September 23, 2012

A Vision of the Future: The Most Inviting Place


Text: James 2:8: “You do well if you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Today is our Homecoming. If you think about it, that’s sort of funny. I mean, Homecoming really is sort of a phenomenon for schools. Or more specifically, for schools with football teams. Where I grew up, homecoming was the weekend in the fall that all the alumni were supposed to come back and watch a home game. I’m pretty sure it was all invented because getting people to go to an outdoor sporting event on a November Friday evening in Michigan was sort of a hard sell.

I’m pretty sure it was all invented because getting people to go to an outdoor sporting event on a November Friday evening in Michigan was sort of a hard sell. So you tried that most trustworthy of all ideas; you created an event that would bring people in.

I’ve noticed that this idea has spread to a lot of churches, not just us. But the idea is pretty much the same: This is the church’s gentle way of telling you that summer is over, and your kids are back in school, and I know you’re probably not on vacation, and it’s time to get back in the practice of Sunday morning church. So here we are, and it is good that we are here, because we have an important year ahead of us.

I have now been in this pulpit for three years, and it is time for us to begin reflecting together on the ministry we have shared here over these years, and how significantly it has changed over these years from the way it used to be, and where God is calling us to now.

So, yes, this is in part a conversation about whether we should hire me as the rector. But it’s also a conversation about what it means to be a rector at Saint John’s, what it means to be a member and fellow minister of this place; what sort of ministry we are creating here and what response we are making to God’s call to us, God’s challenge to us, to do holy things here.

I have been a member of this parish for a long, long time before I ever came here as a priest, and so I feel more than a little bit of an investment in this conversation. I love this parish; it has taught me everything I know about Christian community.

So I have a part of the work we now have to do in considering our future. I want to offer some ideas about how we might build from where we are to where we might be; how we might reflect on the things we are good at, the gifts God has uniquely given us, and build from them our path into a new chapter of the story of Saint John’s.

I’m going to give one sermon during each of the months of this fall on the basic theme of what our future might look like together. My hope in doing this is that I might offer these thoughts to you here where most of us gather together, and in such a way that folks who miss one might hear another. Basically I’m going to surround you with these messages for the fall. So here goes.

This morning I’m going a little bit backward in order to go forward. I’m going back to last week for the text on which I wish to preach, a verse from the Epistle of James that we heard last week.

It’s a part of the letter that is a pretty pointed criticism of whatever church James is writing to. What’s happening there is that some of the people who come in the door are being given the best seats, and some are being asked to sit on the floor in the back. Some people are welcomed, and some people, frankly, are not.

That would be pretty much like any other place on the planet, right? This is what we do, we humans. We make groups, we gather together, and just about automatically we establish ranks among ourselves. We create distinctions among ourselves almost from the first moment we set foot on the playground. Some people are in, some people are out.

And we turn out to be very good at justifying the distincts we make. We have opinons, sometimes very well-thought-out positions, on why we those others, whoever they are, deserve the less-favorable treatment we give them.

God knows this about us. God made us, after all, and understands how we are wired. And God knows, God knows that this thing about us is both a virtue and a vice; it helps us to make the kinds of social bonds that allow us to accomplish great things, but it keeps us divided from each other.

James sees this as the thing that is meant to set Christians, and the churches they create, apart from every other sort of human gathering. What is supposed to distinguish us is that we make no distinctions.

This isn’t just a thing to make us different, like having a special sort of club tie. It comes from something James wants us to understand about the Christian faith, something that is perhaps the single most important claim we make as Christians about what has been revealed to us about the truth of humankind.

That claim is this: In the eyes of God, we are all profoundly, totally, absolutely equal. The distinctions we draw among ourselves, distinctions of wealth or education or race or ethnicity or religion or, well, whatever—are meaningless to God. In God’s eyes, we are all equally fallen, and equally precious, and equally worth saving.

All by itself, that is the single most radical claim of the Christian faith. It is a claim with profound significance for history. You will never find me arguing that America is a Christian nation, but it is possible to draw a line from this fundamental claim of the Christian faith to the rise of the idea of democratic government and individual rights and equal justice under law.

And is just as possible, I think, to argue that the farther we get away from that basic Christian idea, the more we find ourselves drawn into a culture of celebrity, and economism, and vast discrepancies in wealth that would have been embarrasssing to our grandparents seeming somehow normal.

•   •   •

Now, what does any of this have to do with us?

Well, I’ll tell you. I think this is something we do well in this parish. Not perfect; but well. Usually, very well.

I think we are a place that welcomes people as equals. I think we are a place that welcomes people, period.

I have some evidence for this. For one thing I have my own evidence. Twenty-eight years and two weeks ago, we showed up here for the first time. We were a lot younger, and a poorer, and frankly just not all that interesting. But this place took us in.

When you have been around a place that long, there is no way of avodiing one simple fact: People are going to see you in pretty much every state you are capable of experiencing, and not all of them will be moments of glory.

That has certainly been true in my case. This community of people have seen me at my best, and at my worst, and at every point in between. And I have known some of you long enough to know that that I am not alone in this.

And yet; and yet. I always knew I could return. I always knew I would be accepted.

I hope you have that experience of this place. I know that we have not always gotten it right. I know that from time to time we have seemed to run a little low on this grace. But sort of like the water that keeps rising up right beneath our basement, that spiritual gift that God has endowed this community is never far from the surface.

That is a precious, precious thing. We might wish we had more people, or more money, or more parking, or whatever. But I would trade all of those things for the quality of welcoming. Because that is the true mark of a community that is taking seriously trying to follow and witness to Jesus Christ.

I am not concerned whether people come to know us as an Episcopal church. I am very concerned that they come to know us as a welcoming church, because that will mean we are following the call of a Christian community, and the rest is details.

We know that the general view held of the church, any church, of people who are outside the church is that it is not welcoming: that it is judgmental, that it is excluvist, that it is intolerant. We know they will not find that here. But in order to find that, they have to first come.

Here is what we have going in our favor. There are so few places in the world that are truly welcoming. People long for a place to know true community. We already are that place.

So I know it’s hard to ask people to come with you to church. I know it feels like you’re invading their privacy, or their conscience, or violating some sort of unspoken rule of polite company.

But maybe if we approached it differently-. Maybe if we simply asked people-—do you have a group of people who make you feel welcome? Are you part of a community? Would you like to be?—Because that is the gift God has given us here.

We are a community of welcome. Everyone has a place here. No matter who they are, no matter what they might think they know about churches, here they will find a community, a community of equals, a community of fellow ministers. We are called into a future in which we respond to God’s invitation to us to help others find that same invitation here. Amen.