It’s so good to look out from here and see everyone together at one service. For those of you who may be attending our Annual Meeting Sunday for the first time, my sermon is kind of a hybrid: think of it as a State of the Church address filtered through the prism of God’s Word.
A few years ago, one of our members gifted with discernment made an incisive comment. Her words got to the heart of something that I had been thinking about for a while, but couldn’t quite get a handle on.
Here’s what she said: “Fr. Dave, St. John’s is a lot like a spiritual buffet. There are so many different service times and ministries and programs. No matter who you are, you can find something here that you will feed you.”
Over the past six years, as we’ve implemented our Visioning the Vineyard Strategic Plan, it’s amazing to think about the buffet of ministries and programs that have come to life:
Lenten Prayer Partners. S.A.L.T. (Senior Adults Living Triumphantly). Youth B.E.A.T. (Being Extraordinary Around Tallahasee), our summer community service camp. The Advent Luncheon. The Jewish Christian Teaching Series in partnership with Temple Israel. The choir tour and parish pilgrimage to England. Living Waters in Cuba. Student mentoring at Riley Elementary, Leon High and other schools.
Do Justice, a new social justice group. Growing in Grace, our adult confirmation and faith renewal class. Invite.Welcome.Connect, our evangelism and new member ministries. Men’s Grill and Chills. The construction of the Memorial Garden and Columbarium. The Master Plan for our Campus. Our For All the Saints capital campaign.
This is just a partial listing of the many dishes in the buffet. I think we can all agree that’s it’s a good thing to have options. We love that there is something for everyone and freedom to choose, but there’s always a shadow side to good things.
I don’t know about you, but after I eat at a buffet, I’m hungry again in about two hours. Buffets may dazzle us with options, but rarely do they deeply satisfy our hunger.
Think about Jesus and his friends at the Last Supper. There could have been cheese, olives, hummus or other Middle Eastern staples.
But Scripture tells us that Jesus was primarily focused on two signature items: bread and wine. He took the bread and blessed it. He held the cup of wine and blessed it. Then, he shared that meal with his friends, his own Body and Blood, a meal that deeply satisfied his disciples just like it feeds us today.
I’m thinking of my friends, John and Margie, from a prior parish. John and Margie helped Carol and me lead a marriage enrichment course. During one of the talks that they gave, they shared about the best meal that they have ever enjoyed together as a couple.
It was in Paris, of course. For the first few days they were there, John and Margie wined and dined at the best restaurants in Paris, the ones with Michelin stars and famous chefs. They loved the variety of food. It surpassed even their highest expectations.
But by day four, after all that rich food, they were ready for a change of pace, something simpler. And so for dinner one night, rather than going to a restaurant, they found a bakery and bought a right-out-of-the-oven baguette. They purchased an inexpensive bottle of wine.
They spread out a blanket in a park, sat down and broke the bread. They uncorked the wine and shared it. They asked for Jesus’ blessing over the meal and their journey. To this very day, they say that that picnic in the park is the very best meal that they’ve ever had together as a couple.
Bread. Wine. Jesus. Each other. What else could they need to be deeply fed by God?
Which brings us back to the Last Supper. There is a wonderful tradition in the church concerning the disciple John at the Last Supper, the same John after whom this church is named. He is our patron saint. John’s way of following Jesus is part of our spiritual DNA.
John, along with his brother, James, is one of the sons of Zebedee who drop their nets and follow Jesus. He’s mentioned in our Gospel today as one who witnesses Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law.
John, also known as the Beloved Disciple, is the one who sits next to Jesus at the Last Supper. Here is the writer John Philip Newell reflecting on this tradition:
“One of the most precious teachings in the Celtic Christian world is the memory of John the Beloved leaning against Jesus at the Last Supper. It was said of him that he therefore heard the heartbeat of God.”
This next sentence is key for our church now and in the coming years: “He became a symbol of the practice of listening—listening deep within ourselves, listening deep within one another, listening deep within the body of the earth for the beat of the Holy.
