I have received several requests to have my sermon before our Annual Meeting printed in the November Genesis. I hereby gladly honor that request:
Sermon Annual Meeting
October 21, 2018
The Rev. Robert L. Banse, Jr.
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Again, Good Morning! Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. And welcome to the Annual Meeting of this congregation.
I am not sure how many of you are fully aware of our men’s group that gathers here on the third Saturday of each month. There are usually anywhere between twelve to twenty of us, including friends from the larger community, who come together, not only for a delicious breakfast, but also for lively conversation relating our faith to what is going on in the world around us. Gray Coyner serves as the convener of the group and he always gets things started by sharing with us some reflections and observations. Yesterday, he reported on a recent visit to his ancestral home in Waynesboro, Virginia. He came away with the distinct sense that, as time goes on, members of his extended family are growing less and less interested about the relationships and the stories that make for the foundations of the family’s history. He asked our group a challenging question: How many of you know where your grandparents, and as a bonus, your great-grandparents are actually buried? A number of hands went up around the table. He then asked, how many of you have ever visited their graves? The hands going up were fewer in number.
Gray’s questions raise one of the very important matters we are called to consider on this day of our Annual Meeting. Lest we ever forget, the life and ministry of this congregation is not just about those of us who presently call this our church home. The mission of this congregation is rooted in a history that goes all the way back to the 1840s. Our mission here and now stands on the shoulders of the many saints who have gone before us. I know that we are often referred to as “the Mellon Church” and there is no question that we would not presently be who we are without their incredibly generous vision and support. But this congregation existed well before the Mellons moved into this community. God has been at work in this place for many years and that is something we are called to celebrate today. The mission of this congregation extends back well before the 1950s, 1979, 1991, 2005, 2007, and this present moment. We don’t own this place. We are merely stewards passing on our way to the resurrected life that is to come.
My point is this: Tradition matters. Knowing about whence we came informs and guides us as to where the Holy Spirit is leading us next. We are Episcopalians, not Congregationalists. We have been formed by the worship laid out in our Book of Common Prayer. We ascribe to a belief in God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as defined in the Nicene and Apostles Creed. Our faith is not so much dogmatic as it is practical and expressed first and foremost in seeking to love God with all that we are and all that we have and embodying that in the ways we choose to love one another as Jesus loves each of us. The sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, Marriage, Confirmation, Ordination, Reconciliation, and Unction are outward and visible signs of God’s love and presence in our lives. This history and these traditions matter. They remind us from whence we have come and whose we really are.
But, my friends, there is also a danger here. A Christian community that chooses to dwell only in the past is at risk of losing both its present and its future. These congregations turn in on themselves. They end up worshipping really only themselves. They become religious museums, spiritual social clubs where the veneration of their ancestors takes precedence.
And so, even as we celebrate and honor the past life of this congregation this morning, we must always, by the grace of God, be looking forward. We learn from those who have gone before us to prepare for what is ahead, recognizing that the world we are called to serve is radically different than it was the 1840s, 1950s, and even the early 2000s. To dwell in the past in this sense is both detrimental and destructive. We must focus with open hearts and minds on where God is leading us next.
This ministry of discernment is never easy. Please remember that, according to St. Mark’s Gospel account, the disciples of Jesus had a really hard time hearing and understanding his message, his Good News.
Consider this. Five weeks ago, we heard Jesus say to them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)
Four weeks ago, when he had discerned that they had been arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest, Jesus told those disciples, “Whoever wants to be first amongst you must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
Last week, when it was made clear to the disciples that those possessing great wealth would find it more difficult to enter the kingdom of God than it would be for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, Jesus concludes this divine insight with “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”. (Mark 10:31)
Obviously, he had not yet broken through. For just moments ago, after hearing the request of James and John to occupy the places of honor when he comes into his kingdom, thereby sharing in his power, Jesus responds, and I am going to guess with some real weariness, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10: 42-45)
Please notice. Jesus in none of these passages disparages the desire for greatness. Indeed, he makes it very clear that greatness is indeed the
chief goal of all who are willing to follow him. It is just that “greatness” in the Kingdom of God is entirely and radically different than what our world calls “greatness”. Greatness, in God’s kingdom, has nothing to do with accumulated wealth, or titles on the door, or places of honor at the boardroom table, that big dinner party, or at the upcoming Gala. In God’s kingdom, greatness is about being servant to all and ultimately about a willingness to lay down our very lives for the sake of the Good News that Jesus came to share with those who are shunned and ignored and left unloved by our world.
