The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
On February 20, 2022, the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, we continued our sermon series Epiphany: A Season of Self-Discovery, and I talked about recognizing that we can change and we can choose (see above). We looked at the story of Joseph's reconciliation with his brothers (Genesis 45:3-11,15) and Jesus' continuation of his "Sermon on the Plain" (Luke 6:27-38).
I mention during the sermon how important it is to note the power dynamics in the Joseph story as an example of loving an enemy. Joseph has all the power in the part of his story. It would be very easy for him to use that power to exact revenge against his brothers, yet he chooses to be loving and forgiving instead. I think this power dynamic matters a great deal, especially when we're reading this passage as a thematic pairing with the gospel reading. There are a couple of things I'd like to add to the context of the sermon.
First, both readings, I believe, are (among others things) making a comment on how to hold roles of authority and leadership. Joseph, again, has all the power here, and it would be so easy for him to misuse it. There is great potential here for him to abuse his authority. He's been abused by his brothers, and now has the opportunity to give them a taste of their own medicine. Instead, we get a lesson on love, forgiveness, and resisting the temptation to misuse positions of power.
In the Luke reading from Jesus' "Sermon on the Plain," it's easy to miss that Jesus has just chosen "the twelve" from among his followers, and called them "apostles" (Luke 6:12-16). He's picked his leadership. Luke then tells us he came down from the mountain with them, and he delivers his sermon "on a large area of level ground" or "a level place" (Luke 6:17). He performs some healings, and then it says he looks at his disciples and delivers the sermon. By mentioning, 1) Jesus choosing the 12 apostles, 2) descent from a place on high to a "level place" with those in need, and 3) that the sermon he gives is not to the crowd at large but to the disciples, Jesus' words become a comment on how he and his followers are to lead. They are not to lead from a position "on high," but as equal to those most in need.
Secondly, in context, the teaching to "turn the other cheek," etc., is not in any way about being a doormat and letting people walk all over us. It's not about allowing ourselves to be abused and robbed of our dignity. To conflate gospel accounts a little, I read an interesting post about "turning the other cheek" as it appears in Matthew. In that gospel, Jesus says "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." This writer offers some interesting insight into how turning the left cheek back on someone would have been an assertion of power and defiance in the ancient world. It's an assertion of humanity, not an invitation to further a powerless acceptance of abuse. I can't help but think of the way that old footage of nonviolent civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s looked to people then and now. When African American protestors where shoved, kicked, hit with batons and water hoses, attacked by police dogs, people could not help have their consciences activated. Who in that footage looks like the "good guys," and who looks like the "bad guys"? The protestors are essentially "turning the other cheek," and it upends the power dynamic.
Being a follower of Jesus, and taking readings like these seriously, is not a call to be a pushover. It is meant for us to consider the proper way to use authority, and to rethink our tendencies to perpetuate cycles of violence. For Luke, it seems clearly to have a lot to do with putting everyone together on "level ground" in the Kingdom of God.
The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
The following is the Rector's Report from the 2022 Annual Report of St. Paul's
Greetings, St. Paul’s! Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Our theme for this year’s annual meeting and commitment Sunday is “Growing in Gratitude.” St. Paul’s makes it easy for me to find gratitude daily. I can’t help but be grateful for all of you for your love and support of me and my family, and for the work you do in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with one another and our wider community.
We enter 2022 after another challenging year. “I have resiliency fatigue,” said one faculty member from the school this past Fall. We all hoped 2021 might be the year that repented of 2020, but for St. Paul’s this year was more difficult than the last. With all the things St. Paul’s has been through in our history—fire, flood, war, displacement—we like to think of ourselves as resilient. This one faculty member expressed, however, what a lot of us have felt—resiliency fatigue. We’re tired of having to be resilient at all. We would prefer a break from life-altering events from which we must recover.
Being tired of being resilient is perfectly okay and understandable. Fatigue aside, resilient is nevertheless what we’re continuing to be. Thanks be to God, we do not have to be resilient all on our own. Over the last five months it has been amazing to watch so many capable and talented people come together to tackle the monumental task of hurricane recovery. It has been heartwarming to receive generous support from neighbors and other Episcopal institutions. God continues to provide the people, the skills, and other resources necessary for us to continue in our ministry. Life may seem to love throwing things at St. Paul’s, but we keep finding ways to continue in our mission of sharing the Good News of God in Christ.
