Hello, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Father John; nice to meet you. And several years ago, that’s about the last way I would have imagined introducing myself – as a “father,” in either sense of that word.
As a young man, I’d set rather limited boundaries around who I thought I was – a student, a writer and editor, someone who really valued having all his ducks in a row. Until Ann and I got together, I couldn’t see myself ever having children because of how disruptive it would have been (it’s amazing how finding the right person can change things). I believed I didn’t have the capacity to be a good parent – particularly, the ability to sacrifice in the way parenthood demands. Every parent in this room knows what I’m talking about. That baby comes, and all of a sudden, almost nothing’s about you anymore.
Similarly, as a young man, I had a rather narrow sense of what being a person of faith might mean for me. I’d grown up as an Episcopalian; I went to church from time to time; I was basically a nice guy – I thought that pretty much covered it. After Ann and I got married, I joined the choir at our church in Iowa City. When we moved back to the Kansas City area, I got more involved, editing the newsletter, going to Bible study, being a lector, singing in that choir. I even found myself on the stewardship committee – surely that’s enough, right God? Pesky deity. It seemed there was always more in me that God was trying to reveal.
So now, I find myself as “Father” John, in both senses of that word. And it fits. I know it fits. It’s the identity God had in mind for me to live into. All along the way, God kept asking me to be a little more of who I was.
Our readings this morning tell a similar story. In the first one, the prophet Elijah gets the spotlight, with a chariot of fire taking him up to heaven. But I think his deputy, Elisha, is the real focus of today’s reading. As Elisha is about to take the mantle of prophetic leadership, his master asks him, “What can I do for you?” And Elisha says, “Let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9) – let me be even more of who I am.
And in the Gospel reading, this incredible story of the Transfiguration, Jesus shows his followers who he truly is, God’s own Son, so they can begin to see who they might truly be. To get this, you have to connect today’s story with what comes before it. On the mountain of transfiguration, as Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah, and as Peter stumbles over himself to say something meaningful, suddenly the voice of God booms from the cloud, proclaiming, “This is my Son; listen to him!” Of course, Jesus hasn’t said anything, at least nothing we can hear. But before this story, he has a lot to say. Peter declares that Jesus is the messiah, and Jesus tells him, “Yes, that’s right” – and it does mean “glory,” but not the way you’re thinking. It means sacrifice, and rejection, and death on a cross – and then it means rising again in glory to rule at God’s right hand. And here’s the kicker, for disciples then and now: That same path is yours, too. I’m calling you to servant leadership, Jesus says. I’m calling you to empty yourselves and give yourselves away. You’ve left everything to follow me, Jesus says. You’re answering the call, and that’s great – but it’s only the beginning. To take your places with me in God’s kingdom, Jesus says, be more of who you are.
The reading from 1 Corinthians makes it clear: We are not here to proclaim ourselves and our particular agendas. We proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as servants for his sake. And as we do, the light of Christ shines through us for the people around us. We bear that light, sparked by the Spirit in baptism, fanned to flame through faith. We bear Christ’s light for the purpose of letting it shine – for our families and friends, our city, and our world. You may have trouble seeing yourself that way, as a bearer of divine light. But you are. We are. And when we shine it, we become even more of who we are.
I saw that in stop after stop of my sabbatical journey, and I want to share one last example with you today, as this sabbatical sermon series comes to a close. It ends where our journey began, in Boston – the first place Ann and I visited this fall. The church I studied there is the Cathedral of St. Paul downtown, looking out on Boston Common. If you’ve been there, you know it’s a busy area, with all sorts and conditions of people walking by, day in and day out. Business leaders and students, homeless people and professionals, people from every nation under the sun. So it’s no surprise the cathedral calls itself “a house of prayer for all” – and it’s been that way since 1912, when the cathedral intentionally opened its doors wide to poor people struggling in downtown Boston.
The cathedral has four worshiping communities. The one I went to study, ostensibly, is called The Crossing. It’s a community of mostly younger adults who live or work in downtown, people whom the existing cathedral wasn’t reaching so well. It’s also church from the bottom up, following a model of community organizing rather than starting with cool, flashy worship and hoping people come. The founders of The Crossing went into that work intentionally, building connections with spiritual pilgrims in downtown, getting to know them, connecting them into networks of folks with common interests. They found common passions and a desire to make a difference in their city and their world. They studied together and talked together and ate and drank together, meeting their hunger with Christian spirituality, community service, and margaritas. Eventually, they began worshiping together, and now the weekly service involves about 30 or so. The bottom-up nature of The Crossing is a huge part of its identity. Isaac Everett, one of the founders, puts it like this: “The Crossing would rather have D+ prayers written by someone we know and love, rather than A+ prayers we got off the Internet.”