Do we know, each one us, that we are bearers of the sacred beat of life? Do we know that we can honor that beat in one another and in all things? And do we know that it is this combination—of knowing that we are bearers of Presence and of choosing to honor the Presence in one another—that holds the key to transformation in our lives and the world?”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, what would it be like for us to listen deeply for the heartbeat of Jesus? Rather than adding more dishes to the buffet, what it be like for us to hone in on some signature dishes that will deeply satisfy our souls? What would it be like for us in the coming years to go deeper and connect more profoundly with God and one another?
These are the questions that our Fruits of the Vineyard strategic planning team asked as they set out on the journey of leading our parish on a year-long journey of discernment. The team, chaired by Sarah Ball Miller and Nancy Mattimore, is made up of about 20 parish members of all ages, including two senior high youth and two college students.
In the fall, the team focused on research, during which the entire parish was invited to fill out a survey and offer their insights, dreams and concerns. Everyone was also invited to take part in our parish-wide Visioning Day on January 6. With our grassroots, Holy-Spirit led approach, every voice counts.
More than 100 people came together on Visioning Day to discern God’s dream for our future. I shouldn’t be amazed by this, but I’m always struck by the creativity of our congregation. Your enthusiasm and joy are contagious!
The other amazing thing is that we immediately began to hear common visions, goals and practical ways forward. The strategic planning team is still working on getting these visions and goals in final form, but I can share three general ways that our church will seek to listen deeply for the heartbeat of Jesus in the future.
The first is that we desire to grow into an even more vibrant congregation that connects Tallahassee’s diverse population with God and one another. Another way to say this is that we want to sing with strangers.
I borrow this phrase from Brené Brown, a bestselling author and social researcher who’s a member of the Episcopal Cathedral in Houston. Recently, she preached at Washington National Cathedral (Video of sermon here) and shared her own faith journey.
After years of being both attracted to and repelled by the church, she and her family finally made the decision to get more involved in a church and become official members. While there are many aspects of “organized religion” that still give her pause, she appreciates how the church encourages us, Sunday after Sunday, to sing with strangers.
Or to paraphrase her own words: “In church, I’m invited to sing and pass the peace with people the other six days of the week I want to punch in the face. People I don’t vote like, think like, or speak like. In church, I reach out and hold their hands and pass the peace and receive God’s peace back.”
Brown believes that we’ve sorted ourselves behind barricades of belief. More and more in the U.S., she maintains, we tend to live and work and socialize with those who believe like us.
You would think that behind these barricades of belief that we would feel closer to each other. The opposite is true. According to Brown, the only thing that really unites us behind these barriers are common enemies. She calls it “common enemy intimacy”—we’re united because we hate all those people on the other side of the wall.
Common enemies don’t make for true belonging and intimacy and so, as a result, we’ve become lonelier. Brown maintains that loneliness is more dangerous to our health than smoking or obesity. It’s literally killing us.
The United Kingdom, Brown mentions, just appointed its first Minister of Loneliness. We’re not the only country struggling with corrosive social division and isolation.
Think about this for a moment: church may be the last place on earth in which we can regularly sing with strangers and pass the peace with those who think and live very differently than we do.
I’ve been at St. John’s long enough to know that we’re a big tent. While we may not vote, think, speak, or act in lockstep with each other, we can agree on one thing: we want to stay close to Jesus together and listen for his heartbeat. That’s what we mean when we say in our core values that we’re firm at the core and open at the edges.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we’re firm in our faith in Christ. Faith means trust, not just intellectual assent. We’re firm in our desire to praise God in unity. Any yet we’re a church of open doors. “Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you’re welcome here,” we read in our worship bulletins. We really mean that.
Frankly, it would be easier to be a church that walks and thinks in lockstep. “Sign this statement of belief, toe the line, and you’re in.” We’d probably have fewer difficult conversations.
But if we found our unity in belief statements or common enemies outside the walls of this church—and they are plenty of churches on both sides of the conservative and liberal spectrum that have fallen into this trap—than we’d also be lonelier, and loneliness impoverishes our souls.
All of this to say: St. John’s will continue to be a church of strangers that sing together, finding our unity in Jesus Christ. Strangers that sing together soon become friends who care for one another as Christ cares for us.
