Sunday, March 22, 2015

Opening Door After Door After Door

[Sermon from Sunday, March 8, 2015]
I’d like to introduce you to two people this morning.  They’re both composite characters, but their stories are very real, stories that represent many other people’s stories. 
First, let me introduce Tina.  Tina is half of a couple who’ve both grown up in a church.  The two of them recently moved to Brookside, and they’re looking for a church family.  So Tina comes to St. Andrew’s one Sunday morning on a recon mission.  She’s checking the landscape, seeing what life is like in this place.  Tina comes through those red doors; and in her visit, she finds love – the love of Christ himself.  She experiences the mystery of God’s intimately majestic presence as she worships in this glorious space.  The choir’s anthem stirs her heart.  Several people talk to her at the Peace and after the service.  And I find that, by the time I get to talk to her and ask her to stay for lunch at Episcopal 101, I’m the fifth person so far to extend the invitation.  Now, Tina may or may not discern that St. Andrew’s is the church for them, for any of a hundred reasons.  But she leaves that morning seeing the church as God’s loving family, ready to welcome them in.
So, that’s Tina.  Now let me introduce you to Tim.  I met Tim outside a restaurant earlier this week, actually.  I had on my clerical collar, so he took the opportunity to share his perspective on churches.  He started out this way:  “You know,” he said, “I love Jesus – he’s great.  But I don’t have much use for churches.” 
And why might that be?  Well, let me fill in some blanks in Tim’s attitudinal profile with the help of this book.  It’s called Churchless.  It’s from the Barna Group, an organization that studies people’s perceptions of faith and religion.  This book is all about people whose perceptions have led them to be “churchless.”  What’s that?  A churchless person falls into one of two subgoups:  people who’ve once been part of a church community but are no longer, and people who’ve never been part of a church.  Nationally, 43 percent of the population falls into one of these categories.1  Forty-three percent.  Now, lest you think that’s all about blue states, those crazy people on the coasts who stay away from church in droves – well, it’s a reality for us, too.  The Kansas City area does have a higher percentage of people in church than, say, Portland or Seattle.  But still:  34 percent of Kansas City–area households are churchless.  That’s about 320,000 households right here.2  That’s a lot of people staying away from church here in the religious heartland. 
So what might be under that statement Tim made about loving Jesus but rejecting the church?  Here’s the really interesting thing:  Many churchless people are actually seeking God.  In the Barna study, two-thirds of churchless people report having done something to expand and deepen their faith in the past month.3  Nearly 60 percent say they pray to God regularly.4  Fifty-one percent say they’re seeking something better spiritually than what they’ve known before.5  These are not people who’ve checked out of a spiritual journey.  They’ve just decided that churches, as they know them, aren’t helpful as they make their way.  Why?  Because their experience of churches, personally or from the media, tells them churches are mostly all about themselves and judgmental, to boot.  Many of the people staying home on a Sunday morning see church as relationally shallow, morally restrictive, opposed to science, intolerant of other faiths, judgmental of LGBT people, and promoting a political agenda.6 
So, just as an exercise in exploring different perspectives, I wonder how Tina and Tim might hear today’s readings.  The first one, from Exodus, is a classic – the 10 Commandments.  God descends from the mountain and declares these laws to the Israelites, the thunder and lightning and smoke and trumpets scaring the living daylights out of them.  This is serious business; as the Law is later fleshed out, breaking most of these commands is a capital crime.  But paradoxically, these commands are also signs of love, the “boundaries [that] enclose a pleasant land” in relationship with God (Psalms 16:6), the limits a parent sets to protect her children.  Of course, how you hear these laws depends on where you’re coming from.  For Tina, they might indeed mark those pleasant boundaries of our relationship with God who loves us each as children.  But for Tim, maybe they’re just the first in a long list of rules the church expects him to follow.  For Tim, the church is all about rules – and from the very start, apparently.
