Monday, February 16, 2015

Being More of Who We Are

[Sermon from Sunday, Feb. 15.  Part 5, the final installment, in a sermon series, "Treasures Old and New," about my sabbatical in the fall of 2014.]
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.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Do Faith

[Sermon from Sunday, Feb. 1.  Part 4 in a sermon series, "Treasures Old and New," about my sabbatical in the fall of 2014.]
In case you couldn’t tell from all the people in uniforms in the procession … we’re celebrating Scout Sunday this morning.  I’m curious – how many of you were Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, that sort of thing?  Not that they’re all the same, but I think it’s fair to say they all develop leadership by planting and nurturing core values in young people, and then giving them the chance to live out those values in the world.  Leaders have to be guided by principles, and they put flesh and bones on those principles by the way they live.  As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. 
So, for you Scouts, I’m going to put you on the spot.  But don’t worry, you know this:  Stand up, all you Scouts, and please tell us the Scout Law:  “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”  Good job.  Now, how about the Scout Oath?  “On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty, to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” 
You Scouts are called to love and serve God, your country, and the people around you, without exception.  Now, you know that.  And you’d probably say you believe that.  And you do things that point to that – like earning merit badges and doing service projects, all the way up to Eagle projects.  But to be the example that a Scout should be – how you live, day to day, has to match what you know and what you say, right?  Because actions speak louder than words.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been preaching about the churches I studied on my sabbatical in the fall.  This week, in the category of “actions speak louder than words,” I want to highlight the congregation I visited in Portland, Oregon – St. Andrew’s.  St. Andrew’s in North Portland was founded in 1895, but in recent decades it fell on hard times.  By 2012, there were literally 15 to 20 people worshiping there on a Sunday, all of them folks who’d been there for decades.  More important, it had developed a reputation, frankly, as a weird little church; the music on Sunday morning was a parishioner playing his accordion for the other 15 people there.  Visitors tended not to stay.  So the bishop had to decide what to do with the place.  Rather than closing it, he sent a missioner with a background in planting a new kind of church, a gathering of spiritual pilgrims in their 20s and 30s.  Her name is Karen Ward, and she’d done that with success in Seattle, at a place called Church of the Apostles.  Karen came to Portland originally looking to plant the same kind of church, but – as often happens – God had other plans.  She found herself called to this weird little church with the accordion.
Well, after more than a century of having had one middle-aged white guy after another as the priest at St. Andrew’s, Karen was different.  She’s young, female, African American, and rarely wears a collar.  And she was known for starting this very unconventional kind of church in her last gig.  So, not surprisingly, the people at St. Andrew’s feared that all this was a sham – that, despite reassurances from her and from the bishop, Karen really just wanted to replace something old with something new. 
Instead, Karen and the parish are finding their way together.  She has gathered a group of young spiritual pilgrims, people from a variety of faith traditions and from no faith tradition – guys with long beards and ear gauges.  They worship with simple, accessible music; they have open space in the service for prayer stations; they make the sermon participatory – many of the same things you’ve heard me describe from the other places I’ve visited.  This “emerging” worship experience happens regularly on Sunday mornings. 
And for their first two years, so has their inherited form of church – minus the accordion.  There was a standard celebration of Holy Eucharist from the Prayer Book, with hymns from the Hymnal and a standard sermon.  That’s how it was when I visited in the fall.  I e-mailed with Karen recently, and apparently things have changed a bit, at least for now.  After two years of worshiping separately, the long-term members and newer members have chosen to worship together, at least for a time, using a blended approach.  But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they go back to the two-service model – especially since the congregation is growing, including people at both ends of the worship spectrum.
Why are they growing?  A big part of the reason is that Karen did what she said she’d do when she came.  She brought new life to both worshiping communities there.  Here’s how she described the situation to me.  The church – now called St. Andrew and All Souls, to recognize the new people who’ve come – this church is the only Episcopal presence in all of North Portland, an area of 11 neighborhoods with a lot more working-class folks than the hipster world of Portlandia.  Karen takes it seriously that this congregation is the Episcopal Church in North Portland.  She said, “I'm not against traditional masses.  I actually think we need to have a traditional mass.  We’re the only Episcopal Church for these 11 neighborhoods; so if there’s going to be traditional worship, it’s going to be us doing it.  To have a diverse parish, you have to have traditional worship, too.” 
