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.