In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It now seems like a long time ago, but my first Sunday at All Saints’ was February 9th, 2020. It is unusual for a priest to start on annual meeting Sunday, but I liked it because it gave me the opportunity to learn a lot about the parish and its leadership right away. I was impressed by the strength of the lay leadership and how fundamentally healthy the parish was. What you don’t know is that on the way home that day, I leaned over and said to Amy, “This one is going to be easy!” None of knew what was coming.
I don’t really know how to put words to what we have gone through together. It has been such a crisis that we have not had the luxury or leisure to look back and reflect. It is a sign of how far we have come that today we can pause and consider what has happened. I do know that there is no other parish I would have rather served than you because of who you turned out to be, over and over and over again. Our time has been so serious and difficult that I find it funny that the lectionary give us the parable of the ever-creative manager. We have been needed to be constantly innovative in our times together.
If you allow yourself to remember early 2020, where people were dying at an increasing rate around the world, but there were no vaccines and little knowledge of how the virus was transmitted, you may recall being isolated in your homes, leaving delivered packages to sit unsure when it was safe to touch them. No one would have faulted us, if I stood here today, celebrating that even though we accomplished little else, we managed to circle the wagons, protect ourselves, and survive together.
In that dark situation in March of 2020 I wrote everyone a letter saying, “While there is an understandable tendency in crises to hunker down and hoard, the Christian tradition insists that we are better off confronting adversity with open hands.” I will always be proud of you that in these years where there were more and more clenched fists, where we were surrounded by so much fear and anger, we faced it all with open hands and love. That you could do this is a testimony to your faith and courage. And of all the lessons there are to learn from this era, the one I admonish you to remember is this: many people say that true strength looks like anger and hatred, that power looks like a clenched fist, that love is soft, weak, and ineffective, that the world is simply too dangerous to entrust ourselves to love. You, however, have seen otherwise, you have witnessed what the strength, power, and force of Christ’s love, what happens when adversity is faced with courage, faith, and open hands.
Let me remind you of a series of experiences we have had together that add up to something astonishing. There was never a break on our worship, we never missed a Sunday or a Holy Day. This is not normally something to brag about, but as soon as the building was not safe to worship in, parishioners were making videos on their phones in their homes of different parts of our normal worship and these were stitched together into a video posted on our website. We swiftly added music and hymns that improved week after week. It wasn’t long until choir members sang their individual parts into their phones and these individual voices were woven into a choir. Do you remember those first online coffee hours? That is when I really came to know many of you. Who would have ever expected an Episcopal church sending out Holy Communion in take-out bags? There was Zoom worship where we would do it all live. I saw your open hands as you would reach out to the edges of your virtual squares toward one another. I still get chills thinking about that 2020 Christmas Eve service, looking out into the cold darkness of that parking lot with all those individual cars and hearing the bells ringing out despite all. What joy there was that night when the images of the dancing angels in our church school’s video pageant appeared projected on the side of the building.
And there was an endless list of momentous decisions. Those decisions were often risky and they were all made by people who had no idea what was coming next. I remember an online vestry meeting in the spring of 2020, where we had to decide whether to hold onto the limited Living Stones capital money or to go forward and spend it on renovating the Lower Level Classrooms and Choir room, believing in a future where children and choir members would return. We all knew the sensible thing was to hold on tightly to what we had, not knowing if there would be any money coming into the church that had no in-person services, no passing of the offering plate, no rental income, where all members were in some crisis of an unknown length. That All Saints’ vestry decided to have faith in one another and move forward together. As a consequence, those new bright classrooms are full of children right now.
And that was just the beginning. We installed all the equipment that would enable the All Saints’ of the future to broadcast the worship services that take place in-person anywhere in the world. Computers, cameras, microphones, and team of lay leaders to support it. For those of you who weren’t in the building for the installation, it was a bigger project than you may think. It is our reality now. And our local television station, Chelmsford Telemedia, started broadcasting our services each Sunday for the first time.
The Memorial Garden at the center of our buildings was thoroughly renovated and beautified, stones replaced, attractive railings installed, and a plaque mounted with all the names of the faithful departed. It is now not only a place to visit and contemplate, but can be used for outdoor worship and social events. The undercroft of the old chapel had been the former home a thrift shop. We renovated it too and it is usable space for outside groups, our church school, and anything else the future may need. New beautiful seasonal white altar hangings and red ones were donated to the church. There is also the East Entrance project, not merely replacing an accessibility ramp in need of replacement, but re-envisioning the whole East side of the building. It is under construction right now and will result in an even more accessible, more welcoming, more beautiful All Saints’ than ever before. And finally, more repairs than I can list now including the pipe organ, the roof of the main church, a furnace, keeping bats out of the bell tower, the refinishing of floors and replacing of carpets.
How was it possible to pay for all that without ever even passing an offering plate? What we did not do was raid our rainy day funds. Even while in the most rainy days in recent memory, there was no draw down of endowment funds other than the Living Stones capital funds earmarked for specific purposes. As you know, I asked you to give and to give with open hands and generous hearts and you did over and over again. That made all the difference and you and future generations live in the new reality created by your faithful generosity. There is no looming budget deficit even with all the challenges we have faced. Thank you so much.
One thing I can’t quite get my mind around is that more than one million fifty thousand Americans have died of COVID 19 since 2020. We lost some very dear members who won’t soon be forgotten as they have joined the saints of All Saints’. We have cried together real tears. But, because you committed so thoroughly and consistently to our sometimes strict COVID prevention members there was zero transmission of COVID at All Saints’ through the pandemic. Zero. That means we not only did not spread this virus within our church, but we did not spread throughout the town and the broader community. That saved lives of people we do not even know.
There were many other things that deserve more time than I can give them, such as during this most difficult of times, we also have lots of new members, wonderful people who have discovered All Saints’ and made it their church. These new members are many of the future leaders of this congregation.
There was the retirement of long serving organist and choir director Maggie Marshall. And that long standing tradition of sacred music continuing with the hiring of Carl Klein and the establishment of the Marshall Family Music Fund. I smile thinking of those hand written cards from the children of the church school to the most isolated among us. A thriving Wednesday online morning prayer service came into existence, along with St. Patrick’s Day cookies, an All Hallows Eve service, parking lot Easter Vigil, and yes, what I originally came to All Saints’ for, a successful rector search on top of all of it.
This is so impressive, but what you need to know is that for every one of these accomplishments, it way always “us.” None of that, not a single piece of it, was ever just me. It was us. And what made that us so powerful was that at every step of the way we aimed at only one thing, that was, “getting the love the right.” That love turned out to be as powerful and strong as the Christian faith insists that it is. As I follow Christ to serve him elsewhere, I do not take the gifts I have given you with me. I leave them for you. The largest part of everything you have witnessed was always you and the love the Holy Spirit pours into your hearts. That remains, and All Saints’ may you ever continue to strive for nothing more than “getting the love right” as we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, that we might rejoice in their fellowship, and run with endurance the race that is set before us, and together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away. Amen.