I was gone most of last week at a conference for larger Episcopal churches. The conference was in San Diego, which was a wonderful contrast to the two huge snowstorms that my wife, Ann, and I left behind. It was also a great learning opportunity – a chance to think about where the Episcopal Church is going, how we can reach people who aren’t here, how we can do ministry better, how we can serve parishioners better. Then, after the conference, Ann and I took a couple of days off, rented a car, and drove up the coast to Los Angeles. I want to share a few images from our trip with you.
The first two images are from where we stayed in L.A. – a historic little hotel in a very funky part of the city, Venice Beach. If you ever watch The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, you may have an image of Venice Beach in your mind: People in skimpy swimming suits, roller-blading down the sidewalk; muscle men pumping iron, “free spirits” peddling paraphernalia for, shall we say, alternative lifestyles. Add to that the hawkers of medical marijuana, the homeless people camping on the beach, and the tourists trying to make sense of this circus, and you have quite a cross-section of humanity. It was fascinating – like traveling to a different country (maybe a different world). I’m not sure I felt like I belonged there exactly, but it was certainly interesting.
The next three images illustrate the real reason we went up to L.A. No, that’s not the entrance to a club and a band beginning its set. These are photos of the building and the “narthex” of an Episcopal church, as well as a band playing what functions as the “prelude” before worship there. The name of the congregation is Thad’s. Not St. Thaddeus’ Episcopal Church. Just Thad’s. Thad’s is an intentional church plant by the Diocese of Los Angeles. As the priest puts it, Thad’s is there for people “who would never darken the door” of a traditional Episcopal parish. Many of the people there have never even set foot in a church before – which is a little hard for us to imagine, here in the church-saturated Midwest. So Thad’s takes the shape of the Episcopal liturgy, what we know from a Sunday-morning service, and turns it into something the people there can connect with. And the morning we were there, probably 150 people were at Thad’s rather than hanging out at Venice Beach.
And what did they experience? What drew people in? Well, as you can see, it’s in a very approachable space, part of a collection of cool galleries and boutiques in Santa Monica. The music is basically alternative rock – and the musicians there write it all themselves. There’s no explicitly Christian symbolism in the room, other than the purple draping on the music stands reminding those in the know that it’s Lent. Worship is led by guys in jeans and sweaters sitting on stools. There’s only one Scripture reading. There was no celebration of Eucharist that Sunday – they have Communion only about once a month. After the sermon, people have a chance to share their reactions and contribute their experiences in response to what they heard.
And the people there clearly felt like they belonged. Several of them shared personal experiences out loud in response to the sermon. They took a long time exchanging the Peace. They gathered for coffee and doughnuts before and after worship. It doesn’t look like our version of church, but clearly they felt like they were in God’s house. Clearly, they felt at home.
Why am I telling you this? It’s NOT because I want to turn St. Andrew's Sunday mornings into an experience like Thad’s. Let me say that again: I do not want to turn our Sunday mornings into an experience like Thad’s. I can say it one more time if you want to hear it again. What was interesting to me about Thad’s is the way this congregation has taken Episcopal worship and community life, and made them authentic to the context in which they find themselves. They’ve looked around at who’s there in Santa Monica – people with little or no experience of church, people in the entertainment business, people who like funky museums and boutiques – and they’ve created a place where authentic relationships can flourish for those folks. They’ve created a place where real community can grow out of the fertile Episcopal ground of Scripture, tradition, reason, and welcome. Thad’s has created a place where people feel they belong.
Belonging is a huge piece of what it means to be part of a church community. And I don’t mean “belonging” in the sense of having a membership. I mean feeling the embrace of God’s love welcoming you, holding you, and supporting you through the ups and the downs we all face.
We heard about that kind of belonging in the Gospel reading today, one of my favorites, actually. It’s what we usually call the “parable of the prodigal son,” but a better name would be “the parable of the Father’s embrace.” Jesus tells this story because the religious authorities are grumbling at him for associating with lowlifes, the tax collectors and other sinners. He’s out there with the folks on Venice Beach, so to speak, and the religious leaders can’t understand why. So Jesus tells them a couple of parables, including this one, to reveal the sense of belonging that God offers us and God’s passion to draw us into it.
