Sunday, January 26, 2014

Annual Address for the 2014 Annual Parish Meeting

Grace and Peace to my fellow ministers of St. Luke's:

After three years, the luster has worn off the relationship between new priest and new congregation. In some sense, I am still trying to figure things out. This has caused a sense of frustration on my part and, I'm sure, some frustration on your part. I think that may be why this report was so difficult to write – that and a sense of measurable decline.

Numbers continue to be an issue for our parish, both of the attendance type and of the budgetary type. Attendance continued to decrease for the third straight year, and the budget continues to reflect that as the number of pledges decrease and the level of contributions stagnates.

According to the Service Register, our numbers for the past three years are as follows:

                                                 2013       2012       2011
Total Sunday Attendance:             3879      4271        4744

Average Sunday Attendance:            75          81          90

Easter Vigil Attendance:                   41         42           63
Easter Day Attendance:                   95        101         115

Early Christmas Eve Attendance:     60          84         104
Late Christmas Eve Attendance:      58          54           55

Our pledge cards also reflect this downward trend:

2014 Pledge Cards            2013 Pledge Cards
51 Cards - $109,263         55 Cards - $126,228

Besides a significant lack of anticipated income, Diocesan Canons stipulate that we are now given two delegates to convention instead of the three we had been sending.

Other areas of our common life also seem to be declining. Movie Night attendance has dwindled to three or four. Monthly potlucks occur less frequently. The game night experiment hosted by Frances and Victoria Osborne never really took off. This year's Christmas Bazaar suffered in both attendance and funds raised. And our music program, even though aided for a time by Dr. Ted and the purchase of a new organ, continues to struggle.

My stated goal of “leaving the church in better shape than I found it” would seem to be in jeopardy right now. If I were a football coach, I would be wondering if my job on the line. But, despite the similarities, I am not a coach, nor is St. Luke's a football team. Neither am I ready to walk away.

As the above numbers indicate, these are challenging times. Many of the challenges that faced us in 2013 are also present to face us in 2014. Among other things, we are faced with competition from other interests and other theologies. But the Church was never meant to be part of the mainstream, nor was it meant to be the backbone of a political theocracy. One could argue that the Church lost its soul when it cozied up with Rome. We need to find our soul again.

Once again we need to ask: Who are we called to be in the upcoming year and beyond? What is the mission of this congregation? As I said, I have been here for three years and I'm still trying to figure this place out. The more I look and ponder, the more I keep coming back to one thing: All are Welcome.

All are Welcome proclaims our sign on 4th and D. This congregation has proclaimed itself as a welcoming congregation for years. I have seen that welcoming ethos in action in my short time here and, in general, would agree that we are. But it's an uneasy ethos and proclamation. It's uneasy because the people we want to welcome are just like us and we are unsure of how to welcome those who are different.

What is our mission in 2014? What if we lived into the statement on our sign – All are Welcome? What if, instead of trying to recapture the glory days of 1957, we reached out and welcomed the people of today? This can be difficult.

There is an uneasy tension in welcoming in that we want to be welcoming, but we don't want to welcome the wrong people. There are standards. There are non-negotiables that we must adhere to in order to protect both God's house and our very souls. There are lines we cannot cross. Or so we think.

But those lines are barriers of our own making. We choose which sins are acceptable in our eyes, and which sins we will not tolerate in a vain hope of protecting the purity and sanctity of this place.

What if, however, the line St. Luke's chose to protect wasn't a line of sin but the line of love? What if St. Luke's became the church in Grants Pass that didn't say, “Sinners of this type need not apply,” but said, “For the love of God, All are Welcome”? It's easy to create rules and barriers to live by because they tell us exactly how to act and whom to exclude or remove from our presence. Living into God's love, however, is difficult because God's love crosses the lines and breaks down the barriers we have created. Living a life that reflects God's love is difficult because it challenges us to confront our deeply held prejudices and ask, “Why?”

Scripture is full of examples where God's love wins: the saving of Nineveh; the healing of Naaman; the protection of a Gentile widow and her son; the many healings performed by Jesus; and the many encounters of Jesus where he treated the outcast, sinner, foreigner, Other and those the religious people deemed unworthy as equal human beings.

In 1 John it is written: Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

I admit this is difficult. It is difficult for us to let go of those rules and regulations we have established in order to protect the purity and sanctity of God's house. It is difficult to let go and live fully and completely into All are Welcome. But living into that is another way of living into the command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I have become convinced that this town needs a church like this. This town needs a church where the rights and privileges of the majority are extended to minorities, outcasts, sinners and Others just as equally as those rights and privileges are enjoyed by the majority. This town  needs a church where All are Welcome isn't just a catch phrase on a church sign, but an actual way of expressing the love of God to the wider community.

If we lay aside our fears of lagging attendance and a dwindling budget, if we lay aside our fears of welcoming the wrong people and our fears of just plain being wrong – if we lay those fears aside and step boldly out in love, Welcoming All, then we just might find ourselves living into a new way of being. And that new way could have serious and positive implications for this parish, this town and those whom we welcome.

The question for 2014 that we need to answer is, “Are we willing to take that radical step?”



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