Sermon for Epiphany 3, Year A, January 26, 2020

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27: 1, 5-13, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

          After preparing the Annual Reports for today’s meeting, we began preparing the Parochial Report which must be submitted to the National Church and our diocese.   It is a report of statistics – numbers about finances and ministries, attendance and membership – you get the picture.  I must confess, that I am one of those people who loves numbers.  However, I was not in love with all of our numbers – specifically Sunday attendance and our net income.

          A recent study revealed that members who attend regularly are now attending 2-3 Sundays rather than the 3-4 a month once reported.  Our data shows me that is the case here as well.  The number of members who are considered “members in good standing” – meaning they received communion at least three times last year, that number has remained the same at 162; our average Sunday attendance, though, has dropped.    

          We can only speculate why this is.  I do know that there are more conflicts today with Sunday mornings than there once were.  Not only is Sunday just another work day for many people, activities that were once not scheduled on Sundays are now regularly held on this day.  Weekend competitions, performances and practices are now common place.  And, technology makes “getting away” both easier and more difficult.  It is easier to take work with you and more difficult to stop working when you leave your “place” of employment.

          Down time has become virtually non-existent for some, and if none of these activities are scheduled for Sunday morning – well, it may be the only time a person or family feels they have “free-time”.  Life pushes us in so many directions it is difficult to take time for ourselves.

          I recently heard a report on a major company that experimented with a four-day work week.  Not only did employees have three-day weekends, the company actually shut down their servers so that no one could work from home over the weekend.  The result:  they found that productivity increased!  Taking time off is good on some many levels.

          My professional life in health care and now the church has never afforded me the option of truly disconnecting from work.  I have always been on call.  But I have found that worship – whether it be at Morning Prayer which is led by Lloyd Bess and other members of our congregation, or in Sunday morning services, it provides us with a time-out from the daily grind. 

Worship can provide us with a brief, but critical break from being plugged in.  It can shift our focus away from trying to accomplish something, to being present with the one who creates, sustains and redeems us.  It helps us to be more intentional in what we do, by examining our lives.  I reflect on who have I have been and who I want to be – and this helps me be more faithful to God and to do God’s will. 

          In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he writes: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”  He is writing to a church in conflict.  Conflict in churches is common, no church is immune to it.  How we understand God and our relationship with God is very personal – and there are significant differences in not only what people believe but also in how they chose to express their beliefs in worship.  Just look at how many different churches and faith groups exist in the world today – and, in Batesville for that matter. 

          As Episcopalians, we tend to love our liturgy, but we have some who love the tradition and language of the Rite I liturgy and some who love the more familiar language found in Rite II.  There are also members for whom the time of the service is more important than which Rite is used.  These may seem like minor differences, but when the new prayer book was adopted in 1979, people left the church.  And, my past experience has taught me that simply changing the time of a service can result in a significant change in attendance.

          The Episcopal Church is not immune to conflict, but as a whole we are more tolerant of differences in theology than many churches today.  We can disagree on many issues as long as “[we] are united in the same mind and the same purpose,” as Paul writes.  What is that same mind and the same purpose?  It is simply that we agree to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.”  This is what we committed to in our baptismal covenant and the reason we are here today. 

          On Sunday mornings we continue in the apostles’ teachings by reading the scriptures and praying, we pray for the well being of this community, this nation, and the world, and we come to the altar to share a Holy meal in the fellowship of one another and all the company of heaven.

A church is like a family in that conflicts tend to arise around issues of faith, finances, politics, and sexuality.   Like our faith, we accept differences in political views and human sexuality.  We are, however, committed to seek justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being – another promise we made in our Baptismal Covenant.  Seeking to see and serve Christ is others is a call and promise that crosses political lines.   

The church’s finances are a different story.  Our finances are dependent on member gifts and determine or ministries.  St. Paul’s financial resources are limited and our giving over the years for church operations has not kept pace with our spending.  Fortunately, we have inherited two endowments to supplement our giving and keep us afloat.  We are also fortunate that you, our members, have given to special funds to address capital needs. 

Conflicts tend to arise when resources are not sufficient to fund the work of the church.  For the last two years, the vestry has approved deficit budgets as St. Paul’s has sought to “rebuild.”  Pledges have increased significantly these past three years, but not yet to the level needed to fully fund everything.  Conflicting priorities can be divisive – but conflict does not have to be divisive.  We can bring the same civil discussions to issues of finances that we do to issues of faith.  We can come to a consensus without reaching full agreement.  This is how we can be of the same mind and support the same purpose.

Today we will celebrate the feast of St. Paul (which was officially yesterday) we celebrate it with a potluck and our annual meeting.  We published our Annual Reports and distributed them last Sunday – more are available in the parish hall. 

Also available, are Parish Surveys for you to complete.  This year’s survey consists of only two questions – list three things about St. Paul’s that are important to you, and list three things you would like to see at St. Paul’s.  The purpose of this survey is to determine what you, our members, consider most important and, either what you would like to see here that is not currently a part of our ministries or activities – or what you would like us to give more of our attention to at St. Paul’s.  Your participation will help the vestry be of the same mind – please help us by sharing what is important to you.

          I want to close today with the prayer for the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.

Let us pray. 

O God, by the preaching of your apostle Paul you have caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world: Grant, we pray, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show ourselves thankful to you by following his holy teaching; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.