Sunday, January 25, 2015

Wide Branches Need Deep Roots

[Sermon from Sunday, Jan. 25.  Part 3 in a sermon series, "Treasures Old and New," about my sabbatical in the fall of 2014.]
Welcome to Annual Meeting Sunday!  Over the last few years, the sermon on this Sunday has been known as the State of the Parish Address.  In my past life as a speechwriter, I was “blessed” with the opportunity to draft a state-of-the-state address, which became about the worst piece of writing ever.  There’s a reason why the Pulitzer Prize never goes to a committee.  Anyway, this won’t be so much a state-of-the-parish address because everything that’s coming in the annual meeting downstairs will flesh out the state of the parish, one way or another.  So let me start here by trying to set the context and the tone.
Actually, that’s wrong.  God gets to set the context and the tone, especially through our Gospel reading this morning.  In this story, Jesus is just beginning his ministry.  He’s come out of the wilderness after being tempted by Satan, and he announces, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).  Then we pick up the action.  Jesus sees two fishermen, Peter and Andrew, casting a net into the Sea of Galilee, and he calls them:  “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (1:17).  If you think that’s powerful, wait for the next sentence, which is just astonishing, if we stop and think about it.  It says, “[I]mmediately, they left their nets and followed him” (1:18).  Really?  That’s all it took?  These guys weren’t simpletons; they were businessmen with a lucrative trade.  They had a lot to lose in leaving those nets and following Jesus.  But there was something about his call, something about the experience of the kingdom of God as it had come near them.  Peter and Andrew, and James and John, knew they’d found not just a new partner but a new occupation – following Jesus and gathering people.  Following and gathering:  It’s a disciple’s job description.
On my sabbatical, I was blessed to meet people who’d answered this same call – following and gathering.  The story from Manchester, England, is an especially interesting case study for us, I think.  As in the other visits, I was studying their work to build up both their traditional, inherited way of being church and the fresh expression of church they’re creating alongside it.  Except in Manchester, it’s not really “alongside”; it’s more “within.” 
St. James & Emmanuel parish in Manchester has an interesting history.  St. James dates from 1236, and the building speaks beautifully of that age.  It was the original parish in the south-Manchester area known as Didsbury – which today feels a lot like Brookside, with beautiful homes and cool shops and restaurants.  Over time, as the population grew, other parishes were carved out of St. James, including Emmanuel, around 1850.  A little more than a century later, Emmanuel had fallen on hard times, so it merged with St. James once again.  Today, this single parish has two churches and four different worshiping communities – and one of those worshiping communities has another community within it.
It’s a beautiful example of “unity in diversity,” the big tent.  St. James is more high church; Emmanuel is more charismatic/evangelical.  But they’re united in a commitment to connect with their Didsbury community. And you can see that in a very outward and visible way that has nothing to do with creating a fresh expression of church (at least not directly).  You can see it in their buildings – especially in how they use them.
A few years ago, they discerned a call to build a new parish center on the Emmanuel campus.  They needed a facility to support their own ministries, groups, and events; but they also heard God inviting them to support ministries, groups, and events in their community.  The rector, Nick Bundock, described it in terms of Jesus’ parable of the mustard tree.  Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown, it … becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32). 
Nick says that was the vision for their parish center seven years ago.  It offers flexible, shared space to house youth ministries, community meetings, church offices, private parties, church events, community kids’ programs, and a weekly ministry of food and shelter for people seeking political asylum – a ministry they share with six other churches.  But the parish doesn’t stop there.  It also has an old rectory on its property, though no rector has lived there for years.  Instead, the parish uses that grand old house to provide low-cost office space for seven local charities.  The parish also has a school, and it’s in the process of opening a second one.  As Nick said, “Always, always, we come back to the mustard tree.  We’re called to grow branches where the birds of the air can come and nest.”
But what’s just as interesting is another movement of the Holy Spirit within St. James & Emmanuel.  It’s the fresh expression of church I went there to study, called Abide.1  Now, over the past couple of weeks, I’ve described new expressions of church being formed among people outside the existing church community – students or young families or people in housing projects.  Abide is different.  It’s absolutely open to people outside the parish, and its members build relationships that draw people in.  But Abide is a community within St. James & Emmanuel, specifically within its Sunday-evening congregation.  According to the community’s priest, Ben Edson, “Abide is working within the institution toward being a renewal of the institution.”  It calls itself the “missional community” of St. James & Emmanuel.
