The purpose of our annual meeting is to review the financial and spiritual health of our church over the past year, to elect new members to our parish Vestry, and to consider new things. I present the dean’s report on the state of the parish in the context of the scripture appointed for the day. Everything we do here, everything we consider and the way we work out our life together, must be framed by the gospel. Please, please, please, let’s not pretend this is not a spiritual enterprise. It is the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ, which inspires and identifies the people of the Episcopal Cathedral of St Stephen as God’s ministers in life and in mission.
I use that word intentionally, as the Latin minister (the lesser one) implies there is a Magister (greater one or Master). Who is our greater one? (Jesus, whom we follow).
Our scripture lessons today are challenging, because their narrative offers an illustration of their underlying teaching. The Letter to the Corinthians speaks of food offered to idols, but it is less about dietary choices than it is about the necessity of choosing priorities in a Christian life. The eighth chapter of that epistle focuses on the transformative power of loving God, which Paul understands as being superior to knowledge. What we think we know about how things have always been done is less important than turning our hearts toward God and God’s desire. The gospel passage is less about the initiation of Jesus’ teaching and healing than it is about his authority over all things. As Jesus acts within his authority, his words and deeds bring blessing and healing. The resistance of others to Jesus is rooted in their fear of loss of power and authority. Like new wine in an old wineskin, the power of Jesus overcomes the obstructions his opponents try to construct.
We might ask ourselves in what ways this challenging year has invited us to re-prioritize our common life? What have we done out of our love for God in order to deepen our community? How does this love impact our building up ministry for God’s sake? How have we engaged the power of Jesus Christ to serve people who dwell outside our tradition? Ultimately, we need to be about God and God’s mission to love the world.
We had a strong beginning in 2020. Finishing up three years as our Sr Warden, John Dernbach said at our last Annual Meeting that he felt the parish had strong momentum, and that looking ahead, he felt Team St Stephen was in place. Our music director resigned his teaching position in early February and moved to Maryland in May. In early March, we moved to virtual worship due to the pandemic, expecting to return in a few months. We celebrated Easter services online. In July, Jordan Markham joined us and Shayna Watson moved to her next parish. Our return to in-person services in July allowed us to gather in small groups if we remained masked. There were two autumn weddings in the Bishop’s Garden. We produced a zany stewardship musical. As infection rates increased, we returned to virtual services in November and livestreamed our Christmas services. 2020 was a long, strange year. Team St Stephen was resilient and managed challenges.
In the most sub-optimal circumstances, grace overcame evil and we experienced many blessings.
- We accelerated our commitment to innovation and moved rapidly into digital ministry. Thanks to Ryan
Tobin and Lindsay Gottwald who worked smart phone cameras, and to the Bishop’s office which subsidized the purchase of a video camera, we mostly succeeded. We expanded our worship community to include people from other cities and countries. Much of our regular programming has continued online.
- We developed small group ministries of prayer, reclaiming the Anglican tradition of public Morning
Prayer and Compline: 433 services in 2020. Our church is on the web and in the world, although we cannot gather in a large group.
- We renewed our work around racial, social, and economic justice, studying scripture about justice, working through books on systemic racism, building relationships with other churches, expanding our support for the needy and vulnerable in Harrisburg (pantry & NOEL program).
- We conducted a virtual stewardship program and cottage meetings to discern for future planning.
- We were able to continue repairs and renovations to our historic property (projects funded by endowment and surprising generosity of individual parishioners).
- Thanks to the generosity of our members, and to some serious cost-cutting, our parish balance sheet was balanced at the end of the year.
