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Today, as we celebrate another year of ministry in Jesus Christ through Hickory Neck, and as we host our Annual Meeting, we hear words of encouragement from Holy Scripture.  The reading from Isaiah says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.  …you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…”   God’s words spoken through the prophet tell God’s people they are cherished and loved, they will be protected, even through the waters and fires of life, and they are called for a purpose.

As I reflect back on this past year, we have seen evidence that we are precious in God’s sight, and honored, and loved.  We see that most readily in the pastoral care and fellowship of Hickory Neck.  Whether we have been visited by a priest or a Eucharistic Visitor, whether we have received a birthday, sympathy, or prayer card, or whether we have had our dreams heard and affirmed, we have felt precious, honored, and loved and Hickory.  We have felt that same sense of love in times of fellowship – whether laughing at coffee hour or brunch, finding spiritual renewal at the Women’s Retreat or a Quiet Day, connecting with longtime friends at summer merged services or our new Rector’s lunches, or whether we have met new friends at joint picnics with the Kensington School – we have felt God’s love through one another.  And as we have baptized many a child this past year, married and renewed the vows of parishioners, and lovingly buried old friends, we have felt that sense of being honored and precious in God’s eyes.  If ever we were uncertain that God loves us, that we are precious and honored, we find that affirmation in the ministries and witness of one another at Hickory Neck.

Life at Hickory Neck also testifies to God’s insistence that we not be afraid – that God is with us as we pass through the waters, through the rivers, or walk through the fires.  We entered 2018 with budget deficit, knowing we had trimmed as much as we could, and praying for generous hearts and frugal hands.  And just this week, our Treasurer tells us that we finished the year in the black!  I am so grateful for the ways in which God inspired your generosity to Hickory Neck, helping us serve Christ in the world!  Talk about walking through a fire (and literal waters, as Pete Devlin bailed out the Chapels too many times to count this year!).  But that was not the only trial this year.  This year we also passed through the waters of being a property that only hosted a church to a property that opened its doors and its hearts to a new school.  We labored through SUP permits, giant trailers and construction, the demolishing of an old playground and the creation of a new beautiful playground, and waiting for a Certificate of Occupancy.  But we emerged out of the waters into a new relationship – one that is bringing mutual blessing and joy, that is blessing our community, and is serving a need beyond our doors.  We have walked through waters, rivers, and fires, and yet God has been with us, inspiring us, encouraging us, and building us up to be stronger witnesses for Christ.

Finally, when God tells the people of Israel they are called by name, and they are God’s, we hear echoes of that same sense of calling at Hickory Neck.  God has called many of us to new ministries this year – from new Task Forces, to covering duties once held by a volunteer sexton, to new chairs of committees and participants in ministries, to a new deacon.  God has also called Hickory Neck out into our community. From hosting the Winter Shelter, to providing backpacks to neighbors in need, to raising funds for local charities, and supporting the work the Discretionary Fund does to help neighbors in financial crisis.  And when one of our new member’s family was devastated by fires in California, Hickory Neck claimed them as their own, helping support their recovery.  As members of Hickory Neck, we are called by named, known by God, and are serving as witnesses of Christ in the world.

Unfortunately, we do not get to close 2018, dust off our hands, and say, “Good work, Hickory Neck!  You’re all done!”  As we look toward 2019, with yet another budget deficit, we realize a few things.  This year holds yet another river we will need to cross – a river that the Lord promises will not overwhelm us.  This year, I, with the help of Personnel and our Vestry, will be reimagining the staffing of Hickory Neck as we face yet another transition.  As Charlie’s tenure as our curate comes to end and we celebrate his time with us, we know that Hickory Neck will need to envision a new way to staff our parish for the future.  I do not know the end result of that discernment, but I do know that God has powerful things in store for us.  As much as mentoring a curate into a new ministry has been a blessing for us, I suspect the other side of this river has blessings for us too.  We have hints of that blessing as we see the generosity of many in our parish, a majority of whose pledges increased, and whose average pledge is higher than many Episcopal parishes.

As we look ahead to 2019, we hear echoes of God’s words through Isaiah, “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”  Upon the completion of our Church Safety Task Force’s work, the Vestry will be making some decision and implementing new practices to ensure each parishioner’s safety while on our campus because each member and visitor’s life is precious to us.  Likewise, our Pastoral Care team will be implementing the new Circle Ministry to help parishioners stay connected through prayer every week.  Meanwhile, the staff and leadership of Hickory Neck has committed itself to honoring one another through increased opportunities for fellowship and pastoral care, for formation of children and adults, and for the tending of our newcomers.

Finally, as we enter into 2019, we do not forget God’s words to the people of Israel, “I have called you by name, you are mine.”  One of the primary reasons we and the Bishop called Deacon Bob to serve Hickory Neck was so he could help each of us assess how God is calling us this year, reminding us to whom we belong, and how we can serve this God who loves us so much.  We answer God’s call later this winter as we host Winter Shelter on our own for the first time since we started co-hosting Winter Shelter weeks.  This year we also commit to Hickory Neck’s calling to be a home the multigenerational care of our neighbors.  We expect our relationship with the Kensington School to deepen, as we offer Godly Play classes to students, increase pastoral care efforts to students, teachers, and families, and as we add opportunities for fellowship and formation.  We will also continue our discernment around elder respite care, determining how to address the growing need in our community and how we can utilize our resources for our neighbors in need.  God has called us to powerful ministries in 2019, and Hickory Neck is poised to respond, “Here I am, Lord.”

When I read this passage from Isaiah in preparation for today, I felt an overwhelming sense of affirmation, encouragement, and emboldening.  When I looked back at 2018 with Hickory Neck and looked forward at 2019 with Hickory Neck, I felt a similarly overwhelming sense of affirmation, encouragement, and emboldening.  God is doing great things for, in, and through us.  God celebrates with us this day, and also throws us back in the saddle as we take on the mantle of being called to seek and serve Christ, and strengthen this community into a community of belonging, believing, and becoming.  I am confident in what God is doing through us, and I encouraged by the witness of each person in this room, and I am emboldened by the activity of the Holy Spirit working in us to witness Christ’s love and light.  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.  …you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…”   Amen.