Annual Meeting Sermon by Rev Rilla Barrett

SSE 2/12/17

Epiphany 6A
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Annual Meeting Sermon

Turning points.  Points in our lives when we, at least in hindsight, know that things changed at a given moment…that life was never the same after a certain episode.  Thinking of your life, can you identify a few turning points?  Places where you might have gone one way or the other, you chose one way, and things were never the same again?  Or, maybe you didn’t choose – maybe the events chose you.  Turning points seem to, in hindsight, help us to see more clearly our lives, and how we got to where we are.  Just follow the turning points to get to where you are now.
Alfred Nobel had one such turning point.  His brother had died and a reporter thought it was Alfred who had passed and wrote hisobituary rather than the one he should have written for his brother.  Imagine Alfred’s surprise when he woke up the next morning and read his own obituary in the paper.  (Wasn’t it Mark Twain who quipped, “The news of my death is greatly exaggerated?”)  Anyway, as Alfred read his own obituary, he was even more surprised.  To the world he was known as the dynamite king. He was the creator of this great explosive which was used in war and in construction.  Dynamite had constructive and destructive effects and was used both to build newness, but was also used in military applications, which is what the writer of his obituary concentrated on.  Alfred Nobel’s life, it seemed, was as the inventor of death and destruction.  As a result of reading this article Nobel decided to use some part of his fortune to create the Nobel Peace Prize. This prize is awarded to those who work endlessly for peace among all peoples. Reading his own obituary was Nobel's turning point. 
Another story of turning points - A young man was working on a farm. He was asked to go to a revival by the farm owner. He declined the invitation, but the farmer was persistent. The young man asked if he could drive the farmer's truck if he went with the group. The farmer agreed and the young man had an incredible experience of Spirit at the revival. The young man's name was Billy Graham. Until that day he had no intention of becoming an evangelist. Driving the truck that night was the beginning of a turning point for him, and a turning point that I think it is fair to say, had a dramatic effect on many other people.  One just never knows when and how turning points will occur – or who they will affect. 
What about events in our spiritual lives, times when we know so deeply God’s presence, that things change us forever, but have the awesome effect of causing a turning point in someone else’s life?   On Friday, the OT lesson was from Isaiah, and probably is one of my favorite pieces of scripture.  "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed; to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn . . . " (Isaiah 61.1-2). Isaiah was written over several centuries…perhaps as many as six, and so it reflects the prophetic voices of many, and the long history of Israel in the centuries prior to the birth of Christ.  This part of Isaiah is from what we call third Isaiah, or the last part of Isaiah and was written after the Exile.  God’s people had returned and are trying to rebuild after a long, long haul of being oppressed.  It, like all of Isaiah, is concerned with the destiny of Jerusalem.  At this point in their history, there was much strife over religious practices which had strayed away from the love and respect of Yahweh, and over deep social and economic divisions within the Judean community.  It sounds familiar.  The prophet whom we call Isaiah, but whose identity we really do not know, projects into the future and reminds the people of Israel that good is ahead, that God’s love is unbounded, especially as it pertains to the downtrodden.  The Year of the Lord’s favor is the announcement of the practice of the Jubilee Year of release from slavery.   In short, this is a turning point for Israel.  It is a point in which God’s people were called to change course – to pay attention to the poor, the sick, those in jail, and to quit the divisiveness which has brought them very low.  Jesus, in Luke 4, read these very words from Isaiah in the temple as his ministry begins.  The words identified him and his ministry.  In other words, Jesus was at a turning point, but the words from Isaiah proclaim that a turning point is coming for others, and would come by God-in-Jesus’ ministry.   
Last week, I spoke to you about our identity as Christians – not progressives, liberals, conservatives, but Christians.  As our country seems to be deeply divided politically, ideologically, economically, it seems to me that we, as a Christian community, have the opportunity, both as individuals and as a congregation, to respond as people of faith, and we do that by following the example of Jesus of Nazareth.  That doesn’t mean we drop our ideologies, it means we use Jesus as our plumb line.  We work for justice and mercy, respect the dignity of every human being and, with Jesus’ example, work to affect change in the world.  What might it be like to know that we aided in causing a turning point in the lives of a homeless family here on Whidbey?  What might it be like to help supply the resources to a refugee family from Central America or the mid-east and know that a turning point in their lives had been achieved?  What would it be like to aid in causing a turning point for another individual or family, or for our environment?  That is what Jesus’ ministry was about, and it is ours too.
