Dwelling together

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A sermon offered on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 18,2014.  As is the custom, the sermon on the third Sunday in May took the form of the Rector’s Annual Report.  The Annual Meeting of the parish followed the Mass.  The lectionary readings were Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10 , and John 14:1-14.

Today’s Gospel is familiar to many of us, especially in the King James Version, “In my father’s house are many mansions.” As you know, scripture translations vary, and they have varied greatly with this verse. Several versions say, “in my Father’s house are many rooms,” and in the 1980s a trial translation, meant to be more accessible to more people suggested, “in my Father’s house, there are many apartments.” I recall an older gentleman in my field education church who roared at that, “I’ve spent my whole life in small, noisy apartments, with too much family….when I get to heaven, I want a MANSION.”

But if you think about it, that doesn’t really make much sense. “In my father’s house are many mansions…” How does a mansion fit in a house? It’s one of those biblical phrases we’ve gotten used to without really considering whether it makes any sense. I think it’s a helpful thing for the New Revised Standard Version to give us the translation we heard today: In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

The word that used be to translated “mansion,” now “dwelling place,” is the Greek word, monai. In Latin, it was translated, “mansio” and so we get mansion, or as the Presbyterians call the house of their pastor, the “manse.” But the Greek can mean a lot more than a final destination. Its meaning can refer to a resting place, a stage along the way, a stop-in, or a kind of holy rest-stop before continuing on.

Jesus is saying, in effect: In my father’s house, there are many dwelling places, many places to take a rest and take stock and regroup. In my father’s house—the kingdom of God, God’s holy realm that begins on earth and continues into heaven—there is no final stopping, but stages along the way, dwelling places along a pathway of growth and development.

One of the great gifts of this parish is that it has been a dwelling place and a resting place for so many through the years. Sometimes we grieve the transience, the fact that many young singles are only here for a couple of years and then go off to grad school or another job; or many young families are here early on, but the complications of life take them into the suburbs or schedules that just don’t allow for Sunday morning worship. Some of our older folks can’t afford to stay in the District and others move to warmer climates. For a variety of reasons, people come and go, the rhythm of their life striking harmony with the rhythm of All Souls life, but then something shifts, and a new tune is made. And while our outreach team, communications team, and vestry are all working with me to figure out ways to welcome more fully and engage people more deeply, I also think we should be grateful that for a time—however long or short—people have found God in our midst. A lot of people, in fact: In 2013 we increased our membership by 31 and officially decreased our numbers only by 7, giving us a total active membership of 406 persons. Our average total Sunday attendance was 182. As I’ve said before, it’s fine if we grow in numbers, but I’m much more interested in our growing in depth, spirituality, and faithfulness to Christ.

I like this idea that the kingdom of heaven can be marked by a series of dwelling places because it suggests that God is never finished with us. Like a former parishioner of mine who began learning Chinese at age 70, and like Jim Child who is teaching Hebrew to a small group of people now—as long as we’re alive, the Spirit of God is living and working and growing within us. If we’re alive spiritually, we will be growing.

In our church there are many dwelling places. We dwell in places of worship, physical and spiritual places, and in places of mission and incarnation.

We dwell together in worship.
“Happy are they who dwell in your house! They will always be praising you” Psalm 84:3 (Book of Common Prayer)

Ben Hutchens and our choir, Ed Perlman and our acolytes, our ushers, readers, healing ministers, and many more have helped us maintain a robust (if not aggressive) schedule of worship and feast days while continuing to call us more deeply into “the beauty of holiness.” (And we’ve had a lot of fun.) We celebrated 113 Sunday Eucharists and 125 weekday Eucharists. The Daily Office (usually Matins, or Morning Prayer) was offered here 209 times. We had 15 marriages and 5 burials.

In addition to special worship services to launch our Capital Campaign in February and to celebrate our formal groundbreaking in September, 2013 saw our experiment of a four-Sunday summer music festival in July. The average Sunday attendance for the series was 187 people, a 25 % increase over our usual Sunday attendance. In 2014, our choir is making a tour in England, but we hope to do the summer music festival again in 2015.

A dwelling place of stone and glass.
“Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.” Exodus 25:8

We’ve continued to enjoy our physical dwelling place, even as we’ve endeavored to renovate, restore, and build anew. Our Senior Warden Dale Lewis has been tireless in his caretaking, leadership, and management of the building and especially our All Souls Forward building project.  Our Junior Warden Jeff Wells calmly and expertly led a successful capital campaign that you’ll hear more about in the business part of our meeting. When we realized that the permitting process needed to be jump-started, the vestry hired Marsha Oates on an hourly and as-needed basis to help oversee things and to coordinate with the contractor and architect. She has saved us money, and along with volunteer Rick Tayler, has helped us stay on track and watch the bottom line. Our Garden Guild under Terry Adlhock’s leadership has “rolled with the punches” as construction continues to bring up new challenges, but has continued to attract new hands to help and to impress our neighbors with our beautiful grounds.

Our construction is just beginning, but enormous thanks to all who have given or pledged to the All Souls Forward campaign. Permitting delays and weather delays have driven the cost up a bit, but we are making progress. Also, there are the inevitable discoveries made, like with any older building. But thank you for your faithfulness. Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for your giving. Next year this time, weather permitting, we can have the French doors open and enjoy the breeze during our annual meeting in the undercroft. Parishioners and visitors who use wheel chairs or scooters will be able to use bathrooms in our building, and not have to make a quick dash to Starbucks between church events. We will get there, with your help. And if you haven’t pledged or made a gift to our capital campaign, please do. We need your help. We need everyone’s help.

