An Extended Family of Love (Feast of St. Anne)

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St. Anne’s Feast Day

If you’ve ever paid attention
to the signs in front of Episcopal churches,
you may have noticed
that almost every Episcopal church
is named after someone or something
on the Christian calendar.

Rarely do you ever see
a “First” Episcopal Church,
or an “Eastside” Episcopal Church,
or a “Greater Morningstar Holiness
Congregation of Baptism by Fire” Episcopal Church.

Instead, we typically name our churches after the saints.
There’s St. Patrick’s in Albany.
St. Matthew’s in Fitzgerald.
St. Barnabas in Valdosta.

Or sometimes we name them for an event or a theological truth,
like Annunciation in Vidalia,
or Atonement in Augusta,
or Grace Church in Waycross.

And in our diocese,
we especially love
to name our churches
after Jesus himself.
There’s Our Savior in Martinez and at Honey Creek.
There’s Good Shepherd in Augusta, Brunswick, Swainsboro, and Thomasville.
And, of course, there are all the Christ Churches
in Augusta, Cordele, Dublin, St. Mary’s, St. Simon’s, Savannah, and Valdosta.

But what about us?

Well, in the 1800’s
two Episcopalians—
Captain Henry Harding Tift
and his brother Edmond—
moved to this area
to settle the land.

That’s right.
You heard me.
Tifton was founded by Episcopalians.
(You’re welcome.)

And in 1898—exactly 120 years ago—
those two brothers conspired with Bishop C.K. Nelson
to start up an Episcopal church in Tifton,
and they named it . . . St. Anne’s.

Every saint has a day of commemoration—
a “feast day” on the calendar—
and today is our day.
(Actually it’s July 26,
but we observe it on the Sunday adjacent.)

A Quasi-Fictitious Saint

There’s just one problem.
As many of you who’ve been around a while already know,
the thing about our blessed Anne
is that she kind of never existed,
at least not in the way she’s often described.

St. Anne is purported to be the mother
of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
which would make her the grandmother of Jesus,
but as I’m sure you all know—
biblical scholars that you are—
the Bible is completely silent
when it comes to Jesus’ grandma.

Yet through the years,
the early Church developed and told legends
about an older couple named Anne & Joachim,
who—like Sarah and Abraham—
longed for a child.

As the story goes,
they were ultimately blessed
with a daughter named Mary,
and it was that daughter
through whom the blessing of Jesus
ultimately came into the world.

An Extended Family of Love

All that may sound silly,
but over time,
I have come to love the fact
that we as a congregation
are named after the hope
of an extended holy family.

I don’t know why the early Church
made up the legend of St. Anne,
but it must have scratched some kind of itch.

As those early Christians
began to reform themselves
into a new kind of family—
a family based
not on blood
but on Baptism
not on tribe,
but on the Truth,
not on lineage,
but on Love—
it seems reasonable
that they would tell one another
these stories of a larger family,
a deeper connection to Jesus.

And you know what?
Every time I look around this congregation
that is exactly what I see:
an extended family,
a new community of love.
I see a family that has grown a lot in recent years,
that continues to make room,
that exuberantly welcomes new brothers and sisters,
yet is still loving and connected
by the love, healing, forgiveness, and grace
of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I see a family that cares for young and old,
a family where all of us have a role to play
no matter our station in life,
whether we are like grandmother Anne,
or the blessed mother Mary,
or little baby Jesus.

And it is that sense of family
that brings us here today.

Nurturing the Youngest Among Us

Last week I spoke extensively
about the fact that we at St. Anne’s
have had an explosion
in youth and children
over the past several years.

I talked about how we made the gamble nine years ago
that if we did right by our massive group
of three, four, and five year olds,
they would one day grow into
twelve, thirteen, and fourteen year olds.

I talked about how that has happened,
and just as God entrusted Mary to Anne
and Jesus to Mary,
God has entrusted us
with his greatest treasure:
young and curious hearts
who want to know their Lord.

So today, in celebration of our feast day,
we are having a parish wide conversation
about youth and children,
and we’re going to do some thinking and praying
about what’s next for the youngest among us.

You may think this is not for you.
Maybe you don’t have children,
or your kids have long since grown and left.
Maybe you think you’ve already “been there, done that.”

But this is St. Anne’s.
This is the family of God.
Whether you’re an Anne or a Mary,
a Joachim or a Joseph,
by virtue of being a part of this church family,
you have made promises to support our children
in their life in Christ.
You have skin in the game.
You have a part to play.
You have something good to give.

Cultivating Youth Ministry at St. Anne’s

The truth is, youth ministry is not rocket science.
Like I said last week,
there’s no silver bullet yet to be discovered,
no white knight to come in and do it for us.

The things that have always been important
remain important,
from generation to generation.
All that’s required is the dedication
of an entire congregation
willing to say, “We will, with God’s help.”

At St. Anne’s,
our ministry to youth and children
can be divided into five “buckets”:

Acolyting & Worship

The first bucket is Acolyting.
In this church, we give
the best seats in the house
to the youngest among us.

Acolyting may not seem like a big deal,
but there is no better formation
for a young Christian
than having consistent and unfettered
access to and responsibility for
the altar of God.

