That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Never-Changing & Ever-Changing: Sermon & Report for the Annual Meeting, January 21, 2018

A couple of months ago, I was part of a conversation among several parishioners about the set-up for our celebrations of the Nativity. We looking at our plans for Christmas services, and a member of our altar guild exclaimed, “That’s the problem! Things are always changing around here!”

A few days later at the November vestry meeting, as we were discussing our preliminary work on the 2018 budget and looking over the church’s calendar for the coming year, one of our vestry persons expressed some frustration saying, “That’s the problem! Nothing ever changes around here!”

Ever-changing or never-changing, the difference it seems to me is one of perspective.

Today, we meet as required by the canons of the Episcopal Church, the canons and regulations of the Diocese of Ohio, the by-laws of this parish, and the laws of the State of Ohio. These represent, perhaps, that unchanging reality seen from one perspective. Today, we meet to thank vestry members and officers who have completed their terms, to elect new persons to fill their shoes, to adopt a budget for the coming year, and to imagine a future we cannot clearly see. All of that represents, perhaps, the ever-changing reality of the other point of view.

Again, never-changing or ever-changing, the difference is one of perspective.

Today, we meet at the mid-point of the annual week of prayer for Christian unity, an observance first proposed by an Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism, Father Paul Wattson, in 1908 and universally recognized by all major Christian denominations since 1941. An “octave” of eight days, this time of focus on our unity within diversity begins on January 18, the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter, and ends on January 25, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.

The Confession of St. Peter commemorates that event recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels when Jesus

. . . asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”1

The Confession of St. Peter celebrates the stony solidity and stability of the church of which tradition says Peter was the first pope, the never-changing stony solidity and stability of the church “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets”2 of which Jesus Christ, “the same yesterday and today and forever”3, “the stone that the builders rejected,” is “the very head of the corner.”4

The Conversion of St. Paul, on the other hand, celebrates the event when Saul of Tarsus, Pharisaic rabbi and persecutor of the infant church, became the Apostle Paul, missionary to the Gentiles spreading the faith of that church far beyond its initial boundaries. Our first reading this morning was the second description of that event in the Book of Acts from Chapter 21. It is also described with additional detail in Chapter 9, where we learn that after seeing the light and hearing the voice of Jesus

Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.5

Then a disciple named

. . . Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized.6

In witness to the radical change that his vision and his baptism had worked in him, Saul changed his name, adopting its Greek form and forever after being known as Paul. Testifying from personal experience Paul would promise that

. . . we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.7

Never-changing or ever-changing, Peter’s rock-solid stability or Paul’s radical change, the difference is one of perspective.

I think this is why in Paul’s conversion experience he was made blind until after he had received instruction and why, when he was prepared for baptism, “something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.” Never-changing constancy is neither good nor bad, but it is a part of “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”8 Persistent change, also, is neither good nor bad, but “all Christians continually have [need] to renew their repentance and faith”9 and are constantly called to “amendment of life.”10 The issue is not whether we shall have one or the other, for the truth is that we have (and will always have) both never-changing stability and constant radical change. The issue is one of perspective, not whether we shall have them, but how we shall view them.

Preaching a Chautauqua last year, the Rev. M. Craig Barnes said that this was really the nature of Paul’s conversion, that Paul acknowledged that when he met Jesus, he found out there was more to God than he knew. Change comes, said Barnes, when your vision of who God is changes.11

For Paul, this change in vision led to his fundamental conviction

. . . . that God in Christ sets us free; free from our past, free from the consequences of our sinfulness, free from the corruption of death, free from having to pretend that we are somehow righteous by our own efforts, free from having to submit to countless rules and regulations, free to follow and serve Christ, the One whose coming among us, whose death and resurrection have purchased salvation for both Jew and Greek.12

Last Sunday at Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, the preacher was Ruby Sales, who is the child Episcopal martyr Jonathan Myrick Daniels died protecting during a voting rights march in August of 1965. Now almost 70 years of age, Sales is a social activist and an Episcopal theologian in her own right. In her sermon, based on the scriptural witness of God’s calling of the prophet Samuel as a boy under the tutelage of Eli the priest, Sales said that an authentic religious movement “must be filled with hindsight, insight, and foresight,” and that “without this whole sight the [church’s] vision is flawed.” In other words, vision is a matter of perspective and not just one perspective, but several which allow us to see “God’s steady and active hand in human history” and in our own lives.13