That renewal begins in the hearts of Abide members.  The community is formed around a set of principles, the Five Rhythms of Grace.  They sound very familiar to me – not exactly the Baptismal Covenant we proclaim, but close.  Here they are: 
1.      By God’s grace, I will seek to be transformed into the likeness of Christ.
2.      By God’s grace, I will be open to the presence, guidance, and power of the Holy Spirit.
3.      By God’s grace, I will set aside time for prayer, worship, and spiritual reading.
4.      By God’s grace, I will endeavour to be a gracious presence in the world, serving others and working for justice in human relationships and social structures.
5.      By God’s grace, I will sensitively share my faith with others: participating in God’s mission both locally and globally.2
Basically, it’s a rule of life.  Members of the Abide community understand what it means to belong to that community and live its ethos day by day.  And that ethos impels them outward.  Like the branches of the mustard tree of their larger congregation, they reach out to the people around them. 
It’s not a new idea – very ancient, actually.  Communities of committed Christians have been following rules of life for centuries, with prayer sending them outward in mission, and mission calling them inward in prayer.  Within Abide, they see themselves firmly in that tradition.  As Ben said, “We’re called to prayer and mission – deepening our roots and extending our arms to people outside the church.”
So now let’s come back to Kansas City and the state of our parish.  I see many similarities between St. Andrew’s and St. James & Emmanuel.  We’ve also grown into a mustard tree of God’s mission.  One hundred and two years ago, we were planted here, meeting in Wolferman’s grocery and then the priest’s house.  Nearly 50 years later, we heard a call to plant a new church, St. Peter’s in Red Bridge.  With the “missionary zeal” described on the plaque on this wall, we sent parishioners to meet people in that new neighborhood, inviting them first to a gathering and eventually to worship in a neighbor’s basement on a cold February morning.3  Now, nearly another 50 years later, God’s calling us to reach out again as a missional community, extending the branches of this mustard tree to the people around us.
We do that by cultivating who we already are and growing that identity in ways old and new.  This isn’t about starting up a new service with a praise band.  It isn’t even only about forming a community of spiritual pilgrims who’ve turned away from whatever they know of organized religion.  It’s about becoming more of who we already are. 
What would that look like?  In part, it means renewing our understanding of, and our commitment to, membership here.  Now, it’s ironic that I’d say we need to focus more on membership because the conventional wisdom about spiritual pilgrims is that the last thing they want is conventional church membership – and that’s true.  But the irony is that people outside a church looking in – especially those who are seeking a traditional church – they want to know what this group of people stands for.  Frankly, if that group actually stands for something, it’s a lot more appealing. 
People like to make fun of the Episcopal Church by saying we don’t stand for anything.  That’s bunk.  Every time we witness a baptism, we pledge ourselves to our core beliefs – the Apostles’ Creed.  And then, we pledge ourselves to our own rule of life, our own five rhythms of grace – the Baptismal Covenant.  We promise to continue in the breaking of the bread and the prayers, to resist evil and repent when we fail, to proclaim the good news of Christ in word and deed, to love our neighbors by seeking and serving Christ in everyone, and to strive for justice, peace, and respect for every human being (BCP 304-305).  And if you read our catechism, you find what it looks like to live this commitment as part of a church community.  In response to the question, “What is the duty of all Christians?,” the catechism says, “The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God” (BCP 856).  These are not burdens we place on spiritual pilgrims before they can join us; these are expectations we have of ourselves as disciples.  It’s how we join Peter and Andrew and the other fishermen in following Jesus.  You’ll see and hear a lot more about this rule of life in the year to come.
That identity as disciples forms us to be a missional community.  That’s what the Gather & Grow initiative is really all about.  You’ll hear more about this downstairs, but let me give you this much of an overview.  A year’s worth of discernment has shown us how God’s sending us in mission to our community.  Like St. James & Emmanuel in Manchester, we’re called to be a mustard tree.  For us, those branches include evangelistic ministries as old as daily prayer and as new as building a community of spiritual pilgrims.  Another branch is ministry to empower young people and connect us with them and their families.  Another branch is new outreach ministry with social entrepreneurs, supporting them and mentoring them as they bring kingdom-oriented change to our city.  And another branch is using our facility more intentionally for ministry, through events and engagement with groups in our community.
Fundamentally, God is calling us to be more of who we’re already becoming – within ourselves as individual disciples, and as a church family with mission in its DNA.  God’s asking us to extend our branches into the community around us, offering refuge where the birds of the air can build their nests.  It’s a two-part process – building our commitment to Jesus and partnering in God’s mission in the world. 
Follow me, Jesus says, and I will make you fish for people.  Tend the soil, Jesus says, and I will grow your branches wide.  For wide branches need deep roots.