The Crossing’s story is fascinating, but it’s even more so in the context of the larger cathedral community. In addition to The Crossing, there’s a worshiping community of homeless people on Boston Common and a worshiping community of first- and second-generation Chinese immigrants. And the “traditional” Sunday-morning community is itself a study in being “a house of prayer for all.” Because the people are diverse, the cathedral has made Sunday-morning worship diverse, too, using music and prayers from around the world and across the Anglican Communion.
But the dean, Jep Streit, realized there was one group of people the worship almost certainly wasn’t reaching so well: traditional Episcopalians. As it happened, God provided an opportunity to open that door, too. A nearby Episcopal congregation was shrinking and really could no longer sustain itself – St. John’s, one of the few high-church, Anglo-Catholic parishes in Boston. So the dean saw an opportunity: Merge the congregations, sell St. John’s building, and incorporate some of its high-church richness into the cathedral’s worship. Here’s how Jep explained it to me: “The people of St. John’s are faithful, and they have things to teach us about liturgy. What we all say is that the new community formed from our merger will be different from the cathedral and different from St. John’s – and it will be better.”
This kind of an approach to church – one that values the D+ prayers of The Crossing as highly as a precise Anglo-Catholic mass – this kind of a church could only happen because the DNA was there. The cathedral already was “a house of prayer for all.” As the congregation morphs and grows, that identity remains the same. Only the sights and sounds (and smells) of the worship are different.
So, what does all this mean for us, as we come to the end of this Epiphany season and the end of this sermon series, to the beginning of Lent this Wednesday and the beginning of our Gather & Grow initiative? In each of the parishes I’ve told you about from the sabbatical, we’ve seen congregations living in the “both/and” of inherited church and new expressions of church together. But among the things common to all of them is this: Their expressions of church, no matter the style, are true to their DNA. If you looked at the glorious worship in the abbey in Tewkesbury, England, and its Celebrate! community in a housing project, you’d see the same church. If you looked at the colonial parishes in Maryland with their box pews and the homey, intimate gathering of kids and grownups in an art studio, you’d see the same church. Like individuals, churches can’t be something they’re not, and they should not try to be. But just like individuals – and like a certain hesitant father you know – churches can be more than they currently are. Not different, not foreign, but mature. As we grow up, the Holy Spirit keeps working with us – thanks be to God – to help us be more of who we are.
For us as a congregation, that’s what Gather & Grow is all about – both in terms of ministry and in terms of improving our facilities. And Lent is a good time for us to begin this walk together. In Lent, we focus on our spiritual journey, looking within us and around us to, asking God to work on us and form us more and more into the full stature of Christ. Typically, that journey takes a twisting path of self-discovery, leading us through the same territory the disciples traipsed, a land of self-giving and self-sacrifice. It’s Jesus’ own path, of course, and we who would follow him shouldn’t be surprised that the path to the glory of the kingdom of God takes us up the hill of Calvary along the way. Giving ourselves away – that’s how we come to the fullness of who God is making us to be.
Well, for us as St. Andrew’s, our journey is also Jesus’ own path. We’re hearing his call to reach the people around us, to open our hearts and our doors to the spiritual pilgrims in our community. It’s not a new call, and it’s one we’ve answered before – beginning in 1913 as a mission outpost in a brand-new neighborhood, building this glorious house of prayer for all, planting a new congregation in south Kansas City in 1957. It’s true to our identity; it’s in our DNA. And like each of those missional moments, like all our best moments of following our crucified Lord and King, this one will cost us something. It will cost us investments that will return blessing upon blessing – many, many times over.
From our own journeys, we know it’s true. For moms and dads, that crying baby or absent teen costs them sleep, night after night; but the servant leadership of parenthood is the most deeply formative journey they’ll ever take. And for us as disciples, the journey toward the glory of God that we see in the face of Jesus Christ – it’s a journey up rough and challenging terrain. The path up the mountain of our transfiguration is marked by small crosses all along the way. But that’s the way up the grandest mountain, the journey of our ultimate fulfillment – the path of becoming more and more of who we truly are.