In the coming years, we also desire to grow in spiritual depth and outreach. In this goal, we can discern the connection between contemplation and action in the Christian life, being still before the Lord and acting boldly in God’s name.
The connection between contemplation and action is found in Jesus’ own ministry. In our Gospel today, we witness Jesus first as a man of action. After casting demons out of a man in a synagogue, he goes with his disciples to Peter’s home.
Peter’s mother-in-law is ill. Jesus takes her by the hand and raises her up. The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is a resurrection of sorts. Jesus isn’t just restoring her health—he’s restoring meaning to her life.
Don’t be thrown off by Peter’s mother-in-law serving Jesus and his disciples. She isn’t healed so that she can do women’s work in the household. The word for serve in the original is the same word from which we get the office of deacons in the church. We could say that Peter’s mother-in-law is the first deacon in the church.
She’s healed and then begins to care for Jesus and those in her home. By responding immediately through humble service, she’s showing us what true discipleship looks like.
But the Christian life isn’t just a path of constant activity and service. It’s also a contemplative road on which we learn the importance of being still before the Lord and resting in God’s loving embrace. Contemplation allows us to come home to our Living God who isn’t somewhere out there, distant from us, but as close to us as our next breath.
Notice what Jesus does in our story today. After the crowd gathers around the house and Jesus heals many people, everyone turns in for the night. Before sunrise, Jesus goes out to a deserted place by himself to pray. The rhythm of his life and ministry is one of action and contemplation, doing and just being with God in a place of solitude.
For the past 20 years, like many Episcopalians, my prayer life revolved around the Daily Office, Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. But about two years ago, I heard God calling me to pay more attention to the contemplative path.
The prayer book services are beautiful but they’re also wordy and busy. As I prayed, I could hear God clearly saying to me: “Dave, thanks for sharing. You love these services with all their words and images. You know them by heart. It’s now time for you to be still and come home. Just be silent and trust that I’m with you.”
Nowadays, my prayer life revolves around Centering Prayer, an ancient form of Christian meditation. Groups here at St. John’s meet for Centering and Contemplative prayer every week, and I’m excited about the possibility of deepening our contemplative worship and prayer offerings in the years to come.
As many of you know, last summer, during my sabbatical, I learned that many of my clergy colleagues from many different denominations are hearing a similar call from God. I’m now part of a program offered by the Shalem Institute in Washington D.C. called: “Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership.” (Link to program here)
We met for a week last summer, and we’ll meet again this summer for another residency. In between these gatherings, I meet by teleconference with a small group of clergy from all over the country.
We are brought together by a desire to enter into a deeper relationship with God and share that depth with our congregations.
The leader of our program is a retired Episcopal priest named Winston Charles. Most recently, he served as the rector of Christ Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, a church that it similar in many ways to St. John’s.
Next Sunday, Winston will preach here at St. John’s at all services. He’ll lead a forum in the morning on Contemplative Prayer. My hope is that you will join us next Sunday and have a chance to meet Winston, who is a wise and compassionate soul.
He’s also leading our vestry retreat next weekend. Your vestry is going to model contemplative leadership. In the past, our agenda for the vestry retreat has been full of business and activity. We’ve focused on vestry norms and best practices, budgets and strategic planning—topics like that.
This year, our vestry will gather for a more quiet experience. The agenda will leave time for silence and the prayerful reading of Scripture. We will open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and rest in the presence of God. We will listen deeply for the heartbeat of Jesus.
In the coming years, I could see every one of our meetings, vestry or otherwise, beginning with a devotional element and time for stillness, even if only for few minutes. Deepening our relationship with God through listening will lead us to even more faithful and bold outreach and action.
As we listen together for the heartbeat of Jesus, the third and last goal that we’re beginning to discern in our strategic plan for the future has to do with growing in resources. As a congregation, we’ll seek to give joyfully and use resources effectively.
At our parish-wide Visioning Day, I heard many of you say that St. John’s needs to work on balancing our budget year-to-year. Amen. I couldn’t agree more.
I have some good news this morning: the budget approved by your vestry for 2018 is not only a balanced budget; it calls for a small surplus. More on that during the Annual Meeting.
We’ll continue to balance the budget every year when we embrace stewardship as a spiritual practice. Stewardship isn’t just giving to the church; it’s a way of life.