Today is our Annual Meeting, a day in which we celebrate the events of our faith family in the last year, and look ahead into what we may be called to in the new year.  These yearly meetings, as we gather, are an intersection, a place of great opportunity to be Christ’s healing, reconciling Body in a struggling and divided world.  Reaching out to the world is our vocation, as a Christian body.  Frederick Buechner wrote that vocation is where our great gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.  It is the place, the turning place, where we find the joy and purpose and meaning of our vocation as Christians.  For, we are not volunteers in a social organization, we are members of Christ’s Body, and marked as Christ’s own forever.  And, with that status is very heavy responsibility.
So, today (and truthfully for the next weeks), let’s prayerfully consider what is our vocation here, on Whidbey Island? And beyond?  Verna Dozier, whose likeness we saw in the wonderful photo of her and our own Rev. Bill that he showed several weeks ago, astutely described our role as  Easter People in a Good Friday world.  We are to be active co-creators in this world.  We are not pawns in some cosmic chess game, but rather, beloved by God enough to be called to be co-creators of the Reign of God…and so our role, our vocation as Christians is particularly important in a world often characterized by polarized beliefs and fear.  We are called to affect change where it is needed.
As you know, the opportunities abound to be Easter People in a Good Friday world.  What wonderful ways this congregation does this work by our generous donations for our neighbors at Olympic View Elementary, the Food Bank, Ryan’s House.  Our Outreach work is amazing…I brag about what is done here when I am with my clergy colleagues.  When you go into the parish hall today, you will be given our annual report, and you can see what your Outreach has done, just this year.  Should we leave it at that?  Or, is there more we can do, both as a congregation and as a body of individuals, to bring God’s good news to our neighbors…to cause turning points in the lives of those we are yet to meet? 
On Wednesday of this week, Michele Chapman, Deacon Dennis and I attended a luncheon meeting sponsored by the Whidbey Homeless Coalition (whose mission statement I really like…”to make homelessness brief and rare on Whidbey Island” Now there is a turning-point goal, just ask folks who have been helped by the work of this coalition.)  Joanne Pellant, from Island County Human Services was just one of the speakers.  She told us that as of August, 2016, they have seen 326 families, representing 706 individuals who needed some form of housing.  They have been able to serve some of them, but, as of last Wednesday, 189 of those family units still remain unserved, and this is during a time of a very cold and long winter – simply put, it is a dangerous time to be homeless.  There simply are not enough resources to help everyone.
A warming shelter is open in Langley on some nights, depending on the temperature, and that’s good for the homeless on the south end, but what about those individuals and families in and around OH, or for that matter, the rest of Island County?  They have had no place to go.
 Currently, a plan is taking shape to open a homeless shelter in Oak Harbor, perhaps one that could incorporate the services from Spin Café and Opportunity Council all in one central location, but that is a big dream, one which will take time and money.  What about for the rest of this winter – and next?  A plan is taking shape for a temporary solution.  This would involve church groups in OH hosting our neighbors in need for 90 days at a time. One congregation in OH is close to making this commitment.   The shelter would run only at night and be supervised by the Whidbey Homeless Coalition staff and volunteers from the churches.  What sort of turning point might this be for homeless individuals – to have a warm, secure place to rest, a bathroom to use, and a little food to get their day started?  What sort of turning point might this be for a congregation or individuals in it who would like to take part?  Is this something that we as a congregation would be interested in considering?  Would individuals from St. Stephen’s be interested in helping?
            We are a growing, but not yet mighty sized congregation.  How will we, in the future, fulfill our great opportunity, our vocation, to be Christ’s healing, reconciling Body in a struggling and divided world?  How will we fight the urge to keep the Good News to ourselves here?  How will we fulfill our Baptismal Covenant and reach out to the world and yet make sure that we do not overextend ourselves? If our identity as followers of Jesus is, as our baptismal covenant states, as people who strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being, what is our action step that follows?  How will we be instrumental in helping our neighbors experience a turning point in their lives?
            We are an Easter people, for we know the Good News of God in Jesus.  As Easter people in a Good Friday world, let us do all we can to continue to support and strengthen the lives of all our neighbors in any of the many ways we can. 
Gracious and Austere God,
Grant us, we pray, the will to declare ourselves
And Dreamers
Of your life-giving word.  Amen.   Fredrica Harris Thompsett, Women’s Uncommon Prayer, p 365