And I want to be very clear about this in my final Annual Meeting with you, the people of Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville, Virginia: I believe, as I have always believed, that this congregation is called by God to greatness as understood in God’s kingdom. It always has been. It is now. And it always will be.
When you have had the opportunity to read my contribution to the Annual Report, you will know that, as we look to the upcoming season of transition in the life of this congregation, we concentrate on three priorities first articulated by one of my favorite saints, Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he awaited his trial and ultimate execution by the Nazi government. In the coming months, I would recommend that we focus particularly on these three focal points of Christian life and ministry. They are 1) Prayer, 2) Outreach, and 3) an unwavering hope in God’s love for the whole world made incarnate in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, at risk of sounding bold to the point of arrogance, I truly believe that if we dedicate ourselves to these three spiritual disciplines, the ongoing life of this congregation will be blessed beyond measure.
My friends, it begins and ends in the practice of prayer. Prayer is not about the recitation of words. Prayer is, as Jim Hammond reminded us several weeks ago, about opening ourselves to an ongoing conversation with God. It is about the alteration between the purifying of our hearts, minds, and souls and the illumination of the same. Prayer is to enter into the presence of the living God just as we are. Without prayer, we will not know how to properly build this congregation in the years ahead.
I love the way we pray here at Trinity: our liturgies on Sunday mornings, the opportunities to celebrate baptisms, marriages, and burials. I love our keeping of the Church calendar and our celebrations of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. The Wednesday noontime Eucharist is one of my favorite moments each and every week. Lest we ever forget, our commitment to music worthy of our worship of God is, in fact, prayer. And our intercessors gather here on Monday afternoons and on Sunday mornings to offer prayers of healing and the praise of God. Still, we cannot pray enough. Going forward, I would recommend regular gatherings for prayer in the upcoming time of discernment. I would also strongly suggest making much more use of our trails and our outdoor chapel in encouraging the practice of prayer in the life of our church.
I also love the outreach ministries of our church. I love the fact that we generously support all kinds of ministries in our communities and in our world. I love the hands-on outreach that so many of you are already committed to, whether it be SOME or Seven Loaves, The Food Pantry, the Thrift Shop, Windy Hill, the Upperville Council of Churches, and elsewhere. Outreach is an absolutely necessary and vital expression of our faith. It is the path to truly understanding greatness in the kingdom of God. Again, without it we tend to forget about the world and begin to turn inwards only on ourselves. I would that we are very much at the point we must once again turn our attention to reaching out the children and young people of our communities. We must take to heart, that if we do not provide these sisters and brothers of ours with the opportunities to learn the traditions and great stories of our faith and life here and now, the future of Trinity Church will be very much in doubt. I ask you to continually pray about our outreach here at Trinity as you prepare to welcome my successor.
Finally, we need the enduring HOPE that is our faith in Jesus Christ. God knows our world is in desperate need of hope at this time. What we need to realize and understand is that Jesus has called us to be messengers of that hope. We need to let the world know that, even when our world’s structures are under great duress, the cornerstone that is the Gospel remains. Our hope here at Trinity is in Jesus Christ, our strength and our redeemer. Our hope is not in ourselves. Our own strength and skills are not enough to heal a broken world.
Now, it is certainly true that our work in proclaiming that hope requires the investment of each one of us. It requires our supporting the mission of this congregation in the ways we commit our time, our talent, and our material wealth in carrying this message out into the world. Please know that our faith calls us to this commitment just as much in these seasons of transition, perhaps even more so. I promise you that you will be hearing more about this facet of our baptismal vows in the coming weeks. Hope in the midst of change is one of the greatest messages we are called to witness to in our present age.
You see, even in the midst of all manner of uncertainty present in our world today, our hope is, and will always be, in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. He is our rock and he is our salvation. It is this hope that brings us together today. It is this hope that is the foundation of our church and ultimately defines us as the people of God. It is the hope that our predecessors proclaimed in this place. And it is the hope that we are called to proclaim here and now. Let us lift that hope up in the coming year. Let us share that hope with each other and with the world around us. Together, let us celebrate that hope today and everyday of our lives. Amen.
Faithfully in Christ,
The Rev. Robert L. Banse, Jr.