1.       “Abide: The missional community of St. James & Emmanuel, Didsbury.”  Available at:  Accessed Jan. 23, 2015.
2.       “The Five Rhythms of Grace.  Available at:  Accessed Jan. 23, 2015.
3.       St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.  The Spirit of St. Andrew’s 1913-1963.  Church publication, 1963.  92.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

They Are Marvelously Made

[Sermon from Sunday, Jan. 18.  Second in a series, "Treasures Old and New," about my sabbatical in the fall of 2014.  Apologies for the delay in posting.]

Psalm 139:1-5,12-17 (BCP); John 1:43-51

Because some of us may have trouble really taking this in, I want to read back a bit of the psalm we prayed a few minutes ago.  We said to God, “You yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.”  (Psalm 139:12-13 BCP)
This morning, I’d like to convince you that what you just heard is true.  You are marvelously made.  And so are “they.” 
Who’s “they”?  You get to fill in that blank.  “They” can be anybody, as long as they’re on the margins, on the edge of whatever circle of belonging we might draw.  “They” are whomever we would choose not to include in what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “beloved community.”
Everybody does it.  Even if we’re one of “them,” we do it.  In the Gospel reading, Philip has this amazing experience of Jesus, and he runs off to tell his friend, Nathanael.  Philip says, “We have found him about whom Moses … and … the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth” (John 1:45).  And what does Nathanael hear?  One word: Nazareth.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks with a sneer (John 1:46).  And this from an oppressed Jew in a rural backwater of the Roman Empire, a nobody if there ever was one.  But hey, at least Nathanael could take pride that he wasn’t one of “them” from Nazareth.
Of course, Jesus blows Nathanael away once they meet.  Jesus tells him he’d seen him under a fig tree before Nathanael ever talked with Philip.  And that’s all it takes for Nathanael to believe Jesus is the real deal – no longer one of “them.”  Jesus chuckles and says, Really?  That’s all it takes?  “You will see greater things than these,” Nathanael.  Hang out with me, and you’ll see “heaven opened and the angels of God” moving effortlessly between this world and God’s kingdom. (John 1:51)
I was blessed to see some angels in England this fall – and not just carvings on old church walls.  My sabbatical visits included parishes in the Church of England, which of course is the “mother” of the American Episcopal Church, the place where we were born.  And while I was there, at the Abbey Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Tewkesbury and St. Barnabas in north London, I saw angels in the flesh – angels who look a lot like “them.”
Both Tewkesbury Abbey and St. Barnabas are strong, vibrant parishes with solid histories of ministry.  They both do church well and in ways we’d recognize, though personally we might not care so much for one expression or the other.  In their inherited forms, Tewkesbury Abbey and St. Barnabas are about as different as you get in the Church of England.  Nine-hundred-year-old Tewkesbury Abbey is high-church Anglo-Catholic at its best.  Chants and incense have been rising to God’s throne daily there for so long, the pillars seem like stalagmites of prayer.  By contrast, St. Barnabas in London is all-out low church, proudly charismatic and evangelical.  Worshipers lift their hands in praise and sing from video screens as the rock band plays up front.  Words of knowledge and prophecy are uttered through the Holy Spirit.  And healings are as common as they are miraculous. 
But something deep unifies Tewkesbury Abbey and St. Barnabas in London.  It is “one and the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:11) guiding and inspiring their sense of mission, their sense of being sent into the world God loves.  And that same Spirit is guiding these two very different congregations along journeys to basically the same place: into ministry with “them.”
In Tewkesbury, the vicar, Paul Williams, had a vision of extending the Abbey’s ministry to a neighborhood just beyond the walls of the Abbey grounds – a government housing project called Prior’s Park.  The people of Prior’s Park are among the poorest of Tewkesbury – the other end of the socioeconomic scale from most of the Abbey’s worshipers.  Although Prior’s Park residents love the Abbey in the sense of community pride, frankly most don’t feel welcome there.  
Well, almost six years ago, a seminarian came to the Abbey for an internship – a woman with the wonderfully English name of Wendy Ruffle.  Rev. Wendy is a self-proclaimed charismatic evangelical, and Paul, the vicar, told me she came to Tewkesbury “to convince herself that Anglo-Catholics never mention Jesus.”  What she found instead was a second conversion experience – the Holy Spirit’s power so intense in the sacramental mystery that it left her on her knees, sobbing.  Unexpectedly, the Spirit later brought Wendy back to the Abbey once she was ordained.  And the vicar, Paul, knew she was the right person to start ministry on the ground with the people of Prior’s Park.