It means that we give of our financial resources not to balance a budget but to balance our souls. By giving generously, we begin to understand God’s generosity to us in a whole new way. We hear the heartbeat of Jesus, who gives of himself without counting the cost.
We learn Biblical stewardship best by practicing it. Think about Peter and Andrew, James and John. They learned how to fish in a boat rather than a classroom. As children, they would have first learned to swim and be comfortable around water; then they would have been taught to handle a boat, cast and mend nets, where to fish and how and how to haul in the catch.
They learned by watching their elders and then practicing it themselves. How many of you learned about stewardship by witnessing the generosity of your parents or elders?
I know I did. I grew up in a home in which worship and prayer were of first importance. I observed my mother teaching Sunday School and offering up her spiritual gifts; my father would let my siblings and I place the offering in the basins each week.
Generosity is learned as it’s practiced. As we step out in faith, going out a little further from shore year-by-year to the deep water of fully trusting in God’s abundance, we discover how stewardship is truly a way of life.
Kate Kile, our Director of Finance, has just become of Director of Stewardship and Finance. For the first time since I’ve served as rector, we’re blessed to have a staff member who will focus our attention on how stewardship is a spiritual practice.
After Kate was with us for a few months, we realized that she had a passion for Biblical stewardship. A person of deep faith and contagious enthusiasm who listens carefully for the heartbeat of Jesus, Kate will encourage us to give joyfully and mentor the generations who will follow us in the future.
Before Jesus’ disciples lowered their nets into the deep water, they began as children playing and splashing in the shallows. Generosity is something learned best over time from those who love and care for us.
The coming year is going to be Spirit-filled, exhilarating, and, God-willing, dusty, noisy and inconvenient. Construction is never easy. It usually takes longer than scheduled and costs more than we thought it would. But all of the inconvenience, all of our hard work will be will be worth it in the end.
As many of you are aware, we’re going to lovingly care for the historic church building and construct a new Welcome Center that will open doors to our members and the people of our community.
In another city, I passed a church that was undergoing a major construction project. The church building was completely wrapped in scaffolding, but there was a large banner near the church entrance that contained an arrow and these words: “Jesus is this way.”
That’s why we we’re stepping out in faith to undertake this project. Children, youth and adults will meet Jesus in the historic church and these new spaces.
Just because we’re getting ready for construction doesn’t mean that ministry will come to a standstill. In early March, St. John’s will host the spring Board Meeting of Episcopal Relief and Development. For two years, I’ve served on the Board of this organization which is truly the hands of feet of Jesus healing a hurting world.
I’m proud that Episcopal Relief and Development Board leaders from all over the country will meet here at St. John’s. Rob Radtke, president, and Josephine Hicks, vice president, will preach and teach here at St. John’s on Sunday, March 4.
In Holy Week, Frank Griswold, a former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, will preach at services and lead a community-wide Lunch-n-Learn in the Café.
This spring, Mtr. Abi, who was awarded a prestigious Lilly Endowment grant, will take a sabbatical which you will hear more about during the Annual Meeting. Please join me in congratulating Mtr. Abi. She will return to St. John’s brimming with new insights and vision.
Her grant proposal included funds for a priest to help us when she’s away. The Rev. Canon Don Woodrum, who served for more than 35 years at St. Luke’s in Live Oak, will join us on Sundays during Mtr. Abi’s sabbatical.
In October, we will gather again at Camp Weed for a Parish Weekend. Our speakers will be Kammy and George Young, longtime friends of St. John’s and Tallahassee.
These are just a few of the highlights that you can look forward to in the coming year.
Let me conclude by saying how much it means to me to serve as your rector. Every day, I see God at work in our midst. Personally, I’ve seen the impact of St. John’s on my own family. Your faithfulness and kindness has formed our children, as well as Carol and me.
By your side in the vineyard, I look forward to singing with strangers who will become friends; to growing in spiritual depth and outreach; and to giving joyfully of our life and labors. Together, let us continue to abide in Jesus and listen for his beating heart.
A sermon preached the Rev. David C. Killeen on February 4, 2018, at St. John′s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee.