ANNUAL PARISH MEETING / “State of the Parish” Address
The Rev. Keith A. Marsh
5 May 2019
Easter 3 / Year C
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
My Uncle Verlin and Aunt Irene’s small farm back in Indiana where I used to spend a week or two each summer when I was a youngster. It was where I first learned how to milk a cow, do battle with a mother hen for her eggs, and chase a half-dozen sheep around a field.
Or the Lake District in northern England, where I first learned that black sheep are not just an aberration when I saw entire flocks of black sheep on the hillsides. Or fields in the Scottish lowlands and throughout Ireland, while on sabbatical this past fall, in rural districts where the sheep out-number the residents.
Or a conversation I once had with BettyLee about her pet lamb when she was growing up on an Illinois farm.
Did this morning’s Gospel bring to mind any images or memories for you? As you can see, it did for me.
Because today, it’s all about lambs and sheep . . . and God’s people.
Perhaps you have enjoyed driving by a farm or ranch and seeing the cute, docile creatures scampering around in a field. You or your children may enjoy petting or feeding little lambs as they clamber over one another in the petting zoo. And don’t we all, regardless of our age, still know the words to “Mary had a little lamb,” the pet that followed wherever she would go?
Of course, real shepherds will set us straight by reminding us that feeding and tending and caring for sheep is actually a bit less idyllic. Shepherding as an occupation had existed for at least 3,000 years before Jesus chose to use as a metaphor – as an example – what shepherds have done for centuries. His hearers would have recognized easily the details of tending and feeding sheep, and those first-century Middle-Easterners who met and listened to Jesus would have known intimately the detailed behavior of the sheep that the shepherds among them fed and cared for and protected.
There were – and still are - in the flocks all kinds of sheep - small and weak, big and aggressive, timid and helpless, sweet and precious and obnoxious and disgusting, those terrified of predators and those who senselessly follow the animal in front, the sick and the healthy, black and white and spotted, horned and unhorned, rams and ewes . . . all kinds of sheep - just like people.
All kinds. Each one unique. Just like the people Jesus intended for Peter to feed and tend. Jesus said to him, “If you love me, then feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” Here, after his resurrection, Jesus gives Peter – and he gives us – a practical example of what it will mean to take on Christ’s work in the world, and what it means to love God with all our hearts and souls and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
This example of feeding sheep also prevents us from succumbing to our culture’s and society’s superficial understanding of love that invades our lives so often and in so many ways, an over-simplification of love that has caused the word to lose its true depth and leaving it impotent, robbed of its real power. Unlike the concept of love expressed in crooners’ ballads and Hallmark greeting cards, reaching the highest level of Christian feeding of God’s sheep is, instead, quite trying and very difficult. What Jesus demands from us is the deepest kind of love – a Gospel kind of love – an abiding and hard and sacrificial and often inconvenient kind of love. Maybe that’s why some people like to refer to Christian love as compassion. We might understand the concept of compassion better than what we often see as examples of love as portrayed in the movies or on television. And the Greek word for the love that Jesus asked Peter about – is not amore, but agape. It is the self-giving, sacrificial, getting nothing in return, giving without strings or conditions or expectations – it is the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son’s Father’s kind of love.
So why does Jesus choose this sheep metaphor to teach us about Christian love? Can we learn about this kind of divine love in the extremely earthy and earthly terms of sheep feeding and tending? Yes. Yes, we can. Think about this church. Over the years and down to today - what are the forms of outreach practiced here? What are the ministries that reach beyond the congregation – ministries that help those who need it the most, those who most need to be fed, and cared for, and tended to? Those who need to be loved.
And equally important: Also bring to mind the ministries that occur and are focused inward – focused within this congregation where we tend and feed and care for one another. And then consider what more this congregation might do in the future by listening carefully to Jesus saying, “If you love me, feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.”
Now, pause a moment and think about the sheep – the people – you would just as soon not tend to or feed – those within this faith community, our local community, or in the wider world. Who are they? Why is it often so very hard to consider dealing with them and caring for them with an agape kind of love?
