The Rector’s Annual Report: Baptized for Mission

Easter 2017 processionThe Annual Meeting of The Church of the Holy Trinity was held on January 13, 2019. The rector’s annual report and overview of 2018 was given in the form of the sermon. The scripture readings for The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ are Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Introduction: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Today is our annual parish meeting and like many churches, we like to understand our one worship service as being the first part of that parish meeting.  Accordingly, it’s my practice to offer my Annual Report for the previous year as the sermon, as I try to draw some connections between the scripture readings we have just heard and my sense of our previous year in faith and mission.

This First Sunday after the Epiphany is known as The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, asking us to notice that in his baptism, Jesus opens a way for us to new life in this world and beyond.  The scriptures point to the baptism of Jesus and invite us to remember our own baptism. In the first reading, God says through the Prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear, I have redeemed you… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” John the Baptist brings a message of baptism for repentance of sins, but as he baptizes Jesus we see that baptism not only is about our being washed and made clean, but baptism also has something to do with our being bathed in God’s love.  Through baptism, God says to each of us, “You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And so, from the scriptures and from our own tradition, we see that Baptism empowers us to live in the fullness of God’s love and that means at least three things:  it means 1) we get wet, 2) we make a splash, and 3) we share the water.

Living Out our Baptism: Getting Wet
As I look back over our year of faith together in 2018, I can see how we have tried to live out our baptismal vows.  First, we’ve “gotten wet.”

By “getting wet,” I mean that we are baptized—either as infants, children, or sometimes as adults, but also we live into that baptism as we deepen our faith, as we question, as we learn, as we grow together.  The Church often calls this Christian Formation.  Many of us grew up talking about Christian Education, but more recently, people have come to recognize that growing in Christ is about more than our minds—it’s about our whole being, so we are “formed” increasingly in the image of Christ.

Back in the day (and still, in some parts of our country), as many people attend Christian formation classes and programs as attend a main worship service.  In New York, demographics and the pace of life work against that model, but we do our best.  In 2018, Advent and Lenten Quiet Days (mini-retreats) offered time to go a little deeper and the Sunday morning Adult Christian Education I began in 2016 continued to provide opportunities for learning and growing.  In 2019, we’ll be adding a children’s program again.

I’m grateful to Sarah Montgomery and Eunice Ng for beginning and coordinating the Young Adult gatherings, and though I had nothing to do with it, I’m especially glad for the focus they’ve chosen.  While some churches see young adult fellowships as primarily social, Eunice and Sarah invite people in their 20s and 30s to gather at the rectory for a meal and then they discuss a spiritual issue, a theological question, or a section of the Bible.

Both within and beyond our church, a number of parishioners are involved in Cursillo, a program that invites Christians into renewal and deepening, and they are always eager for new people to go on a Cursillo weekend. (Lydia Colón and Jean Blazina are especially involved.)  Susan Valdes-Dapena and I are active with the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis and in 2018 Holy Trinity enjoyed the fellowship of Third Order Franciscans on a number of occasions.

A big part of our growing in our life with Christ is simply keeping the church family together, and much of the oversight for this particular household of God comes belongs to our Vestry.  I’m grateful to the entire Vestry for a great year together, but especially want to thank the four members who complete their terms this year: Jean Geater, David Liston, Marlin Mattson, and Liz Poole.  Enormous thanks goes to Inez Lambert who has served as a Warden of Vestry for two terms: four years, and now takes a break.

A big way in which we plunged into faith in 2018 involved our participation with the program called Renewal Works.  The basis for the conversation about faith and priorities in faith began with an online survey called the “Spiritual Life Inventory.”  While some of us wrestled with the language of the survey and were frustrated that it didn’t always allow us to answer questions the way we might have preferred, it has begun a good conversation about God in our lives—what we’re experiencing and what we want to experience. We have had remarkable participation: 116 people responded to the Spiritual Life Inventory, which is 89 % of our 2017 average Sunday attendance of 131.  I’m grateful to the Renewal Works Team (Alexandra Harrington Barker, Lydia Colon, Beth Thomas Kleinbart, Joseph Lipuma, Yvonne O’Neal, Ashley Malmfeldt Shepherd, Marlin Mattson, Calvin du Toit, Patsy Weille, Barbara Whitney, and Louisa Young) most of whom attended two long dinner meetings and four workshops to pray, discuss, and imagine the spiritual life of Holy Trinity.  In 2019, the new vestry will continue working with the Renewal Works findings, and you’ll be hearing more about specific ways we want to move forward, trying to meet some of the spiritual needs of our current parish that lead to a growth of those here and those yet to join us.

