doing, and which is what we are all called to, wherever we are, here on Hampton Street, at meeting #170, into year 171, and in all our lives, and which is what I see you doing every day in a magnificent way. For which today I thank you. You are an encouragement and inspiration to me, and I know that we are called and invited with joy to continue to be that for one another here in this good place.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.