Thursday, January 3, 2008

Using The Gifts -- An Annual Report

Happy Epiphany.

This is the day that the Magi -- the Wise Men from the East -- came to worship Christ.  It’s the day they brought gifts from outside Jesus’ own people to recognize God’s hand at work.

In some cultures, this is the day when children get their gifts because it commemorates the gifts of the Wise Men -- Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.  

As we celebrate this parish of St. James’ -- as we look back at what we have done AND forward to our plans, it is perhaps most important of all that we look at our gifts.

One thing you should know about the gifts of the Wise Men.  They are not merely for fun.  Each one of them is a sign -- a symbol of the work that lay ahead of Jesus -- a sign for what he would mean to the world and what he would give to us.

Gold - a sign of wealth and royalty.  Jesus brought to us God’s great richness and also promised to lead us as our Lord.  Not a lord we cower before but one we follow with joy because we know he leads us to joy.

Frankincense is a sign of prayers ascending to God.  It is a sign of holiness because Jesus brought a sense of the holy to us and fills us with his presence.

Myrrh.  The toughest of the gifts because it was not only used in anointing kings but also in anointing the dead.  You’ll notice that when Isaiah envisions a day when foreignors would honor Israel, they brought Gold and Frankincense but not myrrh.  Too somber an offering.  But Jesus did not shy away from the somber reality that faced him -- he would die -- for us -- and ultimately defeat death. 

Jesus took his gifts and used them.  He didn’t have to, of course.  He could have ignored his gifts, tossed them in a corner or used them as mere amusements.  Praise God, he did not.  He used them for the spread of the Kingdom of God.

Which is what we are called to as well.  So -- have we allowed ourselves to ignore our gifts -- to merely use them for ourselves while ignoring the giver of the gifts.  Have we ignored the purpose for those gifts, to make Christ known?  Or have we been using our gifts well?  This year I think we can say the answer is YES.  There have been setbacks, as there are every year, but this has been a good year for us.

First, let’s get the setbacks out of the way.  We had neither a Vacation Bible School nor a pageant last year, and our planned Towel Camp was cancelled unexpectedly.  We also had to cancel a dinner last month, which I deeply regret.

On the other hand, when you plan things, there is always the chance you will not do them.  But if you never plan to do anything, you will never do them.  What we have done this year, on many fronts, is encouraging.

I’ll start with our Stewardship Campaign recently completed under the leadership of Russell Urban-Mead.  We had a large increase in pledging this year, and for that, I thank you.  Many of you increased your pledges, and many at St. James’ pledged for the first time.  What a joy.

Our budget is still extremely tight thanks to rapidly increasing costs, but we are moving in the right direction.  Part of that is increased giving but another -- and huge -- part is due to the fiscal and physical stewardship give by our Vestry and our Buildings and Grounds Committee.  I would like to thank our  Treasurer Diana Magel for helping us get a reign on our finances.

And I would especially like to thank Jack Kinne, Seth Sheraden and Kristin Cotton of the Buildings and Grounds Committee for saving this church many thousands of dollars by keeping a tight watch on what we spend and by doing much of the actual work themselves.  We have a new cable internet system and cable telephones (at a savings to the church over the old system), a new, simplified internal telephone system, and of course new boilers in the parish house and -- as of last week -- the church.  All in all, we have a better physical plant than we did a year ago, and a more stable financial picture.

As Diana will let you know, that does not mean we are in the black -- we aren’t -- but we are moving in the right direction.

We continue to be a beacon in the world of Outreach, taking stock of what we do and what we might want to let go of.  The funning thing is, when Outreach considered what it might want to let go of, I believe the committee chose to continue everything it does now.

We are also beginning to move in the right direction in other areas.  At a Mutual Study of Ministry the Vestry had last September, one things we realized is that we have spent so much time in recent years on physical facilities that we have neglected our purpose for existing -- Spiritual Life.  As a result, we have decided to put more focus on it.  Not only do our Vestry meetings now begin with a time for what we call “checking in” where we find out how each other is doing, but we’ve begun ending our meetings with compline, a beautiful prayerful end to the day.  

But Spiritual Life itself is finding new legs.  In Advent, we had a wonderful quiet evening with Brother Daniel of Holy Cross, and we are in the process of planning at least one or two more events this Spring.  One I’m hoping to plan is a workshop on Centering Prayer.  I hope it will attract you.

Our youth group -- another area where we plan to grow -- will have an overnight retreat next weekend in which its members will plot out what sort of group it wants to be in the future.  

We also had a Bicentennial Committee kick off to remind us that our Bicentennial is just three years away now.  How will we celebrate?  That remains to be seen, but I ask all those who care about the history of this church to step up and begin the planning.  It would be a shame for our 200th anniversary to come and go unnoticed.

I am happy to report that St. James’ is stepping forward in the larger church -- at least a little.  In October, we hosted the Regional Council’s annual meeting.  More than a hundred delegates from around the region came here, and it was declared one of the best councils yet.  I want to thank the entire Vestry for its hard work preparing, and for their gracious hosting of the event.  We have another opportunity to shine in our region when St. James’ hosts a clergy quiet day with Bishop Sisk in March.  

I continue to serve on the Regional Council’s executive committee, and for the first time in many years, another parishioner, Diana Magel, was elected to the same committee.  

On a personal level, I celebrated ten years at St. James’ in 2007 and look forward to many more.  I attended a CREDO conference for Clergy in May -- an opportunity for Episcopal priests from around the country to gather and review our ministries together.  One result of that meeting is that I began writing a Blog -- a Web log -- that I update a couple of times a week.  If you ever miss a sermon, you can always find it there.  This year, I plan on learning how to Podcast sermons -- that is record them and maybe even video tape them and then put them on the internet.  If that works, I may try to star recording classes and or meditations -- isn’t technology wonderful?

Speaking of classes, we begin two series of classes this month.  The Communion Class for second and third graders begin next Saturday and run for six weeks.  The Inquirers Classes for those to be confirmed next November begins on the 17th.   If you are interested in Inquirers classes -- or just one or two of them -- please let me know.

When I started writing this report, all I thought I would say is, “Things have been good, and God has blessed us.”  Indeed, from impressive buildings and grounds to a rich history, to wonderful people, God has given us wonderful gifts.

But like the gifts the Magi gave to Jesus, these gifts are not merely for us to play with. They are meant to be used -- used for us to grow closer to God, and used for us to bring Christ’s Good News to those around us.  God has given us these gifts.  Let’s use them.