We have acolytes at this church
who know every single word in the liturgy—
including the prayers typically designated only to the priest—
and those acolytes whisper them along with me every single Sunday.
You can’t tell me that doesn’t form young Christian souls.

Of course, the acolyte program
isn’t the perfect fit for every kid
and that’s okay.
Our simple expectation
is that every young person
will have some kind of ministry
that they offer on Sunday mornings.
If it’s not acolyting,
then a young person can
learn to run sound,
or become a lay reader,
or be trained as an usher,
or even a Eucharistic Minister
once they reach the age of sixteen.

The point is,
we not only expect our children
to be in worship,
but to assist in worship
for there is no more important
means of formation for our souls
than serving in the sanctuary of the living God.

Sunday School & Godly Play

The second bucket is Sunday School,
which includes not only
the traditional Sunday School between the services,
but also Godly Play,
a Montessori-style curriculum for Pre-K through 1stgraders
which takes place during the first half of worship.

To be honest,
Sunday School is where we’ve often struggled the most.
We’ll start the year with a bang
with classrooms full of students and teachers,
but by the end of the year
the only ones present are the rector’s daughters
and children of the person teaching for the day.
(Believe me, if we’re only offering Sunday School
for the sake of my two children,
that’s not necessary.
They get plenty of Christian formation at home.)

But the truth is
we need Sunday School.
As your priest,
I need to know
that your children are being
steeped in the Bible,
steeped in the prayer book,
steeped in the sacraments,
steeped in an understanding of God’s grace
and what it means live a Godly life.

Sunday School is where our children come to learn,
and there’s nothing more important for them to learn
than the fundamentals of their faith.

Wednesday Night Youth Groups

The third bucket
is Wednesday night youth group.
In the Episcopal Church,
we call it EYC: Episcopal Youth Community.
Our version for little kids is PreYC.

This is where, yes, we do some learning,
but more importantly, it’s where
we build a community of friendship and prayer.

One of our life-long parishioners
talks about growing up at St. Anne’s
and the power of EYC.

“We all had different tastes, different styles,
different circles of friends outside of church,” she says,
“but no matter what, we we had each other.
We were the St. Anne’s kids.
We cared about each other,
and we had each other’s backs.
We knew what it meant to be a Christian community.”

We see that emerging here again
for a new generation,
but it doesn’t happen by accident.
It requires leadership, consistency,
and a whole lot of love.

Outreach

The fourth bucket is Outreach,
those events whereby we bless others
with the love that God has given us.

This most often takes the form of special events,
such as Vacation Bible School,
All Hallows’ Eve Trunk-or-Treat,
and Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper.

On the surface, those all sound like fun and games,
but we work hard to invite the entire community.
Believe it or not, there are people who have joined St. Anne’s
not because they came to the Great Vigil of Easter
or to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass,
but because they came to All Hallows’ Eve.
(Never underestimate the evangelical power of candy.)

Diocesan Youth Activities

The final bucket is Diocesan Youth Activities
such as summer camp at Honey Creek,
renewal weekends like
Happening and New Beginnings,
and special events like Acolyte Festival.

Diocesan youth events are where our children go
to dive deeper into their faith.
It’s also where they make connections
with other Episcopalians their age
and discover that our church family
is much, much bigger than they ever imagined.

What looks on the surface
like campfires and sing-alongs
actually sets the stage for something far greater.

This year, our kids have come home
from summer camp at Honey Creek
fired up about their faith
and talking openly about their relationship with Jesus.

That kind of formation is worth
every chaperone, every scholarship,
every gallon of gas we can muster
to help get them there.

All That Was, Is & Ever Shall Be

So as we contemplate
the power and joy of all these things,
let me close with an image.

A few weeks ago
I found a glorious picture
taken at this year’s
Vacation Bible School.

In the photo was the big rock . . .
the one out there in the Memorial Garden,
which my predecessor Father Hurst
had placed there thirty-something years ago.

Of course, the Memorial Garden
is where we place our dead.
The tablets out there
name the members of this church family
who have long since gone on to glory,
whose lives were loved, formed, and shaped in this place.

And that rock?
That rock represents
the Lord God Almighty,
the immovable, unshakable
lover of our souls . . .
the ground of our being
and the sure foundation of our church
for every generation
past, present, and yet to come.

But the thing that makes this photo so special
is that the rock is covered in children . . .
twenty-five happy youngsters,
clamoring and brought together in pure joy
by our Lord Jesus Christ
and by the love of this church.

I love that photo
because there, in one place,
was everything that will ever matter:

The aged who have gone before us,
who made this church what it is,
and who now rest from their labors.

The young, whose lives are a mystery
and who now receive
the banner of God’s love.

And that rock . . .
the Lord God Almighty,
the ground of our being,
the Alpha and the Omega,
the One who has brought us together—
from Blessed Anne to Blessed Mary,
from Henry Tift to Chappie Tift,
from our first priest Fr. J.W. Turner to yours truly,
from you, to you, to you, to you, to you—
a glorious and loving extended family
built on the promise of God’s
love, healing, forgiveness, and grace
made known to us in Jesus Christ.

How blessed we are, brothers and sisters,
and how blessed we will continue to be.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
who has brought us together
in a new community of love.

And happy, happy, happy Feast of St. Anne.

Amen.