November 19, 2012

A Vision of the Future: Reimagining Church


To read all of the "Vision of the Future" sermons, click here.

Text: Mark 13:2: “The Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’’”

Yesterday, along with many of you, I spent all of the morning and part of the afternoon at the Parish Work Day organized by Mr. Battson, the Junior Warden. My own little task was to scrape the paint off the two windows just below the sacristy, windows that shed light into the Bowen School’s Five-Day Classroom. I chose that particular task because it looked like it wouldn’t involve a lot of skill or expertise, and I can report that I was right.

The only problem was that I began to worry that I might be taking off too much paint. It just seemed to keep coming off and off and off. The deeper I got into it, the more there seemed I needed to do. I was worried it might actually be load-bearing paint I was taking off. But eventually no more paint would come off, and with Alastair’s help and Jeff’s help the windows got a fresh coat of tough exterior paint, and now they’ll be good for another ten or fifteen years or so.

When I plotted out this series of three sermons offering my part of our discernment conversation, I had no idea that this last entry would be immediately preceded by spending a day tending to our beloved building, with its peeling paint and its loosened mortar joints and the slates being shed off the roof, our beautiful building with the lines of Henry Vaughan and the light of Charles Connick and Louis Tiffany, and the lovely, gentle carvings of Angelo Lualdi.

But scraping those windows sure did give me plenty of time to meditate on the challenges we face here, on the work that our love for this place demands.

You know, there are churches that meet in function rooms at places like the Radisson Hotel downtown. They just have a standing arrangement to rent the room on Sunday morning for three hours. The hotel likes it because the rooms are virtually never used then. And the church just puts out the stacking chairs and sets up a few microphones and a screen with a projector and an electronic keyboard. They don’t have to think about peeling paint and failing boilers and all the rest. They let the hotel worry about that. They just worry about being a church.

There are days I envy them.

Over the past two months I’ve shared with you two ideas about what we might be, or aspire to be, in our community here at Saint John’s. I’ve offered the thought that no matter what else might be true of us, we should always strive to be a place where all people find a welcoming, affirming community to be part of. To say it in other words, anyone who comes here should always find here a community of people striving to live out the Great Commandment, loving our neighbors as ourselves.

And I’ve offered the thought that if we imagine our possibilities together as limited simply by the boundaries of our own resources, then our future will be very limited; but if we remember that we are God’s faithful people, and that God is with us asking us what it is we want to become, then really anything is possible to us.

As I say, those are ideas, and I think they’re pretty good ideas; but they’re ideas. They come from a lot of reflection about my years here and about my conversations with each of you over my time here as priest-in-charge. But ultimately they are the result of a lot of thinking. They are a product of my head.

Today is different. I probably put this sermon at the end of my little series because it has been the hardest one for me to get into some kind of shape to share with you. Because this one comes from my heart. It comes from the place where my hopes and my fears live.

It comes from the place where I hold all of the things that I deeply love about this place, and about all of you, and about all of the beloved people I have known here who passed through this place as life took them on to other adventures, or whom we have mourned here. And it comes from the place where I hold the memories of all my interactions, all my conversations, all my connections to them.

It comes from the place where I sift through all that a church is, all that a church does, all that a church means to the people who gather in it. It comes from the place where I struggle to understand what it is people who are here, and people who are not here, not here expect a church to be, what expectations they have that they think a church will not meet.

It comes from a place where I reflect with some sorrow on how strange it would have been for people of my grandparents’ generation, or any of the hundreds of generations before theirs, to imagine people having expectations of the church—instead of the other way around.

And it comes from a heart that faithfully wonders what sort of future the capital-C church will have as our focus becomes more and more on individual autonomy, and the idea of social obligation loses almost all its meaning in the culture we are moving toward.  Barack Obama may have won the election, but Ayn Rand seems to be winning the culture war.

In my head I know that the common wisdom is that the church must change, the church must change. The leaders of the church keep telling us this. But in my heart I believe that it is the world around us, the culture around us, the social structures around us that are changing, and at a fantastic rate. If you haven’t read David Brooks’ essay in Friday’s New York Times about the dizzying rate of profound change in the profoundly basic idea of what a family is, I commend it to you.1

But it is just one little piece of a thousand such pieces. Our culture is going through a historic shift; it’s becoming something hard to recognize as social culture at all, seen through the windows of a church.

So I think it’s not that the church has to change. I think that’s too simple an answer. My heart tells me that what has to happen instead is that the church has to respond to the change around us.

After all, if you think about it, isn’t that the whole point of the incarnation? God keeps trying to make a relationship work with us by giving us rules, and then by sending hundreds of years worth of prophets to teach us what the laws are about. And when none of that works, finally God comes right here, on our ground, to meet us on our own terms-—to meet us where we are, so that we can find our way to where we belong.

For thousands of years we have lived the idea of the incarnation in the form of these churches. Through the church we brought the message of the Gospel to people where they were. We didn’t expect them to come to Jerusalem or Mecca or even Canterbury; the whole realm of God’s sacred work could be touched and seen and lived right here.

We have named these places after our great ancestors. We have gathered around the same stories and taught our children the idea that there is something about us that cannot be reduced to the mere material, that there is something about human life that is essentially sacred even if that claim can’t be proved on evidence. That is a Christian claim.

And so long as we have been able to get that task done by using this form, then we have been doing the right thing. But what if this form, what if the idea of church that was handed down to us for at least the last five hundred years or so—what if all of that isn’t going to give us a an effective response to the way the culture around us is changing? What if this isn’t the way to live out the incarnation of the Gospel in the world around us? What then?