The results of the Renewal Works survey are interpreted in the context of more than 200 Episcopal Churches who have taken the survey and some 1,800 churches of other denominations.  We discovered that almost half of our 116 respondents fall into the category of “Growing a life with God in Christ.” Another almost-half fall into the initial stage of “Exploring” (28%) or “Deepening” (22%).  This means that there is lots of room to explore, grow, try things, and see where the Spirit leads.

Based on the experiences and results of other churches, there are a series of “best practices” that can become a part of a church’s over the next 2 to 3 years.  These best practices include our working to “get people moving,” “embed the Bible,” “create more ownership” and “pastor the community.”  Embedding the Bible and creating more ownership are aspects of our faith that might have to do with this image of deepening, or, put in terms of our baptism, of “getting wet.”  But the other two best practices from the Renewal Works program have to do with another aspect of our living out our baptism:  making a splash.

In terms of the Renewal Works language, we’ll explore more in the future how better to “get people moving” and “pastor the community,” though in all truth—we already do this pretty well.  We can simply grow and increase our energy and faithfulness.

Living Out our Baptism: Making a Splash
Our “making a splash” begin early in 2018 as many from our parish joined others around the city and the world tried to respond to the political changes in our country and across the globe.  Many of us gathered for the January Women’s March, continuing to advocate for justice and opportunity for women.  Whether the issue has had to do with women, the economy, healthcare, or immigration, many from our parish have prayed deeply for God to show us how to live out our faith in a world that continues to celebrate meanness, selfishness, and quick fixes.

A number of our parishioners “made a splash” in our diocese, with representation on councils and committees and efforts teaming up with other churches.  Our own warden, Yvonne O’Neal, represented us at the triennial national gathering of Episcopalians called General Convention, and served on numerous other boards and task forces, reminding us that our parish is a part of a larger church that stretches through the world.

In Advent of 2018, I visited our link parish of St. Stephen’s with St. John’s in the Diocese of London, preached there, and met many of the parish and parish council.  Again in 2018, our parish and those at St. Stephen’s developed a Lenten devotional together.  Their vicar, the Rev. Graham Buckle, will be visiting us at the end of January and will be preaching here on January 27 and we will continue to think about possibilities for ministry together—learning from each other and growing in our witness to Christ in urban, diverse cities.

Holy Trinity continued to make a splash in our neighborhood, with members serving on Community Board 8, and helping to lead local historical and civic groups.  Our parish was put in a wonderful spotlight on International Women’s Day last March as our own Erlinda Brent received a Woman of Distinction Award from State Assembly member Rebecca Seawright.  Even though Dudley Stone officially retired from serving as artistic director of The Triangle Theatre, Dudley’s standards were maintained as Triangle offered readings and plays that made a theatrical splash but also created a nice sense of community among those who participate and those who attend.

Holy Trinity “made a splash” around possible preservation work on the rectory for the last two years, as we navigated the process of city government, but thanks to the work of Franny Eberhart and others, and the guidance of good real estate attorneys and the encouragement of local officials, the scaffolding is up and work has begun.

You’ll recall that the exterior rectory work has to do with the purchase of the Rhinelander Building by Mr. Arun Alagappan and his company Advantage Testing, Inc.  Because the Rhinelander Building is zoned for non-profit use, Advantage Testing has asked The Church of the Holy Trinity’s cooperation in obtaining a special permit that will allow Advantage’s for-profit tutoring business and foundation to operate next door. Advantage has applied for the special permit under Section 74-711 of the NYC Zoning Resolution, which allows the Rectory’s lot to be merged with the lot at 350 East 88th Street for zoning purposes only. Because our church buildings (316 East 88th) and rectory (332 East 88th) are zoned as separate lots, the rectory is the only building that can benefit from this opportunity for preservation work.  To summarize, the arrangement means that Advantage Testing covers up to $25,000 of our consulting fees, $100,000 of our legal fees in the course of the work, and will pay $10,000 for the first annual inspection, required by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Advantage will pay for $1 million in preservation work on the rectory.  Should the cost go above that, the church agrees to be responsible for up to $300,000, and should the costs go above that, Advantage will cover another $300,000.  In no instance will the work go above $1.6 million. Though they are still waiting on additional permits for work, little by little, the work has begun.

