A Sermon Delivered as
an Annual Meeting Report by
The Rev. E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Trinity Episcopal Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 10, 2019
The Collect for the Day
Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
George Burns the comedian once said: The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible. So Fasten Your Seat Belts: Here We Go.
Over the years I have given lots of sermons and numerous Reports at Annual Meetings to churches that are large and small, rich and poor, spiritually growing, and alas, some which are struggling to merely survive. There is no easy way to communicate typically in a yearly report what has occurred, and what constitutes the essence and health of a parish.
Trinity Church is no exception to the rule; and I am still new enough here as Priest-in-Charge that, hopefully, I can bring a fresh perspective to the vitality of this parish, as we see it taking shape and form right under our noses.
And the obvious question is this: Who can best tell the story of what happened here last year in 2018 at Trinity Church where, as I like to point out each Sunday, ‘All Are Welcome?’ Obviously, most of you are better prepared to do that than I am. However, since late last fall, November 1st 2018 to be exact, when I came on board as Priest-in-Charge appointed by the bishop to serve this congregation, I have been amazed at Trinity’s resilience, persistence, accountability, responsibility, and serendipity. This truly is an amazing place … full of surprises, and full of amazing grace.
Now we find ourselves at a pivotal point in the life of this religious community. We are about to move forward into a different phase of transition, or more accurately what I like to call a time of “revitalization,” as we look ahead to the next 3 to 5 years … and beyond. Hopefully, the current parish leaders, the ecclesiastical architects of today who envision constructing Trinity’s spiritual future, will be building upon the successes of the past – of which there have been many. It is time to put the framework and building-blocks together in terms of where you want to go in the future; and perhaps even more importantly, where you as a parish family discern the Holy Spirit is leading and calling you, and all of us, to go...together.
So I am not going to run through the all-too-familiar laundry-list of church accomplishments. That would be telling you what you already know. They are notable achievements and that information is readily available in the reports following today’s service.
In my opinion a lot of things - very good things - have happened here at Trinity in a short amount of time, and we all deserve the credit. And in light of this I would now like to shift the focus to the wider Mission and Identity that lies at the spiritual core of this church. Basically, I will attempt to define who we are in theological terms, auspiciously situated at the front door of the WVU campus here in Morgantown … a religious place simply called “Trinity.”
For many years I have tried to gain clarity on what constitutes the mission and purpose of the Church, Church with a capital “C” - the wider Christian enterprise. It has only been within the last few years that I have come to appreciate one particular definition that is helpful. It’s simply this. At church we; Gather the people, Tell the stories, and Break the Bread.
Gather the people, Tell the stories, Break the Bread.
First: Gather the people. This is a membership issue. Who are we seeking to attract? In our Welcoming Collect, our “call to worship” in the Entrance Rite, who do we seriously want to say our prayers with, and sing our hymns next to? Are we looking to evangelize the immediate campus neighborhood, or the whole city of Morgantown, or the suburbs of Cheat Lake; or perhaps even parts beyond? Well, where /…and how far away? Star City, Westover, Fairmont, Bridgeport? Are there really enough individuals out there who would be interested in affiliating with us; a 200 year-old Episcopal Church? Is what we do in this building sufficiently interesting even to ourselves that we choose to recruit others to come and gather with us?
I suspect, on the surface, we all want to see Trinity Church grow and prosper. We would love to fill up the church with eager people who appreciate what God is doing in their lives, and who want to share their “glad tidings” with each other. The truth may be a bit different; however, and I don’t want to come across too negatively. Yet sometimes I wonder if any of us really believe the message – the good news – we purport to proclaim. Are you convinced enough by the love of God, evidenced in Jesus Christ, to personally invite others to attend, and ultimately join Trinity Church? Are we actually that relevant and important to people’s lives?
Let’s be honest; if we truly seek to “gather the people” we have to believe what we profess, and we have to be willing to risk that belief as we encounter others in a highly skeptical world – and still invite them anyway, knowing that when they come they will be well-received and accepted as they are. Our Christian mandate, let me remind you, is to welcome the stranger, and love our neighbor as our self. How are we doing on that score? It is not for me to pass judgment, but on this matter, I think it’s fair to say the jury is still out, and the verdict is not yet “in.”
But back to the definition of church… First: Gather the people, and SECOND; Tell the stories. … Tell the stories.
Now this calls for some clarification. Telling the story suggests that we have a marvelous piece of good news to proclaim. The Christian story is essential to our purpose. The Christian story is actually God’s story, and the Christian story is a drama that unfolds over the course of a year in different seasons and phases; in fact, the Christian story takes place at different times, periods and epochs. We’re in the early stage of that story right now – Epiphany. After four Sundays of preparation in Advent, we celebrated the Nativity of Jesus, then his Naming, then his Baptism, then his visitation by the wise men. It won’t be long before we abandon ourselves to the revelry of Mardi Gras and the pancakes of Shrove Tuesday; only to take on the discipline of Ash Wednesday, and then 40 days and 40 nights of Lenten penitence before we recognize the Passion of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, the Last Supper, the crucifixion and eventual resurrection; to say nothing of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and then the Ascension of the Risen Christ; and so on. God’s story is not a short story. It is an on-going drama that has many twists and turns along the way. What makes it interesting, of course, is that we are an integral part of that story.
Admittedly this rhetoric is intended as a segue into the importance of telling our own individual stories. As each of us in our own way tells…“my story,” what some have called a “journey in faith;” in aggregate all the narratives told become part of the collective Trinity Church story…“our story.” We are, as a parish, the compilation of different individual stories, yet together we are more than that; we are 200 years of stories. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. Our Trinity stories make up a fascinating portrait of what life is like here at this church. The Trinity Church story quite obviously is part of the wider Christian drama, yet the same Trinity story has a special focus and grounding that occupies a given space and time–Morgantown, WV, 26505; home of West Virginia University, a landmark, land-grant signature-piece institution. This is a wonderfully fascinating Christian community; incorporated and in place from February 4, 1819 - until present-day February 10, 2019.…rich with stories and anecdotes that usually make us smile and laugh, yet sometimes make us tearful and sad. It’s a rich spiritual mix.