Jesus came for all of us, to unlock the Holy Spirit, that spark of God within us, and release it in the form of the love he intends not just for the sheep we want to feed and tend, but all of God’s sheep, all of God’s children, all of God’s lambs.
Shepherds of today could tell us what shepherds of Jesus’ day knew about feeding sheep. They would tell us that the job isn’t easy. Sheep will kick you and rough-and-tumble rams will headbutt you. Orphans might require bottle feeding. Sheep are vulnerable to predators and susceptible to parasites. Sometimes they will fight over food. Separated from the flock, they tend to become stressed and panic. Shearing is labor-intensive and exhausting. And sheep need fresh water – even in conditions of drought in summer and hard freezes in winter. You get the picture – and – oh, yes, all the while you are feeding and tending to them, you find yourself stepping into what they naturally leave behind. A feedlot or barnyard or sheepfold is no place for the faint-hearted or those with an easily offended sense of smell.
Jesus didn’t use this metaphor lightly. He knew that if Peter’s and our love were to lead to feeding and tending “people-sheep,” it would involve very hard work – a demanding commitment that requires sacrifice for the sake of others.
Because this congregation is a part of the fuller and larger body of Christ, it can more easily continue and expand the ministries of loving outreach both beyond the congregation and the loving care within our more intimate Messiah circle of faith. Each of you can do this work better because of your mutual support of and courageous challenge to one another.
As a community, we can do this; but ultimately, Jesus calls each one of us as individual members of the community of Christ to individually respond to his call to feed and tend his sheep.
This has not been a particularly easy year here at Messiah – especially over the past few months:
One staff member, our Parish Administrator, Sue Phillips, has suffered a mild stroke, leaving her without debilitating physical impacts, for which we are most grateful; but she has a difficult path ahead as she struggles to fully recuperate and regain her ability to focus and multi-task, things her position requires. Along with input from Sue, her family and therapists, we will be assessing what temporary or permanent accommodations, if any, we might make to assist her in performing her job.
But one, I am announcing this morning: We could use some volunteers to come in Monday through Thursday, from about 10:00-2:00 to cover the phones, run the copier, stuff envelopes, proofread bulletins and various communications, and the like, allowing Sue to concentrate on the more detailed portions of the job. If interested, please speak with me.
And I would ask for patience and understanding over the next few months as Sue recuperates. And a few prayers offered up on her behalf would be greatly appreciated.
The fall Stewardship campaign found a decrease in pledged income, as has been the case for the past few years. The vestry began to formulate the 2019 budget with an initial shortfall of approximately $40,000 – not an easy problem to resolve.
A second asking resulted in roughly an additional $20,000 being raised – and for that response from you, the congregation, we are truly thankful as it shows that you are invested in the health and welfare of Messiah and truly value the mission and many ministries that happen here. To each of you who rose to the challenge: a most sincere thank you!
But in spite of such generosity, we were still faced with a $20,000 deficit. While previous years saw the passing of a deficit budget, the current vestry was determined to work toward a balanced budget. This resulted in the elimination of one staff position – that of Music Director. We can no longer afford the luxury of two staff positions dedicated exclusively to our music ministry, so Rick Rosen will unfortunately be leaving us at the end of June. Our own Hannah Albrecht will assume the newly-combined position as Choir Director / Organist.
The hours and salary for all other clergy and staff were also reduced, some quite severely. Not one staff member was left unaffected. I assure you that these decisions were not made easily or cavalierly, or without angst and many sleepless nights.
And I must tell you that all staff members – each and every one of them - received the difficult news with grace and understanding, continuing, even with reduced hours and salaries, to plan and administer and carry through with their programs and responsibilities at the same high level we have come to expect here at Messiah. To each and every one of the Messiah staff – Sue, Sarah, Mike, Rick and Hannah, Tiffany and Dave – a huge, huge thank you! We truly couldn’t do it without you! Please let them know – tell them, show them that they are appreciated.