Over the past several years we’ve built a lot of financial and administrative resiliency. I believe that’s shown itself to be true during this latest crisis in several ways. First and perhaps foremost at this moment, is the vestry’s work in recent years of assuring St. Paul’s has adequate insurance coverage. Our policy with Church Insurance Company has been key to our recovery. Second is the generosity of our parish family in giving, combined with the strength of the O’Ferrall fund gifted to us by a thriving stock market, as well as a diminishing draw on the fund for the support of the annual budget over the last decade. This allows us to worry a lot less about meeting financial obligations during periods of crisis. Thirdly, the bonds of affection maintained between the church and our school whose growth in enrollment and financial stability have been crucial to weathering storms both literal and figurative.
The most important component of our resiliency is without a doubt you, our church members, school families, staff, and faculty. There are so many generous, talented, and caring people in our midst. I’d like especially to thank the vestry’s executive team with whom I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months. That team includes our wardens, Eston Fain and Stephen Kepper, whose encouraging, supportive, and dedicated leadership has run quietly in the background, and has been invaluable to me and the rest of the vestry. Ryan Kelley, our treasurer, joyfully gives hours of his time each week to St. Paul’s, and whose calm, steady, caring demeanor inspires trust, and keeps us all focused on what’s most important (hint: it’s not the money). William Barousse serves as our chancellor, our vestry clerk, and his counsel, accompanied by a non-anxious presence, offers confidence around decision making. I’m extremely grateful for all of their additional help and support during the last five months of hurricane recovery, as well as the help and support of all of our talented and dedicated vestry members: Cherie Bolner, Melissa Carnall, Lori Parault, Betsy Stoner, Greg Williams, and Irene Ziegler. Each of you brings something special to St. Paul’s and our ministries, and I thank God for you and your faithfulness.
My leadership style tends toward collaborative leadership, and I could not ask for a better collaborator than Mtr. Liz. She is one of the most gifted priests I’ve ever met, and we are so fortunate as a parish to have her with us. Lori Lavelle, our parish administrator, is always one step ahead of where we need to be. All of us depend on her to keep us accountable to deadlines and details, and she does so with such a caring spirit. Dr. Jeanne is a constant source of wisdom and support for so many, and her ministry is a key part of the life of the church and school community. The two newest faces on our staff are Linda Bogacki, Facilities Manager, and Todd Simmons, Organist-Choirmaster. Linda brings a wealth of experience in managing church facilities, and a deep sense of stewardship to our properties. Todd has fit seamlessly into our community over these past few months, and brings years of choral and instrumental experience to our music ministries. I am so grateful to work with such a talented and inspiring group of leaders.
Other lay leaders like Micki Robards and Holly Abbott, who share the duties of directing the Altar Guild, along with all of their volunteers, have been so patient about the ups and downs of the last two years, and are so faithful and attentive in helping us to offer beautiful and meaningful worship. Kristin Tompkins and the flower guild have been eager to step in when we returned to church, and continue to create such lovely accents to our worship space. Greg Williams, who teaches classes on the Bible and church history; Chad Brown, who is serving as our general contractor during the rebuild, leads an early morning men’s Bible study each week, and chairs our stewardship team; Miriam Swift who has offered us design and architectural consulting; Jared Hotard and others who produce our weekly online worship streams; and . . . and . . . and . . . . Regretfully, I know I’m leaving people out, and I could keep going on and on because so many of you are stepping up into lay leadership roles, living into the responsibilities of your baptism, and growing in service in countless ways. Thank you, thank you, thank you is all I can say. You are what makes our church such a special community.
What’s next then? What will our focus be in 2022? I foresee a few important areas of attention. Since we have Linda our new facilities manager, and we are completing a full renovation of the facilities, I believe it’s crucial to develop a new comprehensive maintenance schedule. This is an important work of stewardship, and will help us better prepare for future storms and other facility challenges. The vestry are also beginning to explore some mission opportunities that our facility offers around sustainability.
Secondly, I believe the work that Irene Ziegler, Jackie Shreves, Ryan Kelley, Emmitt Lockard, and a fairly large team of you are working on around diversity, equity, and inclusion is vital to our mission. I continue to be inspired by your enthusiasm for the work of personal learning and growth around issues of creating what Martin Luther King called a “beloved community,” a community more reflective of God’s radical and inclusive love. Nothing makes me more excited than seeing our people take the lead on important mission-oriented issues. Their efforts call us to a deeper reflection on and commitment to the promises of our Baptismal Covenant to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” and “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
Next, the vestry’s decision to invest in our youth, children, and families ministries by enlisting the help of the Ministry Architects firm will be a major undertaking over the next 18 months. Mtr. Liz is working closely with our consultant Elaine Pendergrass to create a sustainable model for ministry that is designed specifically for the hopes and dreams of the St. Paul’s Community. This will be an excellent opportunity to capitalize on the energy so many of you have shown around stepping forward to be a part of transformational ministry in the life of our church. Making a commitment to our children and youth is necessary not because they are the future of the Church (though they are), but because they are fully and completely a part of the Church right now. I will also point out that this opportunity is possible thanks to a special bequest left to us by Sheila Williams. Her love of and commitment to St. Paul’s will continue to resonate because of her planned financial gift that will enable this work.
Finally, before Hurricane Ida our Renewal Works Task Force issued a report based on 2020’s congregational spiritual life survey. Two of their primary recommendations were to develop a skills and interests inventory of the entire congregation, and to develop clear pathways for spiritual growth for new and ongoing members of St. Paul’s. The primary work of the Church is to help you develop in your spiritual life, and it’s important for all of us to have support in discerning useful next steps at any point of your journey. I am committed to working with you on creating this inventory and developing clear pathways. It will take some time, and your help, but you will be hearing more about this over the coming months.
There is a lot for us to put our efforts into in 2022. Because so many of you are involved in helping to move us forward, and because Mtr. Liz is such a capable leader, I’ve never felt more comfortable than I do at this point in my ministry to take a sabbatical this year. I will be away May 22 – September 18. The general recommendation of the Church is that clergy undertake a 3-4 month sabbatical every 7-8 years of ministry. This year marks my 14th year of ordained ministry, and Dec. 2 of 2022 will mark my 10th anniversary at St. Paul’s. I’ve never taken a sabbatical before, and especially after the tumultuous last two years it feels particularly overdue. One author I’ve read named Christopher Huertz talks about the four “R’s” of self-care: Sabbath is for Rest, vacation is for Recreation, retreat is for Reflection, and sabbatical is for Renewal. I believe strongly that sabbaticals should not simply be a 3-4 month vacation. My time away will contain elements of all four R’s, as a sabbatical should, and what I hope is that I can return refreshed and renewed, and with some new insights and energy to offer St. Paul’s going forward. This time is not just for my benefit, but for our benefit as a community. You deserve to have me fresh as I cross this 10-year threshold. I’m grateful that the vestry has been more than supportive of me undertaking this sabbatical. Some of my sabbatical schedule is still emerging, and I’m excited to share more over the next couple of months about what I’ll be focusing on during that time. I’m also relieved to be able to step away with the utmost confidence in Mtr. Liz and our vestry’s capable leadership.
This pandemic has been a difficult season for the Church at large. While there are many challenges ahead, I feel energized and encouraged about the life of St. Paul’s today and in the future. I am excited about my time of sabbatical renewal, and eager and hopeful about the next phase of the journey. God is not even remotely done with St. Paul’s, and continues to work through our community in life-changing ways, and for that I am most grateful. We may all have some resiliency fatigue, but it’s clear to me that God is still strengthening and upholding us when and where we need it most.
Please reach out to me if you have questions or concerns. My door is always open. May the God who has been our help in ages past continue to be with us in the days ahead, and in the age to come give us life everlasting.
The Rev. Rob Courtney
Read the full annual report here.