But even more important, Karen has worked hard to bring church members together around core principles.  One is the principle that worship unites us, no matter how we might prefer it individually. 
But another core principle uniting these diverse groups is their commitment to share God’s love with the people around them.  For decades, St. Andrew’s has had a food pantry and a small community theater group performing in its basement.  So it’s deep in the congregation’s DNA to reach and serve people in their community.  So now, they’re building on that.  Rather than just hosting a theater group, they want to offer a series of arts programs, particularly to serve families and kids nearby – families that can’t afford cool, trendy arts camps.  They’re working to open a coffee shop in an old building the parish owns and use the proceeds to support the arts program and the food pantry.  And they want to expand the pantry to offer counseling and basic health services, too.  Loving people, serving people, extending the branches of God’s kingdom – that’s a big part of who St. Andrew’s has been forever and who it still is now.  People there were afraid that a different kind of priest and different sorts and conditions of members would kill the church they’d known and loved.  Instead, Karen has been committed to rejuvenating the heart that was already there.
Maybe most important, Karen is uniting the congregation by leading them to deepen their commitment to God, each other, and their church.  They’re developing a rule of life for their congregation – a statement of what it means, and what it looks like, to be a member.  It identifies the core values that unite them in their journey, values like relationship, welcome, hospitality, and feeding people.  And it describes spiritual practices that help them live out those values, practices like regular worship, prayer, giving, study, and service.  It’s about moving beyond knowing what a Christian is supposed to do, and into the practice of intentionally living a Christian life – the day-to-day practice of love for God, one another, and the people around us.  As St. Paul says in the reading this morning, “We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’”  But that’s not enough, Paul would say.  “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1)  And not just any love, not just feeling warm and fuzzy about something, but the love of Jesus himself, agape – love that opens our hearts and our lives for the sake of others.
Here, at our St. Andrew’s, the scale may be different, and the context may be different; but the call for us is the same.  As I said last week, it’s about both deepening our roots and extending our branches.  God wants us to deepen our roots as a congregation by strengthening the ways of doing church that have been our foundation for decades, worshiping in a way that links us with Christians across time and space, this amazing entryway into the transcendent, majestic presence of God.  And it’s also about deepening our roots as individual disciples, committing ourselves to intentional faithfulness, to a rule of life.  It’s about committing ourselves to live the covenant of baptism, a relationship among ourselves, God, this faith community, and the world.  It’s about committing ourselves to worship and pray, to repent from sin, to proclaim good news, to love our neighbors, to strive for peace and justice – to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God, as the Catechism puts it.  That’s what unifies us, what makes us one body gathered within this rich, crazy, diverse, big tent.
And with those deep roots, we can extend our branches to the community God asks us to love.  It’s what I was describing at the Annual Meeting last week, about the ministries of our Gather & Grow initiative.  We’ll strengthen worship and formation; we’ll connect with more young people, like these Scouts, and their families; we’ll support entrepreneurs whose work builds justice and peace; and we’ll open our facility more intentionally to people nearby and build relationships with them.  Through these manifestations of God’s mission, we can reach spiritual pilgrims around us and help bring God’s kingdom to life – which is what the Church is here for.
Like St. Andrew and All Souls in Portland, we can’t just ride a long and venerable history and hope that will carry us into a second century.  We’re called not only to be who we’ve been but to be more of who we’re becoming.  We’re called not just to know faith, not even just to talk faith, but to do faith.  Authentic faithfulness – living as Christians in ways that fit us and that change the world – that kind of authentic faithfulness speaks love in the most powerful way. 
As St. Francis said, “Proclaim the Good News at all times; use words when necessary.”  Know the call, and live it out loud.  Root yourself, and extend yourself.  Go deep, and go wide.