We dwell in the Spirit.
In Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, he urges that “you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” Ephesians 3:16-17

Our Adult Christian formation has largely been offered on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. We also tried a short series on being new to All Souls including an Instructed Eucharist. We will do this again when our building allows more flexibility. We have had Bible studies, book studies, prayer groups, and special Quiet Days.  Mother Elizabeth Orens has begun a women’s group and the men’s fellowship has continued.

Each year at this time I have given a mixed to negative report on our efforts to continue a Sunday morning program for children as we join other churches to continue to struggle with the realities of twenty-first century families. Jen Catena Davis has been here almost every single Sunday, but some days there would no kids, on other days three kids with wide age differences, and then one Sunday there might be ten kids. I don’t know the answer and I’m not sure our parents do, either, but in the coming year we will continue to pray, talk, and imagine how we might serve our youngest members with more intention. Thanks to Stefanie Vestal for her continued help with the Sunday school.

We dwell together in mission.
‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” 1 Kings 8:27 (King Solomon realized that God was more than stone and glass.)

Last year at All Souls, people dwelt together in small groups—configurations that are part committee, part task force, part open forum. Newcomers, Wise & Mature, Communications, Outreach & Evangelism, All Souls are Green, Stewardship—these are all ways that have tried to be faithful to Christ in tangible, creative ways. Our stewardship team, in part, has grown out of our capital campaign effort, as we began to feel more connected to our blessings and wealth and more honest about what God might expect from us. We’ve also learned about the amazing rewards of living with generosity. All this is mission, as it involves following Christ into the world (and into our homes and pocketbooks) as fully and faithfully as possible.

God dwells with us.
“The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14

As the Incarnation has to do with God’s coming to dwell with us, we have been blessed by the ways in which All Souls is made flesh and blood, sweat, and aching muscles. We’ve been blessed with volunteers and with staff. Mother Elizabeth Orens and Father Christopher Worthley have been a huge help and support and Sister Elena Thompson, OPA has been a wonderful presence on many Wednesdays and some Sundays. Our weekday office volunteers: Ford Chinworth, Terry Horan, Clark Ball, and Barry Huber have kept us going. The archives room is a busy place under the guidance of Marko Zladitch along with volunteers Jeanette Studley, Maggi Tomicello, and Sandra Welch. Our seminarian Tyler Doherty has been a great gift, and I am grateful to Jennifer Crumlish, who chaired his parish committee and to those who have served on his committee. Moises Flores, who works as our Sunday sexton, is as consistent and reliable as the sunrise and we don’t thank him enough for his helpfulness. Ben Hutchens has moved us and motivated us to new standards of excellence. He surprises and astounds so often, that I sometimes fear we take him for granted. Ben: please know that we don’t take you for granted—nor any of our choir. Christine Hagan, our staff singers, and our choir volunteers out-sing and out-perform themselves, and we all benefit. In the office, Mary Beth Howard has continued to improve, invent, and streamline. In 2013 we changed our bookkeeping arrangement and brought Dawn Hower in the office one day a week. Online giving was made possible, and Dawn has helped us integrate our accounts, and keep a better eye on the budget, expenses, and income. Our volunteer treasurer, Terry Cain, continues to keep track of things and give reports that are of a quality we simply could not afford, were he not doing it for free. His patience and abilities are an absolute gift to us.

Our Endowment Board has continued to manage our endowment funds with great care, and in 2013, both the Endowment Board and the Vestry worked much closer to discern an appropriate contribution from the endowment to the capital campaign. Even though there sometimes an almost built-in difference in perspective between what the Vestry might see as a pressing need and what the Endowment Board might see as a pressing need, 2013 marked a new level of collegiality, openness, and a shared view that we are, indeed, one body and one church in Jesus Christ.

Our Vestry has been a kind of dream team, and I’m so grateful to each one. Dale Lewis’s leadership is an absolute gift, and I hope you’ll thank him for his work every time you see him. Jeff Wells rotates off vestry as Junior Warden, but will continue to monitor the Capital Campaign giving – we could not have done it without him. Larry Sturgeon is rotating off vestry after many years as treasurer and then vestryman. And Margaret Romig has resigned from vestry given demands of work, family, and her commitment to lead our stewardship effort in the coming year.

We live with temporary dwellings.
“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.” 2 Corinthians 5:1-2

I mentioned earlier the five funeral or memorials we did last year. One was for a parishioner who moved away years ago, Courtney Stevenson, and another for friend of the parish who had been attending for several years, John (Sandy) Sempliner. The three others were well known members of our community: Harriet Curry, Mary Beth McCutcheon, and Tom Speight. May they rest in peace and rise in glory.

The loss of dear friends and family reminds us that all physical dwellings, including our bodies, are temporary. But Jesus promises us that in his father’s house are many halting places, way-stations, and areas for pause and contemplation, for seeing old friends and family and making new ones. There is a movement and an order and a progression. As long as our souls are alive, we grow and encounter one another from dwelling to dwelling. And in Christ, our souls are alive eternally.

Thanks be to God for a good 2013. May God help us to be faithful and loving in the years ahead. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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