Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sent for Love Stories

[Sermon from Sunday, Nov. 23 – celebrating the feast of St. Andrew.]
Well, hello!  It’s really good to see you.  I’ve missed you and missed being with you in this stunning space.  I missed being with Deacon Bruce Bower for his ordination a couple of weeks ago.  I’ve missed my colleagues, whom I think I owe about a hundred lunches to begin to say thank you for all they’ve borne these nearly four months.  I am deeply grateful to Mtr. Anne and Fr. Marcus and Dr. Tom and the staff – and to Steve Rock and Mary Heausler and the other leaders who’ve carried the ball while I’ve been gone. 
So having been gone for almost four months, I’ve got a lot to say; so I hope you packed a lunch.  Well, no, not really – but this sermon will be just a bit longer than usual.  Don’t worry, though.  Rather than trying to pack months of study and reflection into one sermon, this morning I want to tell you three love stories.
The first is the love story of our patron, St. Andrew, whom we celebrate today.  In the Gospel reading, we heard the account of Andrew’s call and his response.  We don’t get much detail from this story; and what we do get is wrapped in hints and mystery, typical for John’s Gospel.  We know Andrew was one of John the Baptist’s followers; and we know John had told them directly that Jesus is the Son of God, not John.  So Andrew and another disciple approach Jesus, who asks them a question – the question God asks each of us on the path of discipleship:  “What are you looking for?” (1:38).  Well, their reply is odd:  What they’re looking for is where Jesus is staying.  It seems like they’ve totally missed the point.  But in a deeper sense, maybe they’re seeking what many of us are seeking.  They want to know where they can find the God who takes flesh and “move[s] into the neighborhood,” as The Message puts it (John 1:14).  He’d moved in – the Son of God, in the flesh – so, practical Andrew wants to know where to find him.  And Jesus gives an amazing response to that question, “Where can I find God?”  He simply says, “Come and see” (John 1:39).  So they do.  They come and see the truth that unfolds for us over the next 20 chapters of John’s Gospel: that Jesus is the Son of God and that through believing, we may have life in his name (John 20:31). 
That’s stunning enough – not bad for an afternoon’s conversation.  But the story doesn’t stop there.  After spending time with God incarnate, who’d just moved into the neighborhood, Andrew does something crazy.  He leaves.  Think about it:  If you’d spent the afternoon with the Son of God, would you walk away?  What’s Andrew thinking?  Why would he take the risk that Jesus might move on to a different neighborhood without him? 
The story doesn’t tell us, but let me hazard a guess.  When something extraordinary happens to you, what do you want to do?  You want to share it with people you love.  Andrew has found the love of God in the flesh.  He’s spent the afternoon in the kingdom of heaven.  So he wants to share it with someone he loves – his brother.  “Peter, I’ve found the messiah, the anointed, the one who brings God’s kingdom to life on earth!  Because I love you,” Andrew says, “let me show you the love I’ve found.”
There’s love story #1. The next two love stories come from stops along my sabbatical journey.  I visited nine congregations that are taking a “both/and” approach to church, embodying both traditional, inherited expressions and fresh expressions of church, one way or another.  So, what’s a “fresh expression of church”?  Well, like all church life, fresh expressions look different from one place to another.  But here’s what unifies them:  They are “form[s] of Church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.”1  And they come into being not by church professionals implementing some one-size-fits-all, flavor-of-the-month idea but by engaging with the people themselves, the people you hope to reach – listening to them, serving them, modeling what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and thereby bringing Jesus to life among them.  So you might think of fresh expressions as church from the bottom up, not the top down.
So here’s love story #2, from Boston.  Several years ago, people at Boston’s Cathedral of St. Paul realized there were folks living and working in the cathedral’s downtown neighborhood who weren’t part of any spiritual community – the spiritually homeless, as we’ve called them here.  Through a long series of one-to-one connections, endless coffees, and deep investment in people and their stories, the priest and several others built a community – a community largely of young downtown professionals, but one that also includes street people and others on the edge.  That’s love.  Their community, the Crossing, developed a worship style authentic to the people there and embracing of all who come into it.  That’s love, too.  But the cathedral’s leaders have also shown their love by allowing the Crossing largely to map out its own course, even sharing power with the Crossing’s Council, which acts as a mini-Vestry for the community.  The cathedral’s dean and Vestry have said to the spiritually homeless in their neighborhood, “Because we love you, we’ll take the risk to share power with you.”