So what comes next in this story?  Let’s see: She found an empty space in the housing project, gathered a cool praise band, and starting having worship services, right?  No.  Not even close.  Instead, she taught kids at the local school how to play ping-pong.  Wendy used to be a ping-pong coach, and the local school received a ping-pong table as a gift just as she arrived in her new assignment.  So she spent three years, every Tuesday after school, running a ping-pong club (among other things).  As Wendy said, “It really showed them I was here for the long term and it wasn’t about Bible thumping.”  She showed people she was for real, getting to know the families on the Park, walking the streets, shopping in the store, talking with people and praying for them in any given moment.  She got involved with the preschool, where moms come for parenting help.  Members from the Abbey joined her in the work.  Eventually, the Abbey found a way to buy a house on Prior’s Park so the ministry could literally move “into the neighborhood” as an incarnation of Christ (John 1:14 The Message).  And all that was part of the plan.  Wendy told me, “I expected to be getting to know the community for about a year before I started ‘doing’ anything.  You have to spend some time building community for what you’re doing.”
Eventually, last winter, Wendy heard God telling her the time had come to build worship with the people she’d come to know.  The gathering is called “Celebrate! The Abbey on the Park,” and it happens in the local school’s lunchroom. It begins with an activity – crafts, or sports, or puppetry, or drama – something that introduces a Bible theme to the 30 or so kids and parents.  Then they have about 45 minutes of worship, with a song leader playing guitar and slides projected on a screen.  The worship draws on lessons from the kids’ activity; and most weeks, it then moves into an intimate Eucharist.  Then, the breaking of the bread continues as parishioners from the Abbey serve a lovely meal they’ve been preparing in the kitchen – chicken pie, the night I was there.  It’s important enough for the sake of hospitality, but it also guarantees the folks get at least one nutritious meal that day.
It’s all about the Abbey being a partner in turning the love of God outward and making it visible, as it’s done for 900 years.  The difference is how.  Paul, the vicar, put it like this:  In the majestic space of the Abbey, he said, “We can do transcendence by the bucketload, but we can’t do immanence.  The people in Prior’s Park need a God who’s beside them, whereas the Abbey issues a picture of a God that’s beyond them.  They’ve got enough of that – enough people telling them they aren’t good enough, enough people telling them what to do.  What they need is a God who’s beside them.”
Now, at St. Barnabas in London, the inherited form of church already makes it very clear that God’s beside us, the Spirit pouring over people in worship there.  At St. Barnabas, a similar fresh expression of church in a housing project is about something different: location. 
St. Barnabas is in a beautiful, wealthy neighborhood.  There, unlike here, poverty and wealth sit side by side, with housing projects in the midst of upscale homes.  But about five years ago, St. Barnabas realized that people in a local housing project, Strawberry Vale, couldn’t easily get to the church.  It’s about a 2-mile walk – I know, I walked it – and public transport costs too much for people to make it part of their day-to-day life.  So people at St. Barnabas decided to go to Strawberry Vale instead, led by a member-turned-priest, Helen Shannon.
Rev. Helen’s story has a lot in common with the stories she finds on Strawberry Vale.  She said, “I was this messed-up teenaged single mom, but the people at St. Barnabas saw who God had created me to be.  And they allowed me, encouraged me, cajoled me to be that person.  They let me lead ministries.  They didn’t wait until I was squeaky clean and got it all sorted [out].” 
Like Tewksbury Abbey, St. Barnabas also found a way to buy a house on Strawberry Vale where Helen and her family could move.  Then they bought another.  From that ministry base, she said, “We shared our lives with everybody in quite an outrageous way. … Our place was constantly open, people constantly knocking on the door.  We knew we wanted to build a worshiping community, but first and foremost we wanted to see God’s kingdom come.  For us, we knew God was already there doing stuff; we needed to find what he was doing and join in.”
So most of her ministry was and is about connecting with people – getting into conversations, throwing parties and barbeques, offering a monthly prayer brunch, slipping notes and goodies through people’s mail slots.  “Any way that we could do it, we did it,” she said – “connecting with people and seeing what God was doing there.”
Now, that presence has become Church@Five, a community of St. Barnabas rooted in Strawberry Vale.  Their worship is charismatic and evangelical like St. Barnabas, but different.  They meet in the neighborhood community center, not a huge stone church.  They sit around small tables, which facilitates both the Bible study during worship and the meal afterward.  They take part in the homily, offering their own insights.  The music is simple, led by a guy with a guitar.  Helen said, “I want the congregation to be a worshipping expression of the culture and the community that it’s in.”
There’s a lot more to the story, both in Tewkesbury and in London.  But here’s what I see drawing those stories together:  Both churches have mission deep in their DNA.  Both churches are incredibly receptive to the call and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, even when it leads in unexpected directions.  Both churches have hearts conformed to the shape of God’s love, willing to play the long game of loving “them” and building relationships with “them” for years before any numbers go into computing average Sunday attendance.  And both churches proclaim out loud that, yes indeed, something good can come out of Nazareth.  I’ll leave you this morning with the words of Rev. Helen herself about the people of Strawberry Vale: 

