Participants having a good time at the St. John’s, Olney Vacation Bible School, August 2019
Last fall, I sat down with my newly christened lead volunteers for Vacation Bible School. They were still glowing from the VBS we completed a month earlier, the first St. John’s, Olney had offered in about ten years.
We had carefully crafted a theologically sound, all-activities-point-to-the-Gospel, week of fun and selected specifically the last week of August–a week often void of kid camps before the start of school–and we were thrilled with our over 70 participants and 30 some volunteers. Energy was high. Conversations rang with remembrances of the good old days of VBS at the height of church attendance, a nostalgic vision of ministry in the collective memory of the parish.
I was a little troubled, however. For one, most of the thanks from the parents echoed a similar refrain of cheap child-care, which of course is a ministry, but of a different sort than we had been looking to provide. For two, upon coming into St. John’s, I had spent my time re-working the Sunday School program to be more reflective of family formation expectations, with Holy Household Toolkits coming home quarterly, Sunday School with a clear objectives trajectory and expectation toward attendance, and across generations prayer partnerships with events featuring prayer tools.
Our VBS, while solid in its teachings, felt out of sync with our formation goals. How were these parents empowered to continue these themes at home? For the amount of resources (time, talent and treasure) involved, did we offer the most positive formation experience possible? So I emailed my two stand-out, supportive volunteers.
Sitting across from their excited, expectant faces, knowing full well that they were expecting to launch into planning next year’s camp, with a Harry Potter theme, I stated my concerns, “So, I’ve prayerfully been thinking, we should offer our VBS at night, as a family-oriented event, with people of all ages being formed and fed, with activities that would reach multiple ages and faith development levels.”
“You know we won’t get as many people–it’s a much bigger ask of a family.”
“Yes,” I replied. “But I think it will be better long-term formation.”
“We should feed them dinner.”
From that comment, we launched into planning a week-long program, where parents would be expected to stay and be formed alongside of their kids, where teenagers and parishioners without small kids would be required to form and be formed at the same time, and where we were certain we would drop numbers and have to talk people into coming.
What we found, is on whole, we didn’t have to convince people into coming. People were hungry for the opportunity to talk formation, to have tools to help them teach formation, and to find a path to understanding their family as faithful.
Sorted into Hogwarts Houses, VBS participants work together on a craft project
In keeping with the Harry Potter framework:
- We served dinner, buffet style, with each family sitting in a larger grouping of their Hogwarts House.
- We “Owl Mailed” a daily newsletter of the theme, the Harry Potter connections, the bible stories and the “why” of every activity.
- We did one craft–fitting the theme of Harry Potter and the theme of the day.
- We did a House challenge, requiring all the members of the House to work together–building a marble run, completing a puzzle in silence, participating in scooter races, unwrapping saran-wrap balls of goodies, and collaborating in a photo scavenger hunt.
- We watched a daily bible video, created by one of our own parish teenagers.
- We broke into age-appropriate groups to discuss the Bible story (the only time we divided by age).
- We took next steps as households to discuss where this theme takes us further in faith–as individuals, as church, as families, etc.
- We prayed compline, every night, except Friday, when we celebrated the Eucharist together.
At home, the conversations continued. Spouses continued discussing scripture and parents were ready to discuss Harry Potter in the view of the Gospel, the world in the view of the Gospel, their family in the view of the Gospel.
Small group, age-based, Bible discussion
Over the course of a week, we had over 70 participants, with few who were strictly volunteers and no one not participating.
Our numbers included all ages, from infants through parishioners in their 80s. Our households included young families, empty-nesters, and people without children. Participants left asking for more family formation events, saying that they valued this time of learning and family. They were adding the following year’s VBS week into their phones to hold the dates before vacation could be planned.
We’re already planning next summer’s Lion, Witch and Wardrobe Vacation Bible, with the assumption we will have more people from across the age spectrum participating, with or without kids, but ready, in child-like curiosity, to learn about faith so that they may take it with them to continue their formation long after the experience is over.
The Rev. Shivaun Wilkinson
Associate Rector, St. John’s, Olney
Laughter and joy during one of the nightly Hogwarts House challenges
Jesus said, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much. . . You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Luke 16: 10; 13
Whenever I ask congregational leaders how the diocese could serve them, the issue of money almost always comes up. The daunting task of raising sufficient funds to support the congregation’s ministry, maintain its buildings and property, and adequately provide for its clergy weighs heavily on the hearts and minds of our leaders.
For that reason, a few years ago we established the Financial Resources Committee, run by a small group of people passionate about Jesus, the Church’s mission, and how to fund it. Since its inception, the group has worked to provide leaders with strategic resources, including the debut of the Annual Giving Toolkit (If you’re in charge of your parish’s campaign this fall, I encourage you to explore this trove of helpful material).
Yet as Episcopalians, we have a tendency to talk to one another as if we all have a healthy relationship with money and no trouble managing our personal finances. While we know that isn’t true, rarely do we discuss personal finances not as a stewardship issue for the church–but as a critical dimension of individual and family well-being, and yes, spiritual freedom.
A few gifted members of the Financial Resources Committee with professional expertise in financial planning have been hard at work to change that. They’ve spent fruitful time researching and curating resources to help us all address concerns of financial health for our members and clergy at every stage of life. They are now ready to share their findings and knowledge with parish clergy and lay leaders at a two-session, all-day presentation on Thursday, October 10. Please read below for more information and register if you are able to attend.
I will be there, fully expecting to gain insight for myself. I look forward to learning alongside all who can join us, as we work to create a church where we can talk about our struggles with money honestly and open ourselves to the wisdom and freedom that Jesus wants for us all.
From the Personal Finance subcommittee leaders:
The Bible references money and possessions 2,350 times. That’s a lot. It’s more than Jesus talked about love, and more than he talked about heaven and hell combined. It’s almost as if God knew we would need direction and clarity on the whole money and stuff issue. And yet, many of us aren’t as intentional with our money as we would like to be, let alone, consider what our faith guides us to do with this resource.
As part of the Financial Resources Committee, we have created a two session program for delivery to the parishes in our diocese. We are inviting you and your significant other to participate in the initial presentation on Thursday, October 10 from 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. at Grace Church in Silver Spring at 1607 Grace Church Rd, Silver Spring MD 20910.
During our time together, you will engage in two sessions that have been designed for our parishioners. The morning session focuses on providing a context for a faith based approach to money management and then centers on financial fundamentals. There will be discussion and exercises for identifying where you and your significant other (as applicable) currently are financially; and then give you a strategy to deliberately chart a course going forward that will align your values with your resources.
We will break and share lunch together before reconvening for the second session.
The afternoon session dives into specific financial topics (philanthropy, retirement planning, estate planning, college funding, insurance, etc) that are familiar to many, yet often also a bit of a mystery to many. We believe you will walk away with less mystery and a clearer picture of how they can specifically move forward in the areas that are most important to you.
Aside from the personal value we hope you will gain from this time together, we will also seek your feedback as we hope to roll out to EDOW parishes in the coming months.
Please indicate your attendance by registering here. While these sessions are intended to be delivered together, if you cannot commit to the full day, we ask that you attend the morning session.
If you are unable to attend, please extend this invitation to another leader in your parish who you believe could represent your congregation and offer feedback as well as serve as an advocate when we roll out to the parishes. We are very excited and hopeful about the potential this program can bring to our parishioners and look forward to seeing you on October 10.
If you have any questions about the day, please email our team.
Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased, and those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
Matthew 14: 22-34
Let me begin by saying how grateful I am for the faithfulness of St. Michael and All Angels’ Church. When I think of all you’ve been through in the eight years I have served as your bishop and the many ways you strive to love God and your neighbors, sustain your church family, and raise your children well, I’m filled with awe. Father Lewis has told me of your good ministry this summer–another successful Vacation Bible School, your ongoing monthly meal program, your commitment to provide scholarships for your college bound students and steady commitment to the children and young people of the congregation.
You give of yourselves in this way in the midst of all that your personal lives ask of you, with all their challenges and blessings. So today I pray that you may feel God’s love and Jesus’ abiding presence, that you sense in a real way how the Spirit is guiding you and giving you strength. On the days when God seems distant and, like Simon Peter, you feel yourself starting to sink, may others be God’s instruments, reaching out their hands to lift you up.
Now I know from experience that one of the first things we let go of when life gets stressful is the very thing we need most. So I encourage you, as your bishop, to take time each day for quiet prayer. Sit in a chair in silence for as little as ten minutes, or turn off the radio while driving in your car; or don’t wear earphones when taking a walk, and offer that time to God. Turn your gaze toward Jesus.
I also encourage you to read from the Bible each day, and in particular, from the life and teachings of Jesus. You don’t need to be a biblical scholar and you don’t need to read for hours. Simply start with one of the gospels and read a portion every day. When you come across something you don’t understand or agree with, you can do one of two things: dig a little deeper to learn more about that passage or skip it and keep reading until some word speaks to you. Go to the Bible, not so much for answers as for strength, guidance, and inspiration.
As I thought about what word I might offer you today, the biblical story that came to mind was the one you just heard Fr. Lewis read about Jesus and Peter walking on the water. It’s a story that is speaking to me as your bishop, and, I believe, for all of us in the Diocese of Washington for reasons I hope this sermon will help explain.
Let me begin by putting the story in its context. We find it in Matthew chapter 14, which is exactly the halfway mark of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. In the chapters leading up to this one, we see Jesus at the height of his influence and fame in the region around the Sea of Galilee, which is in northern Israel, not far from the village of Nazareth where he grew up. Large crowds had begun to follow him and his disciples wherever they went, so drawn were people to Jesus’ teachings and healing.
Jesus and the disciples had been hard at work teaching and healing throughout the Gallian countryside. But then word came to them that Herod, the puppet ruler for the Roman Empire, had killed John the Baptist. When Jesus heard the news of John’s death, he abruptly withdrew by boat to a deserted place by himself to pray. He was grief-stricken and needed to spend time alone with God. But when the crowd realized that Jesus had left, many followed him on foot, because they still needed and wanted more from him. When he saw the crowds, even in his personal sorrow, Jesus was filled with compassion. So he and his disciples worked another long day, curing the sick and offering words of hope. You know that wasn’t easy. You know what it’s like to set aside your own needs in order to be present for another. It’s humbling and gratifying to feel God can carry us through those times when we’re called to focus on others when we ourselves are in need.
When evening came, the very tired disciples urged Jesus to send the crowds away, as there was no food to provide for so many. Instead, Jesus asked the disciples what they had to offer. You remember this story: all they had was a few loaves of bread and some fish, not nearly enough to feed so many hungry people. But Jesus told them to offer what they had, no matter how insufficient. And from their offering, which Jesus blessed and gave back to them to distribute, there was more than enough for everyone, with food to spare. So like Jesus in his fatigue, the disciples experienced in their inadequate offering how God meets us in the gap of what we have to give and what is needed, and then works through us, enabling us to do what we could never accomplish on our own.
But now Jesus was truly exhausted and he told the disciples (which is where we pick up the story today) to go on ahead of him by boat and he’ll catch up with them later. He didn’t say how he would catch up with them, only that he would. While the disciples were on the water, a storm came and strong waves battered the boat. The wind remained against them, such that they couldn’t make their way toward land. So they were stuck in the middle of the lake all night with a storm raging. Most of the disciples were professional fishermen, so they knew what to do. Nonetheless, you can imagine how exhausted they were. Then early in the morning, the disciples looked out on the water and saw someone walking toward them, on the water. They thought they were hallucinating. But instead, incredibly enough, they heard Jesus say, “Take heart. Don’t be afraid. It is I.”
Simon Peter, as you may remember, was by far the most impulsive of the disciples and the most eager to be at Jesus’ side. So when he heard Jesus say, “It is I,” walking on the water, he wanted to go out there, too. “If it’s really you, Jesus,” he said, “command me to come to you.” Jesus did, and Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water towards him. He actually walked on water for a few steps, until the wind began to blow and he got scared. Sinking, he cried out to Jesus, and Jesus grabbed his hand, lifted him up, and together they climbed into the boat.
This may sound like a fantastic story and it is. But here’s the takeaway: each and every one of you has walked on water, and more than once. Perhaps not in the way that Simon Peter did, but in other ways just as important, just as miraculous. Every time you tried to do something that you’ve never done before, you were walking on water. Every time you stretch beyond your capacities, you were walking on water. Every time you took a risk–perhaps inspired by someone else doing the same, as Simon Peter was by Jesus’ example–you were walking on water. And you weren’t being superhuman those times. You were being the most human, and in your finest hour. We were created to walk on water.
In truth, you’ve walked on water all your life. In childhood, everything before you was something you’d never done before–do you remember? The first time you rode a bicycle, or swam on your own, or mastered a skill, solved a problem, or fell in love. I remember when one of our sons broke his arm, badly, when he was eight years old. He needed to have surgery, and as I stood beside his cot about to wheeled into the operating room, he panicked. He didn’t want to go. At that moment, the anesthesiologist, who happened to be a member of the congregation I was serving as rector at the time, came to his bedside and calmly explained what would happen when they passed through the swinging doors. Our son listened, trying not to cry. Then he took a deep breath and to me, “Tell them to take me in now.” And off he went, facing the unknown with such courage, and–this is important–a friend at his side, like Jesus alongside Simon Peter, who said, “I’m right here. You can do this.”
We walk on water when we climb the stairs of a new school, sleep in our own apartment for the first time, make a terrible mistake and have to pay the consequences, commit to someone or something not knowing if we can keep our word, join the military, or move to a new county. We walk on water whenever we have to face something really hard–the hardest thing, what we dread most.
