“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life”
I welcome us once again to our annual meeting. It is almost the end of 2022 and we are in the midst of our 2022-2023 program year. However, our annual meeting asks us to look way back at the year 2021 and the ministry we did that year. As I looked back to our calendar, to our events, and everything that transpired that year in mission and ministry here at Incarnation Holy Sacrament Episcopal Church, it felt like looking back a million years. Things were very different for both our church and my family.
At the start of 2021, we were still worshiping virtually. In January 2021, my family and I traveled to the mountains of West Virginia for a vacation. That week in West Virginia, Mel interviewed virtually for a possible new job at Stonehurst Hills Elementary School and that same week found out that the school she was currently at, St. Gabriel’s in Philadelphia, would be closing at the end of the school year. Fast forward to the end of 2021, and we were celebrating five years of Deep Soil ministry, planning to celebrate Blaine and Josh’s time working at IHS, and returning inside to celebrate the Holy Eucharist in our sanctuary. Also at the end of that year, Mel was working as principal of Stonehurst Hills, and my family made the important decision (along with our church leadership) to move into the rectory.
In order to capture the precise moment that the IHS family of faith found ourselves in last year - transitioning from virtual, to outdoor worship, to returning to the sanctuary - we kicked off the 2021-2022 program year with the theme God Remembers: Leaving the Ark Together. The year 2021 will forever be significant for our congregation. We left the “ark” of online worship. We spent the summer worshiping on our front lawn. We met our new members that we’d only worshiped with on zoom calls. We found that the congregation before us wasn’t the same congregation that had gone into the “ark” at the beginning of the pandemic. Things had changed forever. Even on the very first Sunday back to in-person worship, one of our long-time members and lay leaders informed me that his family was moving away and transferring membership. There were visible signs all around us for these changes.
As we regathered inside to begin our 2021 program year, there were faces both new and familiar, young and old. While the faces of the congregation had changed, and our gathered worshiping assembly was much smaller than when the pandemic began in 2020, the spirit, values, and mission of our congregation was the same. If anything, we realized how much our values mean to us. The bedrock of our congregation is our social fellowship, with coffee hour becoming as crucial to our Sunday mornings as worship.
The year 2021 brought other changes. We made the pivotal decision to bring our Deep Soil intentional community to a close. For five years, Deep Soil was a foundational part of our congregation and of staffing our church, using the building as a resource in a creative way. I ask that you join me in thanksgiving for the five years Deep Soil was part of our IHS family of faith and all that Blaine and Josh gave to this congregation in that time. I could not begin to recount to you the profound impact Deep Soil has had on IHS those five years. We held dinners, potlucks, fundraising events, pancake suppers, created new ministries, welcomed new friends, deepened our knowledge and faith with advanced theology classes, formation, Bible and book studies, ended the daycare lease to regain our parish hall space, and moved our church into the 21st century with IHS365 online and in social media. We were touched by sermons and lectures that called us deeper into our walk with Jesus. As your rector, I relied on Blaine and Josh as my two closest staff members and friends, truthfully as family, to build up our ministry and the presence of IHS in the community. Our trajectory before the pandemic was one of growth and excitement. One such indicator is the increased financial pledges each year leading up to 2020. We were ready to continue on that path of growth with a second Cup Runneth Over Festival, exploding growth in our Saturday Night Strategists weekly game club, and IHS welcoming excited, new members.
This is not the position we thought we would be in in 2021, heading into 2022. We were forced to completely adjust our five- and ten-year plans. In order to be as close to IHS as possible, my family made the decision to move to the rectory. At the end of 2021, we looked to a new year of hiring new administrative staff and the process of getting the rectory prepared for my family to move in.
These investments helped us be poised to once again grow in faith, abundance, and service to all of Drexel Hill, Upper Darby, Lansdowne, Havertown, and the surrounding area. Rumors of the church's death are greatly exaggerated. Although right now we are smaller, we are also stronger. Where others see problems and crises, I see opportunity and need for the Gospel. Our God is the God of Resurrection and New Life. Now is the time for us to rise to New Life and new heights as we accomplish more than we could ever imagine. Bishop Daniel Gutierrez called on each of our congregations to think of ourselves at this time like church plants, that is as new missions and ministries, reinventing and reinvesting for the Gospel. This is a fresh start for us to look out of our doors at the mission field around us and ask God for strength and direction to know where to begin.
Now, we are no longer on the doorstep of 2022, but at the threshold of 2023. We’ve been worshiping in-person together for a year and a half. Many of our old ways of doing things have returned to normal. We have to make a crucial choice as a small church, a choice posed by God to the Israelites as they also stood at the threshold of the promised land: choose life or choose death.
The choice is truly ours to make. We have the opportunity to choose life for our IHS parish, and indeed, for the world. We have the chance to reach out and invite others to new life in Christ, to witness for God and God’s kingdom, to bring new souls to the water of baptism, to reinvest in our own faith journeys and go deeper, to let go of doing things the way they’ve always been done and find creative, new ways to impact our neighborhoods. We can prioritize church growth, and not accept anything else. We can volunteer our time for new, exciting opportunities to reach unchurched people, make relationships with unchurched people every day in our lives, and go out of our comfort zones for Jesus. We can invest our finances in getting the word out about our congregation. We can make ourselves a little uncomfortable for God’s kingdom, and in so doing, choose to grow and reinvigorate this parish for years and years to come. More importantly, we can choose this because it is what God calls us to do as followers of Jesus, to bring the Good News of God’s reconciling love to the world.
We can also choose death. We can decide that we are comfortable with the status quo, with the way we’ve always done things. We can let the church primarily exist to serve those who are already here, and especially those who have always been here. We can tighten and tighten our budget, and hold onto an attitude of scarcity that comes from fear. We can expect visitors and potential new members to adapt to us, rather than our parish adapting to the changes in culture and society around us.
What this congregation chooses is up to all of us, but the choice is ours. The choice is yours. Choose life. Let’s choose to see a future where IHS is growing and thriving in mission and ministry. Let us choose for our congregation to be born again into something new, and to listen to where God’s Spirit is calling us to go. If we choose life, God’s promises will always be faithful to us.
Let us move forward together in faith, not fear, and choose life for our Incarnation Holy Sacrament family of faith.