Sunday, November 24, 2013

Unlikely Missionaries of a New-Old Church

[Sermon from the conclusion of the Centennial celebration at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Kanasa City, Mo., Nov. 24, 2013.  Celebrating the Feast of St. Andrew.  ]

As many of you know, a group of 13 of us recently returned from a mission trip to Haiti. It’s an annual journey to build relationships with our partners in this work of educating and feeding about 200 children near the mountain town of Maniche. Now, the trip isn’t all work, of course. Every evening, we gathered around a table on the veranda at our guest house, reeking of DEET to stop the mosquitos and enjoying a Prestige beer or a little Barbancourt rum. After reviewing the day we’d spent, we’d have a little theological reflection before praying Compline. 

One evening, the reflection turned to our identity as sojourners in that very different place. There we were on a mission trip. And what would you call those sent by God on a mission? Maybe … "missionaries."

Well, that didn’t go over so well. No one around that table saw him- or herself as a missionary, in the sense we usually hear that word. In a darker time of Church history, missionaries brought their supposedly superior understandings of God and modern life to the ignorant peoples of distant lands. We didn’t see ourselves that way. Plus, there were some more personal stumbling blocks: As missionaries, wouldn’t we have to talk about Jesus out loud, probably in fairly obnoxious ways? That didn’t fit for any of us – including me. As I told the group, I grew up in a household where basically the only articulation of our personal faith was saying grace before meals – and that was a prayer we’d all memorized. We talked about church a lot; and we made fun of the stereotypical fundamentalists, going on about how Jesus was their personal Lord and Savior and all that. But sharing my faith? Right. There was no chance, growing up, that I’d be the kind of person to stand up in a pulpit and preach about Jesus. Hmmmm. Yet, here I am. And yet, there we were around that table, people sent by God on a mission. Hard to say we weren’t missionaries, as ill-fitting as that word might seem. 

My hunch is that our spiritual ancestor, St. Andrew, wouldn’t have called himself a missionary either. As the Gospel reading describes it, here’s a fisherman who’s been listening to the preaching of John the Baptist – now there’s a missionary, right? Crazy clothes, fiery sermons, great entertainment value. So Andrew is there with John the Baptist when John sees what he’s been looking for: "Look, here is the Lamb of God," John says, pointing at Jesus. Here’s the messiah! So Andrew’s curious, and he goes to Jesus; but there’s no direction, no command. Jesus simply says, "What are you looking for? … Come, and see." (John 1:38,39) So Andrew does, and something happens. We aren’t told exactly what turns his heart, but something makes him run home to find the person he cares about most, his brother, Simon. He’s about to burst; he has to tell his brother what he’s seen. "We have found the Messiah!" Andrew says. And he brings his brother with him to see Jesus. The fisherman has become a missionary, without even realizing it. The one seeking life for himself had become the one with life to share.

That’s our story as a congregation, too. St. Andrew’s might seem like a pretty unlikely group of people to describe as missionaries. More likely, especially a few decades ago, you might have heard this description: "The country club at prayer." The stereotypical St. Andrew’s member may not come to mind as an exemplar of missionary zeal. But it’s in our spiritual DNA. At the diocesan convention that created St. Andrew’s, Bishop Partridge explained that we were being planted on the southern frontier of Kansas City because "our own city – right here – is our greatest and most crying mission field."1 In our first 50 years, as we saw in the video last night, St. Andrew’s reached thousands, growing to be one of the largest Episcopal congregations in the country. We planted a church in Red Bridge, then the city’s new southern frontier. Later, we experimented with new styles of worship to draw in people looking for something other than organ music and Elizabethan prayers. We built small groups; we took mission trips; we literally moved houses to make room for people to park; we created a community youth center across the street. As the plaque down here to my left reveals, we have never been simply "the country club at prayer." This plaque was given by St. Peter’s, the congregation we planted; and it honors St. Andrew’s as a people of "missionary zeal." It says so right there; you can come and see.

In the beginning, God spoke creation into being through Christ the Word, who was with God and who was God, as John’s Gospel says. That Word was all it took for the future to begin. Today, God is still speaking the future into being; and maybe God’s most amazing ongoing miracle is that it happens through us. We are not passive observers of divine work; we are the ones sent to carry out the healing, saving, reconciling mission God wants to realize for the world God loves. As today’s readings put it, that creative Word is very near us, burning in our hearts and leaping from our lips; and God sends us to bring that Word to the people we’re given to know and serve. 

What does that look like, here and now? Well, one step is that we’ll be taking communication more seriously as a parish in the next year. We’re doing the work to figure out how to market ourselves – it’s probably about time we did that – and we’re seeking the right person to help make it happen. Building our capacity to share the Good News is one of the reasons why your pledge for 2014 matters so much, why we’re asking you to exercise holy courage in your giving of time, talent, treasure. 

