Finish this sentence for me. I am not going to call on anyone or have you turn to your neighbor or anything. “I’ll be happy when….”
There are as many endings for this sentence as there are people I think. All of us have different goals and needs. Some people want to retire or see their children independent and successful. Some people are looking for a job or hoping for a promotion. There are many things that may come to mind when we think about our happiness or lack of it.
When will you be happy? What will it take? What are the chances that it’s going to happen? How long will it be? One year? Five years? Fifty years?
Jesus has some wisdom on the subject. His wisdom might not make much sense to you. What he has to say seems crazy really. We don’t want to dismiss Jesus too quickly.
Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
The first thing that we need to notice is that Jesus changes the vocabulary. He doesn’t talk about happiness, although some translations of the Bible use the word “happy” instead of the word “blessed.”
Maybe “blessed” is a better word here, because of the ways that we use the word “happy.” Happiness is taking some time off or or getting promoted or seeing the Cubs win the World Series. Jesus has something different in mind – something that goes deeper. Jesus says:
- “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”
- “Blessed are those who mourn….”
- “Blessed are the gentle––the meek….”
- “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness….”
Jesus gives us a total of nine beatitudes.
Henri Nouwen, the late Catholic priest and author, once met Mother Teresa in Rome. The first thing he noticed about her was her constant focus on Jesus. People were asking questions, and she was answering in a way that reflected her total focus on Jesus. Her answers sounded, at first blush, simplistic and naive. But Nouwen sensed, not only her own personal strength, but also the subtle power of her answers.
When Nouwen finally had an opportunity to speak with Mother Teresa, he told her of his problems. He spoke of his struggles. He asked her advice. She answered simply, “If you spend one hour a day in contemplative prayer and never do anything which you know is wrong, you’ll be all right.”
Listen to that one more time. It sounds simplistic, but it’s really profound. “If you spend one hour a day in contemplative prayer and never do anything which you know is wrong, you’ll be all right.”
Nouwen says, “With these words she answered none, as well as all, of my problems…. It was now up to me to be willing to move to the place where that answer could be heard.”
Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”
The meaning of this first beatitude and of all nine beatitudes is that God blesses us when we come to him with empty hands, ready to receive whatever blessing that God chooses to give us, ready to follow in whatever path God chooses to lead us.
There is a temptation of course to jump to a takeaway here. You are thinking it will be “Be poor in spirit so that you can receive God’s blessing.” That is not what Jesus says though. He promises that, when our need is greatest, there we will find God, and there we will find blessing.
Last week I preached transition and change. It makes us uncomfortable. We don’t like change as a rule. I know you have heard the joke before about the only thing Episcopalians hate more than change. It is the way things are.
The key is to discern God’s will for us and stay focused on Jesus. This is a challenge, and we get too wrapped up in happy and forget the many ways Jesus will bless us. Change happens, and as long as we are focused on God’s will for us we will be blessed.
This is the day of the Annual Meeting, and the question of the hour is “What does our future hold?” The fact is that as a congregation, our budget has exceeded expenses for a long time. It was one of those facts of life when I was on the vestry. It is the case now.
We have tried different things to cut costs, and we have tried to improve pledging. We have narrowed the gap each year for the past three, but we can’t continue to spend more than we take in.
At the last annual meeting we announced the creation of the Long Range Planning Committee. This group was charged by the vestry to look at options and make a recommendation for a short term plan. We did several things during the course of the year to try some of the things that might be part of a solution. The largest portion of the budget is the rector’s salary and benefits. There are basically two options for us. Either we increase pledging to meet the expenses, or we pay the priest less.
The recommendation of the Long Range Planning Committee was that we use the pledge drive in 2017 as a trigger event. One option is to pledge the amount we need to support the budget and continue as things are now. If pledging does not meet anticipated expenses, we will use 2018 to implement a change in the ministry model. The goal would be to have that new model in place by January of 2019.
It might be possible to yoke parishes or have a priest who is bi-vocational and has another job. This past year we had several combined services and we had Morning Prayer on some Sundays. These are some of the things that might come with a part-time priest, and it seemed wise to test the waters. I thought they went well and in general had good support from the congregation. Other changes would have to involve the number of weekday services. You can’t have Imposition of the Ashes at noon on Ash Wednesday if the priest has a day job or spends Wednesdays in another parish. Service times for things like Maundy Thursday or Christmas Eve might have to be changed if the priest has another parish.
Other changes would have to involve pastoral care. There are a lot of details which would have to be worked out.
So that is the plan. There is a temptation to hear all this and not like what you are hearing, but the vestry thinks it is time to quit spending down our endowment, and I think it is a wise decision. If the prospect leaves us poor in spirit, we need to remember we are blessed.
God has a plan for us. We respond with prayer and by being good stewards of our resources. We have to stay focused on Jesus and doing his will in this community. There are so many things that we do well. You will hear reports from the Non-Food Pantry and the Sunday School in the Parish Hall. Your generosity to the Discretionary Fund has made it possible to help a lot of people this year. The ministry to the Hispanic Community is something no other church in this diocese has been able to make happen. These should be opportunities for joy and some appropriate pride in the ways we have worked to answer God’s call.
You will recall that Mother Teresa’s counsel to Nouwen was to pray and do nothing he knew was wrong. This is wise counsel, and I hope you remember the response of Nouwen. He said, “She answered none, as well as all, of my problems…. It was now up to me to be willing to move to the place where that answer could be heard.”
I have said these words in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon preached by Fr. Tom Haynes at St. Thomas Episcopal – Plymouth
January 29, 2017; Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:18-31