Our experience has changed us. Many of us are acutely aware of our need for community. Many have turned toward a deeper connection with God. This pandemic season of Coronatide has rendered the message of the Gospel even more urgent, as the fragile nature of our mortality and our need for God and each other have been clarified. We have learned that the Jesus we follow is more powerful and more important than just a teller of interesting stories. We have learned that we need God. Only by the victory of Christ over death can we at last be freed from the false promises offered by the idols we have constructed. There is no privilege, no investment, no party, no human power or local tradition that can shelter us from suffering or death. Ultimately, only the God of Love can save us. Moving forward, we need to decide in what ways we will proclaim that message, not just with our lips but by actions. We cannot address the needs of the world with old solutions, because the cultural river has moved on. We must offer a clear spiritual vision to an increasingly unchurched world that has a deep need for the message of Jesus and little use for an institutional church.
There are some indications that 2021 will not be an easy year, for the wider community or for our parish.
The ongoing pandemic and slow distribution of vaccines continue to make it unsafe to gather in person. Our Bishop has extended the practice of Communion Under Special Circumstances through Lent. We may be looking at late spring or summer for re-entry to services. Frustrating at best. The pandemic has weakened the economy and recovery will likely be sluggish. We are weary of living life virtually and dispersed.
We are resilient and we will manage. Thinking of the big picture, considering what is best for the whole community, and celebrating successes will help us. St Stephen’s can move forward because there is good news even in difficult times. We have new members and five new pledges this year. We are experimenting with Zoom worship, so participants can see faces and hear voices of the community and not just the celebrant. Our very faithful finance team has trimmed our budget to reflect the predictable income of pledges as well as a likely decrease in sources of ancillary income (plate donations, flower donations, building use fees, and so on). With diminished income, our Vestry is scrutinizing the sustainability of our ministries. We accepted the gift of a Baldwin concert grand piano, which now lives in our sanctuary. We are making plans to replace our organ, because the acoustic elements are damaged/need rebuilding and the digital elements are beginning to fail.
As we make our way through 2021, please let us remember that in the Body Christ, while there is diversity of members there can be no division (no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no woman or man). As we move forward, it will be most helpful for us as a fairly large community to recall what our mission is here in Harrisburg. While it is unlikely that anyone can recite the parish or diocesan mission statements, it should not be difficult to remember that we are all about constructing a life in the presence of God. That is really It. That is what we are about, as individuals and as a community of faith. We are trying to figure out how to build a relationship with God in the midst of our complicated and finite lives. In this difficult season of pandemic, I encourage you to lean on the power and authority of Jesus Christ, and to remember that all we do must in some way point to that.
As a community, it is appropriate that we offer our thanks to the many who sustain, enrich, and expand the ministry of God in this place.
Staff: Saint Cindy Harbert, the Rev Canon Fred Miller, the Rev Deacon Michael Nailor, Michael Frascella, Jordan Markham, Micalagh Moritz, Bee Kaiser, Gene Schofield
Prayer leaders: Fred Miller, Michael Nailor, Michael Pasenelli, Bill & Marcia Davis, Chloe Selles, Micalagh Moritz, Dolores Rizzuto
Teams of lay leaders: Our Wardens and Vestry, Gerry Garber & Community Connections; Bldg & Grounds esp Tom Long & Jim Elliott, office esp Betty MacLaughlin & Toni Koch; Margaret Messner & the Altar Guild; Christy Forsythe & flower guild, choir, Bee Kaiser & the children’s formation team, John & Ellen Harles for Adult Forum, Mike Pasenelli & the Bible study group; Wil Everhart & the Finance and Endowment committees; Tech and Social Media teams; Peter Robelen & Allyson Green Martin & our stewardship team; Stephanie Pasenelli, Jessica Clemmer, Judy Clemmer & Adrian Hennessy for hospitality; the Board of SSES; the many volunteers for Sycamore House; our choir; ushers, greeters, Peter Robelen &lectors, lay eucharistic ministers, and acolytes; MBTR Anne Yellott & Jayne Abrams, priest associates (Fred Miller, Dan Morrow, Bill Murphey, John Sivley).
As we decide where we will go from here, may we always keep in our sight whom we serve and for what reason.