In this story, it’s not cheap grace that the Father gives his wayward son. It’s true that the Father’s love is always there for the taking, but it matters when the Father extends it – which is once the son has made the first move. The son has to decide to turn around, to repent, to come back home. But once he does, the Father doesn’t put him on probation until he proves himself. The Father makes a move just as dramatic as the son’s return, rushing out of his house and down the road, meeting his wayward son out there on Venice Beach. The sense of belonging, the sense of embrace, that the son had thrown away – it’s there for him, once again. The Father runs to him, puts his arms around him, and kisses him. And once he’s in his Father’s arms, the son knows that’s where he belongs, without a doubt.
That’s what the people at Thad’s are experiencing: God, in the person of that congregation, is throwing open the doors of the traditional Church and running outside it, finding lost daughters and sons and welcoming them home. They need to feel that they belong; and in the spiritual community of Thad’s, they’re finding that embrace.
These days, that’s what the experts are saying people need as their first step in becoming part of a faith community. In the old days, when the Church could expect most people would want or need to be part of it, the model worked like this: You believed in the things the Church said you should believe, you behaved in a way that let you fit in with the other folks there, and eventually you came to feel like you belonged. Now, as writers like Diana Butler Bass explain, the model is reversed for the religiously unaffiliated. Now, they need to feel like they could belong in given a spiritual community. Then they’ll try on the behaviors people practice there – things like coming to worship, having a prayer life, serving in the church and the community, giving back to God in thanksgiving for their blessings. And through this process comes a deep, centering belief in God as revealed in Jesus Christ. It’s the kind of belief that’s more than simply agreeing something’s true. It’s the kind of belief you stake your life on.1
Those of us who know the love of Christ at St. Andrew's would say we belong here, in the way the prodigal son belongs in the love of his Father’s household. You could cite lots of examples, but I saw one here a couple of weeks ago that blew me away. Many of you know Allen Roth, who’s been a parishioner for many years, along with his wife, Cindy. Many of you also know that Allen has received difficult news – a diagnosis of cancer the doctors say most likely won’t be cured. The other night, Allen stood up in the Jewell Room before a couple of groups he belongs to here. Everyone shared a glass of wine and a bite to eat, and Allen told his story – of his diagnosis, but also of the joy, the hope, and the paradoxical new life he’s found in the experience of “terminal” cancer. The fact that Allen could stand up and offer that story says he feels he belongs here – and so does everyone who filled the Jewell Room that night. They are bound together in the life of God’s kingdom that Paul describes in the reading from 2nd Corinthians: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17). The fact that Allen could throw a “cancer party” with his spiritual community at church shows just how much more than an institution St. Andrew’s really can be. Everyone in the room that night felt life being made new. Everyone in the room that night felt the Father’s embrace.
And now, as St. Paul would urge us, we’re called to take the next step – to be “ambassadors” of God’s new creation (2 Corinthians 5:20) and bring the power of Jesus’ love to reconcile those who are spiritually homeless, those out wandering on the beach. Our neighborhood looks different than Venice Beach, and most of the people on the Trolley Trail aren’t quite as interesting as the characters out in L.A. But the call is the same. Jesus asks us not simply to be a church that accepts the people who come to it but a church that reaches out to the neighbors around us and draws them into a spiritual community they may not even know they need. Jesus asks us not just to be people who go to church but to be a church going to people. I think Jesus is asking us to explore what it might look like to create a new worship opportunity, sometime other than Sunday morning, that connects a little more directly with the experience of people who aren’t here. I think Jesus is asking us to build a community where people who aren’t here could feel like they belong. I think Jesus is asking us to show “all sorts and conditions” of people that they can feel the Father’s embrace. As the people of God in this place, we’re called to meet folks out on the road as they make their first, hesitating turns toward the Father’s love. And then, we’re called to welcome them home.
1. Bass, Diana Butler. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. 199-214.