I was recently introduced to the work of a British poet named Brian Bilston whose work pays attention not only to the words selected for his verse, but to the physical placement of the verse on the page. His poem Refugees (which I am asking the ushers now to pass out) is one such piece which illustrates this matter of perspective. You may follow along as I read it out loud:

They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way14

The poem as I have reprinted and distributed it to you is incomplete. As published, there is a last line printed in italics, a parenthetical instruction to the reader: “(now read from bottom to top).” So, please, follow along again as I do that:

The world can be looked at another way
Do not be so stupid to think that
A place should only belong to those who are born there
These are people just like us
It is not okay to say
Build a wall to keep them out
Instead let us
Share our countries
Share our homes
Share our food
They cannot
Go back to where they came from
We should make them
Welcome here
They are not
Cut-throats and thieves
With bombs up their sleeves
Layabouts and loungers
Chancers and scroungers
We need to see them for who they really are
Should life have dealt a different hand
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
So do not tell me
They have no need of our help

With that instruction to read from a different direction, the same words, the same information becomes very different. A change in perspective makes all the difference in the world; this is one of the promises of the Gospel. So with that in mind, let’s look at some of the information in our parish’s annual journal, and let’s start with the parish statistics on Page 39.

Reflected there is the sad truth that we have lost members; because of the vagaries of church paperwork, we lost more members than the statistics page actually shows. We lost some because their spiritual journey took them to other sorts of religious communities; we lost some because their children and grandchildren moved away and they followed them; we lost some because the principal bread-winner’s job moved them elsewhere.

We also lost several long-time pillars of the church to death: both Tim and Bertie Stamper, Virginia Higgins, Nevada Johnson, Marcia Lincoln Hinds, and Sue Potterton. Please join me in a moment of silent reflection and prayer for their repose. [Silence] May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

We can dwell on those losses if we choose and be caught in a negative (and frankly inaccurate) vision of loss and shrinkage, or we can choose to change our perspective, give thanks for the foundation those members laid, and see how this community is building and growing on that groundwork. If we let the scales of sadness fall from our eyes we will take note of new members of our community, of Kate and Mike M_____ and their sons S___ and J___ (and S___’s companion dog A____), of Meribeth M_____ and of her adult daughter Meghan, of John and Lynn F_____, of the H____s, and the F____s, and others who have begun to worship with us and whom we welcome as brothers and sisters in Christ. Again, because of delays in paperwork, the statistics do not reflect the reality. We have had losses, yes, but we have also had gains and what is true of membership is also true of our finances.

If you read the first line of the Treasurer’s Report, you will find that “pledged contributions were under budget by $6,969.38 (2.78% below anticipations).” You could stop there and not look further, focus on the failure and fail to see the success. Yes, pledged donations were less than expected . . . because of the deaths of very generous donors. The unrealized income from those donors should have shown as an under-pledge amount nearly twice that size, but because of the generosity of other pledging households taking up the challenge and making up some of the difference, it was not. And other donors also increased their giving so that total contribution income was down by only half that amount, or less than 1-1/2% of budget. Furthermore, through efforts of many members, our other fund-raising activities were enormously successful and total income was nearly 2% over budget. Yes, pledged income was down, but it was more than made up from other sources.

And, yes, total expenses were a lot more than we budgeted, but not because anticipated expenses were larger; it was due to unanticipated expenses, two categories of which really reflect the additional generosity this congregation. The “expenses” of payouts to the Free Farmers Market and Episcopal Church Women were more than budgeted because you gave more to both those ministries. Our bank account took in more for those activities so we paid out more to those programs; it’s as simple as that. And the largest non-budgeted expense item was the Bicentennial Oktoberfest, which cost us about $6,200 but brought in revenue of more than $13,000 and, much more importantly, introduced our church to the several hundred people who attended.

The year, as the Junior Warden mentions in her report, was “bracketed by ‘pipe catastrophes’ from the ceiling collapse over the organ pipes in May to the breakage and blockage of the main sewer pipe in November.” Fortunately, most of the almost $30,000 cost of the first was covered by insurance and the remainder was more than addressed by generous donations to the Stamper Organ Improvement Fund; the $5,000 expense of the second was entirely paid for by donations from parishioners!

