A Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost + October 29, 2017

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost + Proper 25A
First Lesson: Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18
Psalm 1
Second Lesson: I Thessalonians 2:1-8
Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46

Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Today is a monumental occasion in the life of our parish, a day that we’ll remember for years to come as the first time that we were presented with the master plan and conceptual drawings for the first phase of building our new worship space. This is an exciting time for St. Catherine’s! We are a young but growing parish, and with each passing day, we are becoming more and more known in the community as a church that exists, not for ourselves but to love and serve others. We are a church full of people who are committed to doing the work that God has called us to do in the building up of God’s Kingdom on earth. Looking forward to this day, I’ve been especially reminded of this over the past several weeks. At the beginning of the month, we had a service for the Blessing of the Animals to commemorate the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, reminding us that we are stewards of God’s creation, called to care for the earth and all of God’s creatures. That same week, members of our parish volunteered their time and energy to go to Montevallo to help build a home for a family in need. On the third Saturday of this month, St. Catherine’s once again opened its doors to the members of our community in need of food through our Beans and Rice Pantry, and this past week, your Vestry held its monthly meeting, reminded me once again of how blessed we all are to have the support and leadership of such a dedicated group of people. Yes, this is an exciting time! There are so many exciting things that we’re already doing in our ministry together as a parish, and I believe that there are many more yet to come.

You may be surprised to discover that this month also marks an important anniversary for our parish. It was ten years ago, in October of 2007, that the first worship services were held at St. Catherine’s. Ten years is quite an achievement. Some of you have been here since the very beginning, and you know how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time. In many ways, today seems like the conclusion to one chapter and the beginning of another, and It seems especially appropriate that we remember and give thanks for this important milestone as we prepare to get our first glimpse at what God has in store for us in the future.

I actually started preparing my sermon for today several weeks ago. I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could spend some time today reflecting on where we’ve been as we start to look toward the future?” So, I reached out to John Mark Ford, the founding rector of St. Catherine’s. I asked him if he would mind sharing with me some of the memories that he has from when St. Catherine’s was founded, and of course, he was happy to help.

In his letter, he mostly reflected on the challenges and the joys that he experienced during his first year as the priest at St. Catherine’s, which was simply called “Chelsea Episcopal Church” at the time. The earliest members of this new worshipping community began meeting in the cafeteria at Chelsea Middle School for Bible study during the summer of 2007. In his reflection, John Mark wrote, “The summer at the school was mostly disastrous! A couple of the Tuesday nights during the sweltering part of the summer, they forgot to leave the air conditioning on in the cafeteria. One night the fire alarm went off during the entire evening. One night that I was there, they scheduled a PTA meeting the same night in the cafeteria without recognizing the conflict with our meeting. While not fun at the time, it was so consistently a problem that it became funny and actually resulted in some good bonding in our group. We also managed to have a number of really good get togethers there, including our first pot luck dinners.”

John Mark continued to reflect in his letter about some of the discussions that were had concerning where to relocate after the middle school and whether or not an actual church building would be helpful or a hindrance to church growth. Of course, it was eventually decided that St. Catherine’s would relocate here to our present location. He also wrote about how difficult and complicated it was planning worship services that first year, especially for Christmas and Holy Week. The thing that stuck out to me most, though, was the next to last paragraph in his letter. John Mark wrote, “I also remember fondly a sweetness with the group where all of us were learning how to do this together. None of us felt too confident in our abilities, but we all had a common goal and worked together the best we could to accomplish that goal. I’m not sure there are many occasions in the life of a parish when that is the case, and it was definitely my honor and privilege to get to be a part of that wonderful, hectic time in St. Catherine’s life.”

What I gathered from John Mark’s letter was an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Yes, times were difficult back then, and St. Catherine’s had its own, unique set of hurdles to overcome as a brand new worshipping community. But, despite those challenges, they grew together in love and gave thanks to God by devoting their time, and their talents, and their resources to the work of proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ.

They did this because they believed, as I believe now, that there is still a need for the Church of God to be present in and among God’s people, to work for justice and reconciliation, and to be bearers of God’s Word in a world that so desperately needs to hear it. They devoted their lives to spread of the Gospel because they believed, as I believe now, that there is still a need for the Church of God to be a symbol of hope in times of trouble, to be an instrument of God’s peace, and to share the love and mercy of God with all of our brothers and sisters, especially the most vulnerable among us. My friends, this is why I’m so excited about the future of St. Catherine’s and why I’m so enthusiastic about the possibility of building our first worship space – because we are needed. As Christians, we are needed. As Episcopalians, we are needed. As the Episcopal Church in Chelsea, Alabama, we are needed, perhaps now more than ever.

Jesus teaches us in our Gospel lesson for today that the greatest and most important commandment is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Many people misunderstand Jesus’ words in that last statement. He isn’t saying, “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” What he’s actually saying is, “Love your neighbor as though that person is a part of your own self, your own being.” When we think about Jesus’ words in that way, it opens up for us perhaps a new way of understanding our call, not just as individual Christians, but as a church. To me, it suggests that our fundamental work is not about serving “the other” but about recognizing the fact that we are all connected as beloved children of God.

As we continue to grow and as we prepare to build our first worship space, it’s important that continue to bear this in mind- that we are all connected as beloved children and that the mission of St. Catherine’s is first and foremost what we believe God is calling us to do in our own time and place. It’s on the home page of our website, and it’s printed on the front of your worship bulletin every Sunday morning. The mission of St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church is “to seek, love, and serve God through worship, education, and service and to share the redeeming love of Christ with the world.” That’s it. Everything else, including our new building, is secondary to the mission. The Church without a building is still the Church as long as it remains faithful in seeking to fulfill its mission. The building is merely a vessel, a helpful instrument in gathering God’s people together, forming them as disciples, and sending them back out into the world to love and serve God. Building upon the foundation of those who have come before us, we must remember this as we move forward together. We must remember who we are and to whom we belong. Amen.

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