Do we stick with our model even if fewer and fewer people are reached by it? Think about it this way: In the United States this morning, 31 percent of all the people are fifty years of age or older. But in the Episcopal Church this morning, the whole church, 56 percent of all the people are fifty years old or older.

As my relentless young colleague Kate McKey is always reminding me, exactly the reverse it true at the other end of the age spectrum. Across the United States this morning, 48 percent of all the people are thirty-four years old or younger. But in the Episcopal church, those folks only make up—are you ready?—25 percent of our membership. Something like half of what it should be.

What shall we do about this? When Jesus talks about the stones of the great temple in Jerusalem, is he also talking about the stones that Mr. Vaughan used to build this church?

I do not claim to have the answers to the question of the future of the capital-C church. I am not smart enough to figure that out. But in my heart, I believe that we here at Saint John’s, in our beloved community, we can trust each other enough, we love each other enough, to risk reimagining what church can be.

Does that mean the Saint John’s will change? Maybe. Probably. We already have changed. We are living out our ministry by dividing our responsibilities very differently than we ever have in our whole history.

But I think it’s looking through the wrong end of the telescope to begin from the idea of what changes we might make and move from there. Because things that seem to be attractive now may very quickly be pointless. That’s how fast things are changing outside.

Instead I think we have to go back to basics. I have a colleague who has helped lots of organizations, places larger than us, manage change successfully simply by insisting that they keep focused on one basic question: What is the job to be done?

What is the job to be done? The question at the heart of that is: What is our purpose? A purpose is something different from a mission.  A purpose is the thing that focuses and prioritizes everything you do, every choice you make, and allows you to prune things that are not helping you, no matter how beloved they may be.

What do you think our purpose is here? If everything else collapsed here, if the whole building just caved in, what are the two or three or four things you would carry out of here with you? What are the things we could not do with out?

I’ll give you my answer that is in my heart. First, our purpose has to be to come to know more and more deeply the transforming love of God as it has been revealed to us in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. Our purpose has to be to teach the idea that the undeniable spiritual dimension of our human life points toward, and gives evidence for, something we can only call the divine, that is the ground and source of all our being.

That is why we cannot do without the basic idea that there is more to God than we can ever understand or explain, that we are part of something that is ultimately greater than we are.

Second, our purpose is to live in the world as witness to the radical, subversive idea that mercy is more powerful than judgment as a means of achieving true fairness and real justice in a world of frail and fallible people.

That is why we cannot do without the simple ways in which we live out gentleness and protect the fragility of things that are good and beautiful. That’s what our liturgy does, and that’s why it does what it does.

And as the whole culture around us shifts toward a time in which actual human-to-human connection is harder and harder to come by, our purpose is to live as a model for how real, actual, genuine human community can work and endure.

Our purpose is to live as an example of a group of people who are willingly part of a social community to which we give of ourselves without first asking what the advantage to us will be. Our purpose is to be here on this streetcorner as a living example to the possibility that twenty-first-century people in Eastern Massachusetts can be part of a group in which they actually feel a degree of freedom-limiting commitment to each other and each other’s well-being. That, by itself, is fundamentally countercultural.

In my heart, these are the indispensable things about our purpose here, about the thing God is calling us, and equipping us, and challenging us, to do. It is what makes us a holy people, a gentle people, a compassionate people, a true community. There is a lot that is not there. And if we held up everything we do, every dime we spend, every word we speak to each other and to people who come here, if we measured it all by that standard, then a lot of our priorities might change.

I consider the example of our friends the Sisters of Saint Margaret. They came to a point of realizing that their convent was actually getting in the way of their ministry; and so, to just about everyone’s amazement, they put a for sale sign out front and built a new, smaller, greener place on land they already owned. Bold move. Powerful example.

So what about our stones? What about this beloved place? Is one of the changes we need to make to find a way to leave?

The real question for me is, does it serve our essential purpose?

A common theme in all the talk about the challenges the whole church faces is that we must think outside the box. And that is true. But you know—it is really, really hard to think outside the box if you don’t have a box in the first place.

These stones are our box. They give us a place from which to pursue our purpose, to follow God’s call, to tend and grow our community. This place gives us a place to learn how to be that beloved community that is so much and so marvelous a genuine, Christ-centered response to the changing culture around us.

Yes, we can reimagine the church. The church is merely a means, not an end. It is a means to the work of the Gospel; it is not the end for which Christ came. Hear that again: The church is not the end for which Christ came. It is the means by which God’s purpose is translated to the world, and if no one understands the message in a changing culture than the means must change.

We can reimagine a church with less hierarchy and more equality. We can reimagine a church that energizes everyone, each one of us, to see all of our work, not just the church part of it, as our ministry in the world.

But reimagining does not mean jettisoning. It does not mean imagining that nothing that came before us has any meaning or value anymore. It does not mean the past has nothing to teach us. To believe that is to fail the first test of humility.

So let us pray for discernment not about our building or about our priest, but about our purpose. Let us pray for courage to live boldly into that purpose, no matter what. Let us give thanks for all we have been given as tools to be God’s witnesses and advocates, and let us find new and better ways to use those tools for God’s purposes.

But let us remember that if we get it right, we will always look like something that doesn’t quite fit with the culture around us. We are in the greatest danger when we are mainstream of the culture around us, because then there is something we are not doing. So let us also pray for the courage to be different, boldly different, outrageously different, lovingly different—answering to different standards and hearing a higher call. Amen.