Other parishes, faced with these same difficulties have floundered or even shut their doors and stopped all together. But not Messiah . . . while faced with hard financial and staffing challenges, we haven’t missed a step - and we continue to seek opportunities to worship and learn and minister, not just to ourselves, but to our larger community and into the world.
Our Outreach ministries are a prime example:
Just a month ago, we began the morning in this sanctuary, praising God and being strengthened and nourished at this altar table; then over 125 gathered in the Parish Hall to pack meals that will feed over 10,000 hungry individuals and families in the poorest and most neglected corners of the world. Ranging in age from six to well into their nineties, we came together, along with friends and neighbors and others from our Gwynedd community, to feed Christ’s sheep. In the midst of our own troubles, we continued to reach out to others.
And so successful – and fun! – was the event that Susan Miller first brought to the vestry and then arranged and planned – so successful and fun was the first Pack-A-Thon, that we have already scheduled the “” for March 29th, 2020 – and we hope to up our game and challenge ourselves to pack 15,000 meals next year! Feed my lambs.
Belfry Bargains continued to operate and minister twice: first, in providing good quality clothing and gently-used household goods at exceedingly low prices for those who need these items and can’t afford to shop elsewhere and pay full price. In addition to ministering to those who shop there, all the proceeds of the shop – in excess of $30,000 annually – are distributed to local, national and international organizations who feed and clothe and house and provide for those facing a wide variety of needs. “Tend my sheep,” Jesus says, and through the efforts of those who work at Belfry and disburse the funds on this parish’s behalf, Messiah does just that. Thank you to all who volunteer your time collecting and sorting and pricing and selling – as well as all of you who donate goods to Belfry Bargains. Through all the efforts of all of you, Christ’s sheep are being cared for.
And “feeding the sheep” takes on other, less literal, dimensions as well. I invite Nancy Alpert-Sisson to come up and tell you about another important outreach ministry that continues to flourish here at Messiah – one that is celebrating an important milestone...
But that isn’t all: Again this year, as they have for the past 12 years, the Youth of Messiah will travel to where people are in great need and work among them. Past summers have found them ministering to Native American communities in Arizona and Minnesota, working in the inner-cities of Philadelphia and New York City and Houston, and in the foreign cultures of Guatemala and Puerto Rico. In spite of financial difficulties, it never occurred to anyone on the vestry that this important mission trip would not continue as it has every summer. So, in the third week of June, fourteen Messiah youth and adult chaperones will travel once again to the city of Ponce on the southern shore of Puerto Rico to assist in repairing homes and lives severely damaged and, in some cases, destroyed by Hurricane Maria. I guarantee these young people will not return home without lasting memories and a much deeper understanding of just what it means to care for the Lord’s sheep – especially, among the least, the lost and the last.
And building on the success of these youth trips, I am thrilled to announce that, in spite of difficult budgets and tight financial situations, not only have we continued the many ministries that Messiah has been known for, but we are actually expanding our ministry offerings. . . . Why should the kids have all the fun? It is with great pleasure that I tell you that in early 2020, the adults of Messiah will have your own opportunity for a mission trip. Plans and details are still being confirmed, but in January or February of next year, I and whoever chooses to join me will travel to Guatemala to work and minister and witness in the small villages around the ancient capital and UNESCO World Heritage site of Antigua. Exactly what the work will entail? That is yet to be solidified. When exactly we will go? Still being worked out. Where we will be lodged and fed? Don’t yet know. But I can promise you this . . . we are going forth from this place to feed and care for our fellow sheep, so stay tuned in the next few weeks as more details are released.
Maybe these examples will stimulate your thinking about how in your own life you can love Jesus by feeding and tending and protecting and caring for his sheep . . . the people within this faith community, as well as those in the larger community and around the world.
If we take seriously today’s Gospel and try to follow where Peter led after hearing Jesus, it all might seem like a challenge beyond our limits. But today we have heard Jesus’ call to us as his Church and as his individual followers to offer compassion, agape love, to a hurting and sinful world. And today we have the choice to continue following that call.
Jesus says to us: “If you love me, then feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” And so we shall.