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.

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