And finally (and perhaps obviously, to many) we’ve been making a splash on Sunday evenings with our building’s frequent appearance in the new CBS series, “God Friended Me.”  Even though the intrusion of filming crews and their associated support systems can cause a lot of upheaval, overall, our parish has greatly benefitted from the experience.  The filming will slow down, but we are grateful for the income and the energy and recognition that has come through the series.

Living Out our Baptism: Sharing the Water
Because of our baptism, we are called to get wet, and to make a splash, but we’re also called to share the water with a thirsty world. We are fortunate with our location and the beauty of our building that we attract visitors to all our worship services.  With lay leaders and my musical colleagues Cleve Kersh and Calvyn du Toit, we aim to maintain what the Prayer Book calls “the beauty of holiness” while being welcoming, inviting, and evangelical in the best sense of that word.  We kept our regular worship schedule with the 8 AM service being small and friendly.  The 11 AM service continued with a bit more pageantry but (we hope)  never took itself too seriously.  We moved our 6 PM service into the church from Draesel Hall, and that service continued to be a bit more relaxed and informal.  You may notice we’ve changed the name of our 6 PM service from “Contemporary Eucharist (which makes it sound experimental, or like something it’s not) to “Community Eucharist,” which seems to describe the makeup of our worshipping community that is probably the most porous regarding labels of denomination or religious practice.

We’ve tried to share the water (and some of the wonder that is Holy Trinity) through increased participations in the Sacred Sites Open House Weekend which last year coincided with our May Fair.  With organ demonstrations and tours of the building, we invited people to come inside, to look closely, and to hear a little about this community.  Building on that weekend, Catherine Henihan and Barbara Whitney coordinated a team of tour guides who began offering tours of the church every Sunday after the 11 AM worship service.

Perhaps the busiest and most active way that we shared water with others in 2018—spiritually and literally—was through the programs of Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center (known as HTNC).  Through the leadership of our president David Liston, and an amazing Board, we continued to coordinate amazing ministry on very little overhead. Emma Sebanne lead the kitchen team on Tuesdays to provide a good meal for seniors. Four different teams and our HTNC Board cooked the Saturday evening dinners, and we staffed a shelter for up to 14 homeless men five nights a week, entirely through volunteers who spent the night.  Again, coordinating our volunteer schedule was former Holy Trinity member Melanie Hill, who, even though she lives upstate, she coordinates volunteers remotely.  Our neighbor Mark Roshkind continued to offer supervision and oversight of the shelter volunteers and provided our primary liaison with the Main Chance Drop-in Center.  Huge thanks to all.

We live out our baptism by getting wet, making a splash, and sharing the water, and that’s the great gift of our parish life together.  Baptism also provides a paradigm of life itself—as one dies to sin and rises to new life through baptism, the sacrament foreshadows the moment when we die to this world and rise again to new life.  In 2018 we mourned the deaths of Jackie Albert, and in the larger Holy Trinity family, Sylvia Appenzellar Norell, and Fred Burrell.  Many of you also lost family members and friends, and we included them in our prayers.  We miss them, but we also feel their presence in the whole Company of Saints, who pray for us, wish us well, and offer us strength.

I’m grateful to our parish staff: to Erlinda Brent, who does more than any one job title might ever describe; to Arold Dorsinvil, Ozel Ryant, our sextons, and José Cornier, who joined us this year—they keep things going and always appear at just the right time.  Cleveland Kersh and Calvyn du Toit continue to teach me as they lead us to worship and know God through sound and the silence between the notes. And finally, thanks to all of you who make Holy Trinity your church home.

I was talking to an Episcopal monk at Holy Cross Monastery one day when he asked me about Holy Trinity. I explained that in many ways we are rebuilding: with our congregation, with our understanding of mission, and little by little—with our facilities.  He smiled and said, “In this day, if a church is alive at all, it’s working at rebuilding.” Given the distractions and the challenges of our culture, I think that monk is right. The Holy Spirit is remaking us, reshaping us, and rebuilding us. In 2018, we were blessed to see more people attending, more people participating, donations and outside income on the rise, and little signs that things are improving (a front gate that opens and closes without dragging, major preservation work courtesy of a new neighbor, a new cleaning regimen through HTNC for the basement level of St. Christopher’s House, and other small improvements.)

May God bless us in 2019 and show us new ways to live out our baptism: continuing to get wet, make a big splash, and always and everywhere offer to share the water with others.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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