Rector’s Report Sermon

St. James’ Episcopal Church, Jackson, Mississippi
Annual Meeting, November 11, 2018
Rector’s Report
The Rev. Jamie McElroy

This has been a tough week.
It’s been tough to come to terms with the idea that we will be losing one of our priests, Rev. Ann McLemore, due to anticipated budget concerns in the year ahead. For the past five years, Ann has meant so much to so many here at St. James’ and it’s hard to imagine us moving forward as a parish without her.
And the budget concerns that led to this decision are upsetting as well—since they stem from a downturn in pledged giving for the coming year. And I know that many are also concerned that that downturn in pledging may be connected with a downturn in Sunday attendance here at St. James’.
With all that in mind, it is clear that we are facing a challenging moment in our ministry together here at St. James’. A very challenging moment. Today, as we gather for our Annual Meeting, to review our life and work together as the Body of Christ we must ask ourselves:
What do we do now in light of these challenges? How do we move forward?
In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus is facing the most challenging moment in his ministry thus far. It’s the Last Supper and Jesus knows that extreme challenges lie dead ahead—for him and for his disciples. Extreme challenges.
So what does Jesus do? How does he move forward?
Well, he removes his outer garment, and he takes a towel and ties it around his waste. Then he takes a basin and fills it with water. And with that towel and that basin of water, he makes his way around the room, washing the feet of the disciples, one by one.
When he is done he stands before them and explains himself, telling them that they should do as he has done, to love and care for one another just as he has done for them.
And so I think the way forward for us on this Annual Meeting Sunday is clear. In the face of our own challenges, we are called by Jesus to emulate his example, and to love and care for one another just as Jesus loves and cares for us.
And the good news is that we, the people of St. James’—we know how to love and care for one another and for the wider world. Loving and caring is what we do.
Since our last Annual Meeting a year ago, I have been blessed to witness so much love and care flowing from and through the people of this parish.
It was at this time a year ago that we learned that our long time head of our school, Kristin Peoples, would be moving away. Members of our parish who love our school—including Alli Sherman and Liza Booth and Courtney Peters and David Russell—gathered together to consider how best to move forward. And they decided that the most important thing was to love and care for our excellent school teachers—many of whom are also our Sunday nursery caregivers. That love and care for our school teachers led to a very natural decision–to raise up one of them up, Whitney Veazey, a school teacher, to be the new head of school.
Then December began and we enjoyed all our merry Advent offerings—the choir led by our tremendous organist and choir master, Don Messer, put in so much loving time and effort to master all that glorious music in our Lessons and Carols service; our youth lovingly assembled over a hundred gingerbread houses so that our younger children could spend a raucous, fun-filled night decorating them. Our Advent wine and cheese party was hosted by our Episcopal Church Women at the home of our junior warden and his wife, Tommy and Mary Scott Shepherd. And our Stewpot Christmas party, led by Cami Hill, Joe Myers and Catherine Hames gave us a chance to serve and care for two hundred Jackson folks who wouldn’t otherwise go to a Christmas party.
But then tragedy hit us here in our neighborhood. An eighth grade boy was found dead in his home over on Hawthorne under awful circumstances, just a week before Christmas. He and his family were not members of St. James’, but he had grown up next door to our church and he and his friends used to ride their bikes around our property and play in our backyard. And he was a student at St. Andrew’s School and friends with many of our youth.
Over the course of the week before Christmas, it was awe-inspiring to me to watch the people of this parish rally around his family—loving them, caring for them, upholding them in prayer, bringing them food and ultimately working very hard to host a funeral service and reception here at St. James’. A funeral service and reception that some long-time parishioners believe was the largest single worship service and the largest single reception St. James’ has ever hosted.
In particular, I remember how tirelessly Carolyn Ray worked to organize an army of volunteers to make that reception run smoothly, and I remember how Trey Sebrell gave so much of himself to make sure every detail of the funeral was right. So much love and so much care.
In January, we had our annual Banquet of Abundance, as flawlessly run by Alli Sherman, Mary Margaret Hickman and Julie McLemore. It was great to see a hundred and twenty plus parishioners dress up and decorate their themed tables and laugh and have fun together while raising money for outreach.
It was also in January that our very first Divorce Recovery Group began its 10-week process, as designed and led by Rev. Seth Walley, Barbara Neil and Cindi Harrison. A second group is just now wrapping up its 10-week process in the next couple of weeks.
