Delivered 27 January 2013, the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (Year C) by the Rev. Mary Slenski


“Open your ears, 0 faithful people, open your ears and hear God’s word. Open your hearts, 0 royal priesthood, God has come to you.” (H82, 536)

I was really pleased to see this hymn in Dennis’s selections for today. It fits perfectly with our Scripture readings. And the Jewish melody has a real propensity to turn into a head worm. Not a bad thing when a refrain of “Hallelujah” gets stuck in your head.

Let me set up the first reading from the book of Nehemiah. This is only time we hear of him on a Sunday. Nehemiah was a leader of the people of Israel while they were in exile in Babylon. When the people returned to Jerusalem, he became governor. His big project was to rebuild the wall around the city. He also made a census of the Jewish people, those who had stayed and those who’d been carried off and then returned. Those important tasks reestablished order and security. Then the people gathered and asked for their priest and scribe, Ezra, to bring the sacred books and read to the people. The sacred book was the story of how their people ordered their lives with God. They wanted to connect with it anew. They wanted to infuse the present with their past so that they could move into a future that built upon the foundation of their foremothers and forefathers. They hadn’t had the book with them in Babylon. I can’t remember if it was lost or just set aside by the people who remained in Jerusalem. In any case, I’d say they were anxious to renew their relationship with the God of mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. You can imagine the gate scene as either a solemn gathering of reading, preaching, and teaching or you can imagine something akin to a tent revival. In any case, the people heard and responded: Amen, Amen. They wept in the power of the spirit of the Word they heard, and then they had a great pitch-in supper complete with leftovers for anyone who forgot to bring a dish.

Now, this is a great scene unto itself, much like our own worship today. The real shame is that we don’t hear the rest of their story. The risk in opening the Word of God is that you might hear something you don’t want to hear. That’s exactly what happened. They got really caught in a dilemma between their lives as they were and God’s desire in what the book said, between the letter of the law and the intent. The crisis they felt was timeless. Their pattern of response is timeless even if today we might not understand their choice.

There’s a real risk in getting involved with Scripture. And that’s exactly what I’m inviting everyone into with the Bible Challenge, where you get to read the rest of the story. Yes, there’s a risk, but the upside is worth it.

The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah and their people became part of the continuing story of the people of God. Congregations write their own scriptures, too. They’re called the Parish Register and the Service Register. They’re the photo albums and vestry records. They bear the record of a people striving to live as the people of God in their time and place. As the people called for Ezra, their priest, to read and “give the sense,” so your senior warden has called upon me for what I call the State of the Parish Report. I’m going to make it here, within the context of our Scripture readings.

You’d be very fair in asking what I can say with any depth on my 27th day as your interim rector. I wondered myself. St. Paul’s profound metaphor of our physical body for the Body of Christ was quite helpful. Consider a checkup for our physical body. It’s always comforting to go to our favorite doctor who knows our past history. Yes, we can get fine healthcare from the other partner in the practice when needed. So think of this as much like that checkup where the doctor has some numbers like your blood pressure and heart rate that will tell her something. She’ll have your chart to glance through for trends. She’ll make a physical examination, assess how you answer questions, and then make an assessment. She may confirm what you’ve always known, notice something new, have a new idea for that chronic symptom, or totally miss something. Time will tell. I’m going to follow this same pattern to describe of the State of St. Stephen’s as I perceive it today.

The Service Register, where the attendance at every worship service is recorded, says the Average Sunday Attendance—or ASA—in 2012 was 73 people. For comparison, the median ASA in the Episcopal Church in 2011 was 65. The median means there are as many churches with more than 65 as with less than 65. This 73 is well in the range of what’s called a pastoral-sized Congregation. Just as small families will relate to each other differently than medium or large or even very large families, congregations of different sizes relate to each other and organize themselves differently. The important things for me right now is that you’re not on the edge between one size and another and you’ve been in this range for decades. No dramatic or traumatic changes.

Sunday attendance is often a source of anxiety. We’re in a building that seats 4 times that many. Sixty-eight percent of Episcopal congregations have fewer than 100 in worship on a given Sunday. Many are sitting in spaces that seat many more than that. You’re in good company. There’s a turning going on across the Episcopal Church, a turning away from memories of church-that-used-to-be toward nurturing what’s best and most alive in our congregations. Old habits are dying, old customs changing; the true tradition formed by centuries of common prayer underneath it all is finding space for resurrection. We have a hard time letting things die and making space for anything new. Can you let old habits die, let old customs change, and let God be God for the sake of the generations to come?

I have a few other numbers for those who like them that show an active worship life: 89 Sunday Eucharists, 47 weekday Eucharists, 158 readings of the Daily Office, no weddings, 5 burials, 1 child baptized, and five adults confirmed.

I’m going to leave the financial numbers to your treasurer, Peggy Allen. I’ll just say she has a good report to share.

As far as trends I might notice from looking through years of records are

concerned, I’m going to comment on just one. Changes in the character of leadership are a normal part of an interim, and they’re more than just in the clergy-in-charge for a year. At St. Stephen’s, men and women have both been in leadership. It’s the where and how, the exercise of the leadership that’s rearranging itself throughout parish life. Things that used to being led by men are being led by women and vice versa. Women are claiming leadership. Things will feel different. My guess is that it started a couple of years ago. It’s like trying a new exercise program and discovering new muscles you didn’t know you had. Most important, it’s going to bring us all to a more vibrant experience of life and ministry.

Numbers, names, and records have their limits The tougher task is to check on the state of your heart and spirit. Someone seemingly fit as a fiddle can be lifeless; someone on the edge of death can be full of spirit. I asked the vestry transition team at our very first meeting to tell me their story of a time when St. Stephen’s was at her best. These stories from each and every different perspective speak to your heart and spirit. I’m going to keep calling for such stories because your values will emerge from the them. You’ll want to call a rector who will value you for who you are.

Last Saturday, vestry and vestry candidates met and shared their own stories of St. Stephen’s at her best. I’ve heard enough, experienced enough these few weeks to take a chance at naming one of your values. I share it as an example of how the process works. The value I discerned is an attitude of celebration. This may or may not ring true with any one person, and it may not be one of your top three, but, I daresay many of you say St. Stephen’s was at her best at some sort of celebration. Funerals are celebrations of life lived. Capital campaign dinners celebrate reaching a milestone on a journey. Ministries begin in celebrations of hope and expectation and say farewell with gratitude. Effusive Sunday flowers show God’s laughter. The world needs such an attitude. And so, I think, a parish that values celebrating has heart and spirit and a vital future ahead.

Our surrounding shape who we are. With rafters wrapped in ribbons, a fish blowing bubble on the altar frontal, and a baptismal font that wears a party hat, it fits.

There was a master who set a great banquet and invited lots of guests. But, many of them made excuses. So he sent his servants out into the streets and alleys and hedgerows to invite folks in to the banquet. St. Stephen’s, you’re set for the banquet and there’s room at the table. Invite them in! Amen.