This sermon was delivered on the occasion of our Annual Meeting at Hickory Neck Episcopal Church.
As I have been preparing for our Annual Meeting, I have been thinking how grateful I am to have John as our companion today as we look back at a year of ministry and look forward toward what is to come. In general John is not my favorite character in scripture. He always seems a bit extreme – sort of like that overly enthusiastic street corner preacher to whom you carefully give a wide berth and with whom you avoid eye contact for fear of having to explain how your understanding of Jesus is a bit different from theirs. But today, I find resonance with John.
When Jesus asks John to baptize him, John’s immediate response is to resist. John’s response is the classic, “But that’s not how we’ve always done it,” response. This year, Hickory Neck had countless opportunities to respond like John. When our Sunday School program elected to repurpose an unused classroom that had become storage because our Godly Play program had grown so much, we could have resisted the change and associated work involved. When our Curate suggested we try out Ashes-to-Go on Ash Wednesday, we could have easily come up with myriad reasons why our property was not suited for such a program. When our Praise Band decided to take a break from worship leadership and try Jam Sessions as a way to cultivate praise music in our community, we could have easily resisted their discernment and their creativity. When the Kensington School offered to take over the children’s station at our Fall Festival, we could have easily gotten in the way or resisted their leadership. When our Outreach Committee suggested we take on a week of the Winter Shelter by ourselves, separating from our long-time two-week sharing pattern with St. Martin’s, we could have resisted the change because we have never done Winter Shelter that way. The opportunities to respond with John-like resistance have been overwhelmingly present over the last year.
Fortunately for us, Hickory Neck is a community who, like John works through innate human and communal tendencies toward resistance to change, and instead, embraces consent. When John initially resists Jesus, Jesus comes back to John with an invitation to trust him. John and Jesus engage in an open relationship of dialogue. And, Matthew tells us, quite simply, “Then John consented.” Matthew’s simplicity can belie how tremendous John’s consent is. John’s consenting means letting go of control, letting go of the comfort of familiarity, letting go of the confidence that you are right and the other is wrong. Those three little words, “Then he consented,” reveal John’s trust, John’s courage, and John’s humility. John’s consent is not passive or weak. John’s consent is bold!
That is what I have seen in Hickory Neck in this last year of ministry. We have been bold! When your Vestry formed this time last year, they took on a year-long process of visioning and strategic planning. You will learn more about that process in the coming months, but I can tell you the Vestry has exhibited a lot of trust, courage, and humility as they looked at who we are and where we are going. Hickory Neck has been bold in other areas too. When our Parish Life team decided to resurrect the Shrove Tuesday Talent Show, I was uncertain how the Talent Show would go. But we spent the night laughing, playing, and glorifying God in bold ways. When the Kensington School invited us to teach Godly Play as an elective class, I was almost certain we would not have anyone sign up. But out of 70 students, about a third of whom are ineligible due to age, we have over 20 students who regularly come to listen for God. When our Musician decided to organize Evensongs, helping us prepare for a pilgrimage in England, I wondered whether many people would come to hear the traditional musical offering. But when over 100 people, half of whom were visitors, attended, we saw how we are a community who can celebrate all kinds of music. Or when we decided to totally transform this space for Flip Flop Mass, even the staff were not sure what we were doing. But the joy and delight on worshippers faces afterwards taught us we had found something unique, meaningful, and fun. Hickory Neck has been embracing bold responses to God all year long!
Part of our willingness to be bold this past year has been rooted in Hickory Neck’s identity and values. As our Vestry articulated our values this year, one of those values was curiosity – an embracing of experimentation, playfulness, and joy. That value, which is not common among churches, I assure you, creates in us an inherent ability to do what John does – to consent to Jesus, to the movement of the Spirit in what might be happening next. That is why I am confident 2020 holds the promise of many more expressions of boldness. After a successful year of offering a Godly Play class at the Kensington School here in Toano, the director has asked us to offer a Godly Play class at their Williamsburg location – a location that has around 250 kids as compared to the 70 kids here. We will need to find about four more teachers to enable such an undertaking, but such boldness could mean sharing the good news not only with our immediate Upper James City County families, but families throughout our region. As we face the departure of our curate later this month, a full-time clergy position that cannot be financially replaced due to pledging, we could choose fear, resistance, or despondency. Instead, our Personnel Committee, Vestry, and Staff have been creatively trying to figure out a new staffing structure – a way to think about ministry differently, employing the gifts of the entire community to achieve something different, but equally life-giving that can facilitate the achievement of the strategic priorities our Vestry has articulated. When our dream of bringing more childcare to our community was realized, a group of parishioners realized that not everyone could afford that childcare. Instead of feeling frustrated or stymied, a group came together to form a Scholarship Committee to figure out how to make childcare accessible to our neighbors. That group has boldly discerned the need to create a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that can raise funds – and not just for children in our community needing care, but eventually, even for seniors needing help with care. The process may take a while to coalesce, but the Committee is demonstrating to all of us how to live more boldly this year.
The reason John is able to consent comes out of his trust in Christ Jesus. We know from Matthew’s Gospel that John is not always consistent in his trust. Chapters later, as he sits in a jail cell, his trust in Jesus waivers. But here today, at the banks of the River Jordan, John talks to Jesus about his misgivings, John articulates why he believes he knows what is best, and John takes into consideration the wisdom of another way from Jesus. John chooses the boldness of the unknown path of Christ over the confidence of how things have always been. John chooses the wisdom of the Spirit over his own long-accumulated wisdom. John chooses to trust God is doing something new, and consents to going along for the ride.
The same is true for Hickory Neck. Any of the boldness we are hoping to embrace this year is rooted in who we are: a community anchored in deep, daily prayer, in meaningful, diverse worship, in varied forms of study and theological reflection, in life-giving, meaningful relationships with one another and the wider community, in the giving of care and support to those who need that care. All of those activities, those things that shape who Hickory Neck is, create a foundation for us to have a deep enough relationship with Christ that when the Spirit invites us into something new, something seemingly out of our reach, something unlike the way we have done things, we have no problem looking into the eyes of Jesus, and consenting. Now, being bold is not easy. To be bold means we acknowledge we are leaving our comfort zones and a sense of security. But when I look around our community – when I look at each of you and the gifts you bring to Hickory Neck and the ways God is working good through you, the idea of being bold with you isn’t so scary. In fact, being bold is kind of exciting, invigorating, and fun. I cannot wait to have more fun with you this coming year, and I am so grateful we have each other live into this new year of ministry. God has great things in store for us, and I feel privileged to be able to stand with you as we consent to the movement of the Spirit together. Amen.