Society says they’re useless:  You can’t do anything, you haven’t got jobs, you’ll never have jobs.  So, society says, we’re going to keep you corralled in this [housing project], with literally one road in and one road out; we’ll just keep you over there.  But then the kingdom of God comes in and says something completely different.  The kingdom comes in and says, “This whole world that God is creating – it’s for you, too.  God has plans and purposes for you.  God has created you, and created you with gifts and skills.  You are worth so much, and God has called you to do so much.”

Indeed, God says to “them” and to us all:  You are marvelously made.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Creation is Never Done

[Sermon from Sunday, Jan. 11 -- the first in a series, "Treasures Old and New," about my sabbatical in the fall of 2014.]

This morning, God is going to do something amazing.  I just want you to know, so that you can be ready when it happens.  This morning, God is going to recreate the church.
Now, that doesn’t mean that when you walk out, everything will be different.  Not at all, actually.  The shape of the church you love, the church that drew you here and keeps you here – all that will still be in place when you leave today, even when you come back next week.  But I still say God is making the church new today, and here’s why:  In a few minutes, we’ll baptize a new member, Cooper Weber.  If that last name sounds a bit familiar, you’d be right because Cooper’s father, Shawn, was baptized here at Pentecost.  Now, Cooper is pretty small, not likely to be bringing about big changes in the church for a while yet.  But every time we welcome a new member into the Body of Christ known as St. Andrew’s, the church changes.  Every time we begin a new ministry, the church changes.  And that truth applies not just to the church but to all of God’s creation.  As the songwriter Paul Simon imagines God explaining to Jesus:

“Well, we got to get going,” said the restless Lord to the Son.
 “There are galaxies yet to be born;
Creation is never done.”1

This morning, we heard about creation’s beginning, as God made holy light, a blessing to all the rest of creation yet to be.  In the reading from Acts, we heard about new creation, when people were welcomed into the life and death of Jesus, passing through the baptismal waters and coming out different, endowed with gifts from the Holy Spirit to help realize God’s purposes on earth.  In the Gospel reading, we heard about the power of creation, as Jesus went down to the river to pray along with the rest of the crowds flocking to John the Baptist; and the Holy Spirit ripped open the veil between heaven and earth to reveal the oneness of God’s domain, anointing Jesus with the same power that swept across the waters “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1).  And that stirring, birthing, disturbing force sweeps down upon us, too, when we go down to the river to pray as we will in a few minutes, remembering in lived reality the power with which God has anointed each of us and which God expects us to manifest in the world.  After all, creation is never done.
Seeing God’s creative Spirit in action was my greatest blessing from the sabbatical this fall.  It was true for my body – it’s amazing how much better I function with eight hours of sleep a night.  It was true for my spirit – it’s amazing how much closer to God I feel when I pray daily and intentionally, and when I can actually focus on something for more than a few minutes at a time.  And it was true for the Church with a capital “C” – it’s amazing how vividly God’s kingdom is being revealed by faithful, diligent souls across the Episcopal Church and the Church of England, people who are giving the Church a new birth of freedom to embody both what it has been and what it is becoming, all at the same time. 
Over the next six weeks, I’ll be taking you on a tour of my sabbatical journey, what I’m learning from it, and what it might mean for us at St. Andrew’s.  At every stop, we’ll see God continuing to create the Church, through flawed yet courageous instruments like you and me.  They’re following Jesus’ instruction to the first disciples: that we who are partners in revealing God’s kingdom should bring out of God’s treasure both “what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).
Today, I want to tell you about two congregations separated by a continent but united in a vision:  to reach people they’ve identified as not being reached very well by the inherited forms of church in their contexts.  Each has looked around and noticed someone, a fairly specific group, that needs to see the light of Christ but through a new lens. 
The first is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle.  St. Paul’s describes itself as Anglo-Catholic in its identity.  Now, being Anglo-Catholic doesn’t mean fussily prancing around the altar or being infatuated with pretty vestments.  Being Anglo-Catholic means taking creation and embodiment deeply seriously.  It means knowing God and worshiping God through all our senses.  It means honoring all human beings as God’s beloved children, regardless of social status.  It means seeing God being sacramentally invested in creation, expressing divine power and action through the wonders of the material world and the wonders of our own hands. 
So it’s no wonder that at St. Paul’s, the inherited expressions of church are rich and sumptuous, with beautiful voices praising God in song and chant, and with clouds of incense rising along with the prayers of the saints.  It’s no wonder that when St. Paul’s redid its entryway, it placed a new baptismal font front and center, so that you nearly fall into it as you walk in, and made the walls and doors all glass – so that every time a neighbor walks by, she sees the sign of the sacrament by which we join God’s family.
St. Paul’s is thriving in its Anglo-Catholic approach to inherited church, with solid attendance and finances.  Its last rector was called to be a bishop.  But St. Paul’s also realized there are people whom its worship and community life weren’t reaching – particularly younger people in its neighborhood and at Seattle Pacific University, and especially those disillusioned by their backgrounds in more evangelical and charismatic churches.  So about five years ago, St. Paul’s created its 5 p.m. Community. 
Now, contrary to what you might be imagining, this expression of church doesn’t feature a rock band playing modern praise music.  The musical style was described to me as “contemplative jazz,” usually led by just a pianist.  The tunes often come from traditional hymns, but the music is improvisational, honoring God’s use of the musician’s gifts.  The worshipers, usually 30 or so, sit in a diamond formation in the undercroft, looking at each other, with a pulpit at one end of the diamond and an altar at the other.  The ministers wear beautiful vestments and swing incense freely but without formal processions – as the senior warden said, making it feel “alive and real, not prickly, stilted, or anxious.”  The preaching isn’t a formal sermon from someone up front; it’s a homily shared among the group, with five minutes of reflection by the preacher and then a lively discussion in response.  And the arts take a special place in the life of that community:  For several weeks at a time, an artist in residence shares his or her work during worship, reflecting on God’s participation in the creative process.  It’s a deeply incarnational community, reveling in God creative presence in all things, including the community’s time at the pub across the street after the service.  For people from the university and the neighborhood – who had known God as distant deity constantly critiquing their every move, and had heard Scripture preached as a rule book for judging the people around you – for them, the 5 p.m. Community offers church in a whole new light. 