The new year also saw the inauguration of our new Toddler Atrium—a Sunday School class in the mold of our Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program that is designed for very young children, 18 months to three years, and their parents. This new atrium has been many years in the making under the patient care of our excellent Children’s Minister, Mary Nell Prichard, and it has been exciting to see it come into being this past year.
In February, Lent began and over a hundred of our parishioners gathered in small groups here at church and in one another’s homes to discuss a book about the meaning of Sabbath.
And our youth group, led by youth parents, Guy Wilkins and Allyson Strange, went on a ski trip to North Carolina. Most of the kids on the trip had never skied before and it was beautiful how Guy and Allyson introduced them to the sport and helped facilitate the deepening friendships among them. (And only one of them got hurt.)
In March, our youth ministries committee, chaired by Sarah Katherine Beckett, continued its work of visioning for our youth program, interviewing candidates for the newly conceived position of Youth Director Curate. It was meaningful for me to be in the meetings with Sarah and the other youth parents and mentors as they discussed the candidates and the overall future of our youth program. Again: so much love and care
In April, after a blessed holy week and Easter Sunday, we had our parish retreat up at Camp Bratton Green. It was a great weekend of fun and laughter together with our parish family. And in particular, I so appreciated how Bill Youngblood and his team of Saintly Chefs prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner over the weekend there in the Bratton Green dining hall, giving everyone a chance to come together as one over shared meals.
In May, our Bishop visited us and confirmed dozens of youth and adults who had been preparing for months—the youth under the care of Iris Isaacs, Stephen George and Tommy Little, and the adults under the care of Sheri Cox, Thad Hopper and Leigh Grady. We also celebrated St. James’ graduating high school seniors with Sunday sermons by two of our seniors, Wynn Garriga and Grace Carroll. I love watching our senior preachers after those services, as they are greeted by our parishioners at the church doors. The love and support shown our young people is just awesome.
It was that same month that we lost—in horrible and preventable fashion—one of our beloved young people.
The death of Frances Ann Fortner, a child of this church, was such a gut-wrenching moment in the life of our parish and, indeed, our city. All we could do was love each other through it, especially her parents, Tom and Laurilyn.
And so we continue to do—to love each other through loss and joy, pain and celebration.
There are so many other examples of our St. James’ family caring and loving one another and the wider world this past year.
Suzie Adcock’s sparkling smile and undaunted energy as she organized our annual Rummage Sale, welcoming hundreds of visitors to our church and raising thousands for outreach.
Our Habitat for Humanity crew, led by Randy Boyles, organizing another blow-out drawdown to pay for our most recent Habitat build. And then the build itself, which is just now wrapping up with yet another Jackson family receiving the gift of a new home.
Our new Youth Director Curate, Rev. Abram Jones, coming on this summer and immediately teaming up with Liza Booth to lead a youth mission trip to the Delta.
Then there’s Seth’s ever-popular Soulworks class, continuing to draw large groups on Sundays to discuss the Bible readings of the week.
There’s Ann McLemore shepherding three different Walking the Mourner’s path bereavement groups over the course of the year.
Ray Lewis leading Yoga on the Labyrinth every Sunday afternoon.
Carol Mann envisioning and then organizing a Pet Show as part of our St. Francis celebration—a chance to show how much we love and care for our pets and all of creation!
Kathy Kirchmayr toting her watering can so as to care for all of the flowers and shrubs and potted plants throughout our campus.
The way we welcome the 22 twelve-step groups that meet here every week; our St. James’ Presents music recitals; our book-talk luncheons.
There’s Wednesday suppers– Sarah Little leading our children’s choir kids, and Katie Hathcock leading Music & Movement with toddlers and their parents, Coleen White and Jo G Prichard helping kids dig around in our children’s garden, our youth laughing and eating together in the youth wing.
The flower guild, the altar guild, our wedding organizers, the choir mustering again and again to sing at every funeral, the acolytes, chalice bearers, our newcomer committee developing a system for welcoming our visitors into our parish family; the outreach committee carefully vetting all the local ministries requesting grants from our church…
So much love and care goes on here at St. James’—I’ve barely scratched the surface.
And so, as we move forward, in the midst of this challenging time in the life of our parish, we know what we must do. We must do what we did this past year and what the people of St. James’ have always done.
We must love another as Jesus has loved us. In every way we can. And every chance we get.
Amen.