So I urge you to continue telling your individual stories to one another. What do you like about Trinity Church? Why do you continue to affiliate with this parish? What is it about your life here that gives you a sense of belonging, and provides you with a deep sense of caring for one another? Obviously, some good and wonderful things have happened within these walls and on these sacred, hallowed grounds; and you need to tell us about it.
Biblical, theological and religious scholars of all stripes have said that unless we tell our story, who will remember it? And if we do not remember it, what can we possibly learn from it? So let me leave that thought with you, perhaps as a form of historical homework. At its core, we need to find out - What is special about the Trinity Church story? What makes it tick? What is its ‘signature piece’ of parish life that indelibly marks Trinity Church as unique? Is it the history, the music, the liturgy, the clergy who have served over the years; is it the people – the matriarchs and patriarchs from the past? All of the above? Or is it something else entirely different, unexpected, and unknown; something that the Holy Spirit has yet to reveal? Who, if anyone, knows for sure what God has in mind for this parish?
So again, back to the definition of church…
Gather the people. Tell the stories, and finally, Break the Bread - Break the Bread.
Let me say at this point, having shared several luncheons, hospitality events, coffee hours, church receptions, and even a few infamous Morgantown parties, I should probably just stop talking, and rest my case. Trinity obviously knows how to put on a repast, a church dinner…indeed, a heavenly banquet!
Yet in truth, this part of my report has to do not only with the wider fellowship of gatherings and cheerful rituals, but with the more specific customs of Episcopal liturgies. It’s about the way we worship; the words we use, the hymns we sing, the religious beliefs we proclaim, the patterns we follow, the bells we ring, the water we sprinkle and splash, the language we adopt, the prayers we offer, the clothes and vestments we wear, and yes, how we break the bread … the bread of heaven. Panis Angelicus. At the core of our fellowship is the Eucharist, one of the two traditionally accepted sacraments, along with baptism, in the Episcopal Church. Word-and-Sacrament is what we are about as we break the bread, offer the prayers of the people, and join in fellowship with one another.
Baptism and Eucharist are the cornerstones of our faith. Baptisms particularly, and the renewal of the baptismal covenant, permit us to discover what we are about not only in this parish, but in the wider ecumenical community as well. It teaches us how to think and believe as Disciples of Christ; how we can be nurtured and nourished as Christian people to go forth into the larger world of work with extended social and civic responsibilities. God calls each one of us, uniquely, to an accounting with a specific task to perform – and God has given each of us special gifts, individual talents, and highly developed skills to do it. All that is highlighted, emphasized, and renewed in our baptismal covenant every time we say it.
Yet it is also important that we regularly celebrate the Eucharist – the feast where we literally “give thanks” to God for the blessings of life, and the work of Christ in our midst. At the top of the introduction to our Prayerbook in the section entitled “Concerning the Service of the Church” (page 13 if you want to look it up) it states – “The Holy Eucharist is the principal act of … public worship in this Church.” That’s what we do in this building, we worship, and it’s why we pay Mon Power for the lights, Morgantown Utility for the water, and Dominion Gas, for the heat…and we certainly appreciate the heat that warms us today, and particularly the heat that kept us warm during the worst of the recent Polar Vortex arctic freeze.
And so it should be. With our Prayerbook mandate, with a deeper understanding of what it means to break the bread, develop an identity, and tell our stories, we need to continue just as we are, giving praise and adoration to God. Remember; translated, the word “Eucharist” means literally to “give thanks.”
…. which brings me to what is perhaps the most important thing I have to say this morning. You’ve heard me every Sunday give an Invitation to God’s Table, where I state:
The table is now made ready.
It is the table of fellowship with Jesus and all those who love him.
It is the table of fellowship with the poor, the hungry, the scorned, and the unwelcomed; those with whom Jesus identified.
It is the table set in the midst of the world that God loved, and in which Christ was made incarnate.
Come then, those of you who have much faith,
And those of you who are seeking more faith.
Come … WELCOME
The table is now made ready.
It is God’s table, and God invites us all to meet him here*
So, here’s my final Charge to the congregation. Let’s go forth from this place after today, and not hesitate or be ashamed to say Trinity Church is an exciting community of faith; one that is open to growing and serving others in the name of Christ. I hope you can see that what we do in church is directly related to who we are, who you are, and what we are all called to do together in the world. The church is not for a second to be separated FROM the world, it is intimately connected TO the world, and to all of its problems, potentials, burdens, and joys.
The challenges that lie ahead for Trinity Church are numerous, no question about it; yet they are not insurmountable, and we are called to respond in faith. People think the past is luminous because it has already happened. Skeptics think the future is obscure because it is unknown, but Christians think, in the present, that the Gospel turns things upside down for the good, and says we’re moving forward into the light of the future. And so with enthusiasm we eucharistically ‘give thanks’ and proclaim what our Prayerbook calls the mystery of faith:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Therefore, we pray each Sunday. Prepare us to receive people as Christ would. Give us discerning spirits so that everyone who crosses our threshold feels embraced by your loving spirit; and then as we strive to build up the body of Christ, let us do so with hope and joy in our hearts. We ask all this…
in the name of the FATHER, the SON, and the HOLY SPIRIT. Amen.
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request.
*adapted from the IONA Community in Scotland
Episcopal Book of Common Prayer