On the other side of the country, in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, is a consortium of three small Episcopal churches also seeking to be God’s instruments in creating something new.  Now, here at St. Andrew’s, we may think we know a little something about church tradition.  Well, when your parish was founded in 1634 by your state’s first settlers from England – and when you walk past their graves in your churchyard every Sunday – tradition takes on a whole new significance.  In many ways, it’s beautiful – 80 or so people gathering in each of these congregations on a Sunday, sitting in box pews almost physically present with the company of saints, singing hymns their ancestors have sung for more than 300 years.  But within that beauty, there can also be stumbling blocks – especially, in these parishes, for a group of young adults who needed something different:  a homey, intimate worshiping community more authentic to the lives they live, gathered around something more like a dinner table than an altar of sacrifice. 
So about a year ago, a group of young adults and clergy from these parishes formed Gather Eat Pray – a group that does just what the name says.  They’re worshipping in an art studio, sharing wine and appetizers before church as the kids play outside or in the next room; and then coming together around a paint-splattered table covered with a simple cloth.  In that circle, led by a guitarist and song leader, they proclaim ancient faith in fresh terms.  As in Seattle, the preacher offers a few minutes of reflection on the Scriptures, and then the group joins in for a discussion – including the kids.  The presider improvises the Eucharistic Prayer, incorporating all the necessary pieces but framing it in his or her own words.  Two kids stand at the table, holding up the bread and wine as the presider leads the prayer; then the kids serve Communion around the circle. 
Here’s how one of the young adults described what they’re trying to do.  She said, “The Episcopal Church is not just historic buildings; it’s the Nicene Creed, and baptism, and Communion.  If we take away the vestments and the box pews, we might discover what the early Church was doing, teaching people how to love God and each other.”  And although Gather Eat Pray began in order to meet their desire for a different kind of worship, the young adults understand it can’t be all about them.  As one of the leaders said, “If you say, ‘Come to church’ to a lot of the people I know, you’ve lost them.  We want to reach unchurched people in the community, people like us.  We want to let them know we’re breaking bread with other people under Jesus’ principle and command to love one another.  We come together out of love.”
And these Maryland parishes are coming together in another sense, too, pushing the boundaries of what our inherited structure tells us “church” should be.  The three congregations have created a Multi-Parish Council, a body with representatives from each Vestry, linking the churches in a new relationship and discerning how they might share resources and ministries.  It’s a work in progress, definitely, and there’s plenty of conflict – shocking, I know.  But the churches are pushing ahead, creating their collaborative relationship as they live into it, because they hear God’s call to take from their households treasures both old and new.
For St. Paul’s in Seattle and these three congregations in Maryland, their contexts and histories are very different; but they share a common calling.  They’ve discerned who God is asking them to reach, whether its people from an evangelical and charismatic background, or people no longer being fed by the staples of the Episcopal banquet.  They’ve each identified a specific group with a specific need, and now they’re trying to be faithful to God’s call to bring the best of who they’ve been into new conversations with new people. 
In both cases, the “end product” isn’t final – and in an important sense, it never will be.  Faithful followers of Jesus have been trying to teach people how to love God and each other for 2,000 years now, and the forms of that faithfulness have never been fixed.  As it was for the first apostles; as it was for the early Church mothers and fathers; as it was for the established Church of Constantine’s Empire; as it was for the medieval monks and bishops; as it was for Martin Luther and the reformers; as it was for Richard Hooker and the Anglican divines; as it was for the Methodists and the frontier tent revivalists – so it is for us, Jesus’ apostles today.
Creation is never done.

1.       Simon, Paul.  “Love and Hard Times.”  From So Beautiful or So What.  Lyrics available at:  Accessed Jan. 9, 2015.