So, yes, we could look at this as a year of loss. We lost members to death and relocation which resulted in lost income of nearly $12,000. We lost money due to larger than anticipated expenses to the tune of another $12,000. We had to dip into our savings a couple of times for net withdrawals of about $10,000, and we had those catastrophic losses of almost $35,000. In that regard, it was not the sort of year a financial manager wants to have.

But here’s the thing. We took in $5,000 more in operating income than we expected, and we received over $30,000 in non-operating contributions, and about $25,000 in insurance proceeds. At the end of the year, our parish bank accounts and investments are worth $28,000 more than they were at the beginning, and we also paid down our mortgage by nearly $34,000. As a non-profit entity, we’re about $62,000 or 5% wealthier now than were at this time last year.

So that’s the financial “hindsight.” The financial foresight is found in the stewardship report, from which I want to quote directly:

97 Giving Beyond Boundaries commitments for 2018 were received by December 31, 2017. This is comparable to the 96 cards received the year before. Total pledged contributions to the operating fund are $247,868 compared to last year’s $256,329, a 3.3% decrease. However, during 2017, we lost six significant pledging households to either death or employment-related relocation; those six households had pledged over $30,000 annually. When allowance is made for those losses, our increase in financial support for the mission of the church is over 9.5%! That is a showing of strong faith!

Our finances are one measure, one that’s relatively easy to quantify and to understand, of an institution’s health. More than that, however, money is sacramental: it is a sign of the work we do, a symbol of our sweat and toil, an indicator of the values which inform the ministries illustrated in the several other reports contained in the Annual Journal. If we change the way look at our parish financial reports in that way, we see in this 201st Annual Journal of St. Paul’s Parish a reflection not of income but of faithfulness, not of expenses but of ministry, not of wealth but of generosity. We see a balance sheet not of assets and liabilities, but of grace and glory, of strength and vitality.

It is all a matter of perspective. I invite you to take the Annual Journal home with you and carefully read all of the reports. In them you will see the authentic movement of the Holy Spirit through this parish. You will find that, yes, in some ways things around here never change; we are the church “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” with our Lord Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone, “the same yesterday and today and forever.” And you will find that, yes, in some ways things around here are always changing because every encounter with God in Christ works a change in us. Every encounter with God in Christ works a conversion like Paul’s.

As you read these reports, including the financial pages, I hope that you will see “God’s steady and active hand” at work in this parish, and that with “hindsight, insight, and foresight,” you will see the vision of both rock-solid stability and radical change, the vision of freedom in Christ which is at the heart of this congregation’s strength and vitality.

Amen.

======================================

This is a homily and annual report offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Pauls (trans.), January 21, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector on the occasion of the parish’s 201st Annual Meeting.

(The lessons for the service are Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 16:13-18 (NRSV) (Return to text)

[2] Ephesians 2:20 (NRSV) (Return to text)

[3] Hebrews 13:8 (NRSV) (Return to text)

[4] 1 Peters 2:7 (NRSV) (Return to text)

[5] Acts 9:8-9 (NRSV) (Return to text)

[6] Acts 9:17-18 (NRSV) (Return to text)

[7] 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 (NRSV) (Return to text)

[8] Jude 1:3 (NRSV) (Return to text)

[9] The Book of Common Prayer – 1979, page 265 (Return to text)

[10] Ibid, page 409 (Return to text)

[11] Mary Lee Talbot, Morning Worship, The Chautauquan Daily, August 17, 2017, online (Return to text)

[12] David Kennedy, Sermon: St. Paul’s Conversion, Durham Cathedral, UK, January 29, 2012, online (Return to text)

[13] Ruby Sales, Sermon, Trinity Wall Street, January 14, 2018, online (Return to text)

[14] Brian Bilston, Refugees, online (Return to text)

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

2 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Lynham

    January 21, 2018 at 2:53 pm

    Many churches hold annual meetings this month. Your words could apply with different numbers to so many of them. Thank you for the “never-changing, ever-changing” idea. But especially, thank you for sharing Brian Bilston’s piece.

  2. eric

    January 21, 2018 at 2:55 pm

    Thanks, Betty! Hope you are well, Eric+

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