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: http://www.paulsimon.com/us/music/so-beautiful-or-so-what/love-and-hard-times. Accessed Jan. 9, 2015.