Walking on water isn’t just a Christian experience. It’s a human experience. But what makes walking on water a faith experience is when we sense that it’s Jesus calling us out of our boat onto the water. “If it’s you, Jesus,” Simon Peter said, “command me to come to you.” When it’s Jesus calling us out, and we take those first steps toward him, our relationship with him moves to a new level of intimacy and trust.
When I was 17, I heard Jesus call me out on the water, which involved leaving my home in Colorado where I had lived for many years with my father, and return to live with my mother in New Jersey. It’s a long and complex story, but the call was clear. I got on that airplane and cried the entire way, for I was leaving what felt at the time was my entire life. But I also knew that it was the right thing to do, and that I wasn’t alone.
That experience pales in comparison to Father Lewis’ story. When he was 24, he traveled by himself from Sierra Leone to the United States. I suspect that others here can tell of a similar journey, that either you or your parents took. What kind of faith does it take to travel halfway around the world?
Sometimes when Jesus calls us out, we’re excited to go, as Simon Peter was. And sometimes, we dread stepping out, wanting more than anything to stay right where we are. In the end, it doesn’t matter. We take those first steps; more often than not, we sink; then somehow we’re lifted up and we keep going.
To those being confirmed in the way of Jesus today, know that part of being a Jesus follower is to be called out of your boat and onto the water. Listen for his voice calling you from time to time, from where you are now to a place of great adventure. At other times, when life itself seems to thrust you into a new and unfamiliar place, or asks of you something you’ve never done before, go ahead and take your first step. Then look around for a loving presence, a supportive hand. Remember you were made to walk on water.
For those of you, like me, who have lived a good many years, rest assured that there is more water walking in our future as well. Sometimes we will respond to the call with a spirit of adventure and other times it will be the thing we dread most. Either way, if it’s Jesus calling us out, we can trust that we’ll be okay, no matter what happens.
And to all who belong to this beloved congregation of St. Michael and All Angels, you know what it feels like to walk on water together. That’s a good thing, because it’s clear that you’re being prepared to step out of the boat again. I’m not sure what it will look like, but I know this: we serve a faithful God, and a loving Savior who is not daunted by our human limitations. In fact, God seems to prefer to work through our limitations, making miracles happen along the way. Remember that you were created–we all were created–to walk on water, putting our trust in who calls us out and whose hand is there to catch us when we fall.
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.
Augustine of Hippo
I have a wandering heart. It served me well during many years of rich experiences. But in all that wandering, eventually I got lost. Thankfully, God called me back, and set my feet on his path. In my second year at Virginia Theological Seminary, I was lucky enough to go to the Dominican Republic for a month of study. One of the heroes I encountered there was a Gandhi-like priest, Sandino Sanchez. In one of our conversations, I asked him, “Sandino, tell me about the faith of your people. Why is it so strong?” He said, “Sara, in the Dominican Republic, we have so little and life is so hard that we know how much we depend on God; in your country you have so much you think you don’t need God.” I was unmasked. I whispered to my heart, “I need a faith like this.”
That’s how my path to Latino ministry began. It has never been about what I can give to my congregations; it has been my desire to accompany them through life, recognizing my own need to anchor my heart in Jesus and walk by faith.
I have been visited by grace upon grace throughout my years of ministry. People have generously shared intimate moments of joy and struggle. Exile, wandering, desert, deliverance–these are not just biblical metaphors in peoples’ lives; they are real life experiences.
During a collaborative book study discussion between members of Misa Alegria and Church of the Redeemer, Santos, who was describing his journey to the United States, told how God had hidden him in the cleft of a rock until helicopters disappeared from overhead. As he spoke, I simultaneously heard the Psalmists’ words and the old hymn, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.” Another time, during a Lenten Bible study, Maria asked, “I’d like to know how it is to cross the desert. Do you suffer from the heat?” Esther replied, “I didn’t suffer. A fine mist fell on my skin the whole time.” Our resident sage, Valentin, seated cross-legged on the floor, said simply, “Manna from heaven.”
Lately, our shared stories and conversations have explored questions of what it means to be treated as a scapegoat for society’s ills and how it feels to fear Pharaoh’s army. Yet despite such deeply troubling times, I continue to be amazed by an unshakeable, ever faithful witness to God’s presence with us.
In the Diocese of Washington, diversity is one of our greatest blessings. I am hopeful that, in this new season of our common life, we will be even more willing to reach out, to meet around our sacred stories, and maybe discover a friend in the stranger–and a deep connection in our common humanity.
By faith, we will all be brought to where our heart is, for we are all journeying home. If we open ourselves to one another, we just might find that our shared stories and dreams are manna from heaven–food for the journey.
The Rev. Sarabeth Goodwin