A Sermon from the Church of
Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 29, 2023 (Rector’s Annual Address)
Welcome to Annual Meeting Sunday. Frankly, sharing my Annual Report as I like to do in the context of the sermon, is a little bit awkward since I was only here for 12% of 2022. But I love the Annual Meeting, because it allows us to take stock of the year that is past, celebrate all the many and varied ministries that take place here, and look towards the future. And I have to say, the future at Bethesda is bright, it’s exciting, and along with all of you, I am so glad to be a part of it.
I have spent much of my first few months among you asking questions and listening and learning and building relationships. You can’t chart a course for the future without first getting to know ministries and people, without experiencing the traditions of a place, and discovering what draws people here and what keeps them here.
And let me first say and openly declare that I love Bethesda. This is a place teeming with faithful and passionate parishioners, a place with a talented and dedicated staff, a place where worship stands at the very heart of what we do, a place where Jesus is praised and followed, a place where apparently the rector skips.
So much of a rector’s role is simply setting a tone and helping to create a culture. What I hope to do in the coming years is to be part of a joyful community, one where people care about one another — even when they disagree, where people are committed to growing in their relationship with Jesus, where people want to both serve the church and serve those in need, a place where generosity is cultivated, a place where people are welcomed and loved. And I want to do this together, with each one of you.
But, since I’ve only been here for a short time, let me offer a few initial observations about life at this very special place, along with a few hopes.
The first is that this is a place where Jesus is encountered. Through liturgy and music, through prayer and Bible study, through sacred space and holy grounds, through service to others, Jesus’ presence is revealed in so many ways around here. And my hope is that collectively we will go even deeper in the coming years. That our faith will broaden and deepen, that we will see and know and serve Jesus in new and creative ways. That we will embrace the values of the Beatitudes we heard this morning as people who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
This is also a place where people are welcomed. I’ve been so impressed by the Ambassador program and by the intentionality of making all who enter these doors feel and know that they are loved by God, not for what they do or who they are or what they’re worth, but simply because they are children of God. That is a rare thing indeed. But the warm welcome can’t be the end goal. We must all continually strive to draw people deeper into their faith. And so connecting people to ministries that create even more committed disciples of Jesus is a major part of our work together.
Related to this, I would love to see some areas of church life that incorporate more lay involvement and leadership. From communications to outreach to finance to education, there are so many gifted parishioners around here and more people should be drawn into the creative and life-giving ministries of this parish. This not only allows people to share their gifts in meaningful ways, it also deepens our connections to God and one another. So my hope is that we will find a healthy balance between staff and volunteer leadership, one that lifts up and empowers lay ministry and recognizes that all ministry is rooted in our baptismal covenant.
This is a place with deeply held and beloved traditions. I love the traditions at Bethesda. Take Boar’s Head. Yes, the spectacle of it all was amazing to behold — the music, the costumes, the plum pudding. But what really inspired me was the sheer number of people who participated in the show over what was a very full weekend. I loved the intergenerational community building and the sheer joy in pulling this all off.
One of my mantras is “Never let the clergy get in the way of ministry.” And what I mean by that is I don’t have to be, nor should I be, nor could I possibly be, in the middle of everything that takes place here. I love it when people take up the mantle of ministry and simply make things happen. And that’s something else I loved about Boar’s Head — it could have been done without any clergy involvement at all. In reality, my only role was to not trip.
So, my hope is that we will lean into the strong traditions at Bethesda, while being open to creating new ones. Traditions that point firmly to God are worth holding onto and cherishing. The key is not allowing traditions to become idols in and of themselves, and that takes continued attention and discernment.
This is a place of great generosity. People are generous with both their financial and spiritual gifts. And that is because they care deeply about this community. When people feel connected, they contribute. Our overall giving goal for 2023 is $2.5 million. In order to fully fund the ministry that takes place here and the staffing we need to add to support it, this should really be at $3 or 3.5 million. We’ll talk more about this next month, but as you discern your 2023 pledge, I encourage your continued generosity and commitment to Bethesda.
This is a place with an incredible asset in The Church Mouse. Beyond the over $500,000 it raises for our outreach ministries, it stands as an outpost of Bethesda in the community and offers meaningful volunteer opportunities for our parishioners. I would like to see this bond between parish and Mouse strengthened even more, so that everyone beyond our walls will know that it is a ministry of this church. To this end, we are pulling together an advisory committee to support staff and improve communications to the wider community.
This is a place that takes seriously its commitment to those in need. Through our outreach grants and several hands-on ministries, we are following the way of Jesus in serving the least of us. My hope is to put together a robust outreach committee to help lead us towards a more focused approach to serving others, and to provide even more opportunities to roll up our sleeves and do god works. As a parish we have a huge opportunity to make a significant difference in our wider community — the needs are great. And I wonder if we might channel some of our resources into a signature outreach effort, one that people will identify with Bethesda. But that will take some true discernment.
My whole approach to ministry has always been about keeping one foot within the four walls of the church, and one foot beyond its walls. And so we have programs and educational opportunities that will deepen our faith as disciples of Jesus; we look to worship as the primary way that we gather; we maintain our buildings and grounds as sacred spaces that offer solace and inspiration.
And then we move outward to live out our faith in the world. We serve others through outreach programs, we invite people to come and see and experience the ways we meet Jesus at Bethesda, and we hold up Bethesda’s mission of love, inclusion, and grace as a beacon of hope that our broken and divided world so desperately needs. Through technology, Bethesda has an opportunity and, I’d say, a responsibility, to make a significant impact upon our local community, but also the wider church and the nation, bringing the message of God’s love well beyond our walls. And that excites me.
When I was in middle school, my family moved from Baltimore to New York. We left a beautiful church which we loved and, although it was hard to say goodbye, we looked forward to trying out some new parishes and finding a church home. We went to some of the biggest, most famous churches in the city — including the massive Cathedral of St. John the Divine. One Sunday we decided to at least try the tiny, nondescript Episcopal church in our neighborhood, with its red linoleum floors and electronic organ.
But there was something about the young, new rector that brought us back the following week. And then we got to know the people. And suddenly my parents made up 2/6 of the choir and I started acolyting every week. What I learned through this experience is that a church, is not the building. No matter how grand or how humble, a church is not the physical brick and mortar, but the living, breathing, flawed, forgiven people who consider it their spiritual home.
And ultimately, that’s what makes Bethesda so special. You make Bethesda so special. And it is a privilege to join each and every one of you on this journey of life and faith. I’m energized and inspired by what God is doing in this place, and I can’t wait to see what the Spirit has in store for us in the years ahead.