But speaking God’s future into being also looks more personal than church marketing. Led by Meg Townsend, our Communications Commission is developing resources to help free us from our fear of speaking about our faith so that the people who make up the body of Christ can have something concrete and compelling to say about it. Like Andrew, we need to be able to tell people how God is up to something in our church and in our lives – and then ask people to come and see. As Paul puts it in the reading from Romans: "How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?" (10:14). 

"And," Paul continues, "how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?" (10:15). We may have been established here on the corner of Meyer and Wornall for the better part of 100 years, but we are still a people on the move, a people sent on God’s mission. That mission leads us to our most creative work – to speak a new expression of church into being, alongside this strong, beautiful, familiar one. That is the church we’re beginning to create with the Take 5 service, which starts this Saturday evening. It’s a church experience that reverses the traditional model and says, "First belong, then become, then believe." Along with new worship, we’re going out to engage with people where they are – building community in coffee shops and bars, learning what kind of new life our neighborhood needs and seeing how we can join with the Holy Spirit in bringing it about. This is why we’ve called Fr. Marcus. This is why we’re asking the questions about what it would take to make HJ’s a place where we can connect with our community – and where our community would want to connect with us. 

As is always God’s pattern, this new growth has timeless roots. It’s a new-old church that God is speaking into being, a church of the ancient future: A community that might gather around yoga or a running club or a book discussion at Bella Napoli before it ever gathers around an altar for Eucharist. It’s a community that might gather first to support a neighborhood school and later on decide to gather for praise and worship. And that praise and worship will happen not in a beautiful old structure like this one, where we’re separated from each other, stretched out the length of a football field, but instead gathered around God’s altar as a family gathers around its table. This is new for us, but it is also old. It’s a fresh expression of church alongside the traditional one, but it’s still rooted in Scripture, tradition, and reason. It’s a different model of reaching those who claim no organized faith, the "spiritual but not religious"; but it’s basically the same model the ancient Celts used to evangelize Britain. So, to me, there’s a clear message in all this: Do not fear. Do not fear. For Jesus does not call us on missions we are not equipped to pursue. Jesus calls us into precisely what he needs us to accomplish. And with that promise, there is no room for fear.

And what’s more, in God’s extraordinary economy of goodness and love, that call to mission also has the power to soothe our weary souls. In Maniche, Haiti, two Sundays ago, your band of unlikely missionaries went to church, and your unlikely missionary preacher was having a bit of a rough morning. We’d already had one service, at the big church in Les Cayes; so I’d already had one experience of stumbling through a liturgy in a foreign language and in someone else’s space. Worse than that, I felt like I had bungled the sermon the first time around, despite the translator’s best efforts to make me sound good. Now the environment was working against me, too. By the time we made the trek up the mountain to Maniche, the sun has risen higher; and the vestments that had been warm at 7 a.m. were now getting soaked with sweat. I offered the sermon a second time, and thankfully it improved with age. But I was still uncomfortable in body and in spirit, and the sweat pouring down my face only made matters worse. The time came for the Peace, and I was out in the congregation, greeting people at random. I looked down, and there was a little girl, one of our students, I think. I leaned down to take her hand, and said, "La paix du Seigneur" – the Peace of the Lord. The little girl looked at me, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her hand come up toward my face. She held a cloth, and she started mopping the sweat off my forehead. Gently, she dabbed and stroked my strange, white face. And in that moment – in about as foreign an environment as I could imagine, utterly different from everyone else there, doing work I often feel I have no business doing – in that moment, I was completely welcomed, completely at home. Unlikely missionary though I was, I realized I was precisely where I was supposed to be – both for "them" and for me. The touch of Jesus Christ himself, wiping the sweat from my brow, said, "Thank you. Thank you for being faithful enough at least to go where I sent you."

The same is true for us. We have worked hard, as St. Andrew’s parish, to reveal God’s kingdom for the past 100 years. We’ve had our days of great success, and we’ve had our seasons of struggle. We haven’t always been comfortable with the missions on which our Lord has sent us. But still, in the midst of it all, Jesus comes to us and wipes the brows of us unlikely missionaries; and he says, "Well done, good and faithful servants. Well done – but don’t stop there. Keep speaking my church into being," Jesus says, "with the words of this present time and place." 

As we have done for 100 years, so we will do in this new day. We will keep going to the surprising people to whom God sends us. We will keep speaking hope with a voice we barely knew we had. We will join with Christ, giving voice to his heart, healing his brothers and sisters with a word of new life. And so we will keep speaking a new church into being, sharing the Spirit’s voice with the neighbors God has given us to serve, now and for the next 100 years.

1. The Silver Jubilee of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri. Commemorative booklet from the parish’s 25th anniversary, Oct. 9 and 10, 1938, held in St. Andrew’s archives. Page 10.


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