Here’s love story #3, from Tewkesbury Abbey in England.  Christians have been worshiping there for more than 900 years; so as you might guess, tradition runs deep.  And the Abbey’s inherited form of church is stunningly beautiful, for a lover of Anglo-Catholic liturgy.  Incense, Sanctus bells, gorgeous vestments, chanted Gospel readings – and all in a medieval Gothic space that lifts your heart to heaven.  Well, within walking distance of the Abbey is a housing project.  People I spoke with in the project described feeling so intimidated by the Abbey’s ancient building and by its worship – truly scared of its majesty – that they could never build any kind of spiritual relationship there.  As the vicar told me, “The Abbey does transcendence by the bucketload, but immanence?  Not so much.”  So instead of expecting people in the housing project to come to the Abbey, the Abbey has gone to the project.  It bought a small house in the neighborhood as the missioner’s base.  She and a small group from the Abbey spent many months getting to know people, building relationships with families there, serving free meals, offering small blessings like treats left in mailboxes.  Together, over time, they’ve formed a worshiping community that meets in the neighborhood school.  It doesn’t feel like Abbey worship, but everyone there knows it’s the Abbey’s ministry.  And they feel blessed by that, because they feel the love of the people involved.  In word and in deed, the Abbey has said to the people of the housing project, “Because we love you, we will join you, and we’ll grow in love together.”
So, what do these three stories tell us?  At the risk of putting a song in your head you probably won’t be hearing Dr. Tom play this morning, the key is this:  All you need is love.  Now, at the beginning of a conversation about strengthening the Church’s mission in the world, that statement is silly and simplistic.  But at the end of the conversation?  It’s simply the truth, whether we’re in an inherited expression or a fresh expression of church.  As followers of Jesus Christ, love is our sole purpose.  Everything we do must enable it and reveal it.  We are to be love, with flesh and bones on it.  Without that purpose, what are we?  Just a membership society in search of a reason to live.  But with that purpose – to love God and neighbor and one another – with that purpose, we are apostles, sent to make God’s love real.  As the question was for Andrew, so it is for St. Andrew’s:  We have to ask ourselves, “Because I love God and love God’s people, what will I do?”
Well, because I love God and love you, I will show you that love, and I ask that you show it, too.  How?  I’ve got a couple of ideas.  Here’s one outward-but-usually-not-so-visible way – in our stewardship of the resources God has given us.  Because I love God and love you, my pledge for 2015 will be more than 10 percent of my take-home pay.  I ask you to see your pledge commitment in the same light – as a way to live love out loud. 
But don’t stop there.  I would ask you, all of us, to make a pledge to God that we will follow the lead of our patron, St. Andrew.  I would ask you to take on this commitment: to create one “Andrew moment” this week and every week.  What’s an Andrew moment?  It’s a small act, a spark, a catalyst for a larger reaction – like Andrew bringing Peter to meet Jesus.  An Andrew moment happens when you see the face of Jesus in someone, or notice the Holy Spirit doing something around you, or touch the majesty of the Creator of heaven and earth; and in that moment, because you know that love, you decide to be the love of God, in the flesh.  So I’m asking you to let God send you to someone to make love real.  Someone inside or outside the congregation.  Every week.  Make that part of your pledge.  And let me push my luck and take it one step further by asking you a favor:  Report your Andrew moments back to me.  Send them in.  Tell me your love stories, your moments of making love real, and I’ll share them anonymously with the congregation. 
I believe, with all my heart, that God is constantly sending us in love.  Sometimes it’s subtle, like the nudge Andrew got in the Gospel story; sometimes it’s loud and clear.  But God is always sending us in love.  That’s what the word “mission” means; it’s what “apostle” means – being sent.  We are apostolic not just because we have bishops in apostolic succession; we are apostolic because you and I are apostles, asked over and over again to take God’s love and make it real to someone else.  We are Andrew in the here and now. 
As people smarter than me have said many times before:  God’s church doesn’t have a mission; God’s mission has a church.  And I’m looking at it.  The Church isn’t just the clergy, or the staff, or the Vestry, or the leaders of ministries.  I’m looking at the Church, the embodiment of God’s love, in the face of every one of you.  Yes, you.  I’m looking at a room full of apostles.  As the reading from Deuteronomy puts it, “The word is very near you, it is in your mouth and in your heart...” (30:14). 
This is a call we can answer.  Followers of Jesus have been making God’s love real for 2,000 years now, and God is longing for you to play your part in today’s version of this divine love story.  For how are people “to believe in one of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him” – in word and in deed?  “And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?  As it is written, ‘How beautiful are ... those who bring good news!’” (Romans 8:14-15)  Indeed – how beautiful are you!
1. Goodhew, David; Andrew Roberts; and Michael Volland.  Fresh! An Introduction to Fresh Expressions of Church and Pioneer Ministry.  SCM, 2012.  75.

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