Then we have the reading from First Corinthians, which is all about mystery.  When the world seeks something to believe in, Paul says, it looks for signs of power.  It looks for logic and evidence, an iron-clad case.  It’s the Stephen Hawking approach to God, from The Theory of Everything:  Prove that God’s necessary, and then maybe I’ll believe.  For those who follow Jesus, the mystery is that believing actually isn’t about that kind of proof.  Instead, as we’ll see in Holy Week especially, it’s all about the cross.  It’s about giving ourselves in love just as Jesus gave himself in love, paradoxically defeating the powers of evil and death by choosing the path of apparent weakness and foolishness, saving us by intentionally not saving himself.  For Tina, a person who’s inhabited this mystery for years, it’s her story – so deeply true you can only begin to plumb its depths in any given moment.  But for Tim, hearing this reading out of context, I wonder whether it makes much sense at all – or does it just leave Tim shaking his head?  Instead of feeling loved into everlasting life, does he just see himself as one of the “Greeks” in the reading, someone who doesn’t have the insider knowledge you need about God for all this to make any sense?
Then there’s the Gospel reading.  Now, this one I imagine might resonate with Tim a little more directly.  In fact, this might be the Gospel story of choice for churchless people – Jesus saying to the religious authorities, “What the heck do you think you’re doing?  You have lost your way.  You’ve made religious life all about what ultimately doesn’t matter – exchanging money (at a profit) and selling sacrificial animals, all so you can bind people to following rules.”  As Jesus reminds religious people elsewhere, what the Lord fundamentally requires is not about religious rituals, not about a sacrificial system that orchestrates acts of worship.  It’s about the sacrifice of our hearts, doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).  So Tina might be a little uneasy with this Gospel reading that shines a stark light on bankrupt religious practice and makes us squirm.  But Tim loves this reading, because it calls the church to repent.
Not everybody “out there” is Tim.  Like many of us in this room today, there are lots and lots of Tinas, people who love the church despite its failings, people who are looking for the kind of loving embrace we see and know at St. Andrew’s.  But we also can’t ignore Tim.  As I said, here in the Kansas City area, 34 percent of our local population is Tim.  So we ignore them at the church’s peril. 
But that’s actually not the real the reason we can’t ignore Tim.  The real reason is that Tim wants and needs deeper connection with God, and humans do best on that journey when we take it with a group of fellow travelers.  Sure, we each need some solitary time in our pilgrimage; but, to paraphrase Dean Wormer in the movie Animal House:  Lost, alone, and wandering is no way to spend your life, son.  The reason the church should care about Tim is because Jesus wants to welcome him home.  Jesus wants him to find a place where he can live out the truth that we know deep in our bones, that you just can’t follow God so well by yourself.
Our Gather & Grow initiative is all about equipping us to welcome people home – both those who write off the church as irrelevant and those who love the church, warts and all.  Gather & Grow is about orienting our hearts, and our ministries, and our buildings to reach Tim as well as Tina.  It’s about opening multiple doors into the story of God and the life of this congregation.  It’s about parenting classes and the Friday noon Eucharist.  It’s about an incubator for social entrepreneurs and feeding hungry people downtown.  It’s about finding Jesus in a discussion of politics over a beer at the Well and finding Jesus in the bread and wine at this altar.  It’s about welcoming groups and families for parties and meetings and about welcoming Sunday-morning guests on into an angel’s embrace. 
This is why Gather & Grow is the most significant thing we’ve tried to do here in the last 50 years, why we’re frankly taking such a courageous step to begin our second century.  St. Andrew’s is a house of prayer for all – for Tina and for Tim.  We may have more experience embracing Tina, but we can’t leave Tim out on his own – especially when he’s actually looking for God.  Because St. Andrew’s is not the church as Tim imagines it – narrow, small-minded, political, and intolerant.  That’s not us.  We are God’s mustard tree, with roots deep enough to support branches that welcome all sorts and conditions of birds to nest here.  We are God’s house of prayer for all.  We’ve just got to open door after door after door to show Tim that God’s actually standing behind each one of them, arms wide open, welcoming him home.

1.  Barna, George, and David Kinnaman.  Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them.  Tyndale, 2014.
2.  Barna Group.  Kansas City KS-MO City Report 2015, With Comparative Data From the Midwest Region.  Available for purchase at:  2014-2015.
3.  Barna and Kinnaman, 61.
4.  Barna and Kinnaman, 59.
5.  Barna and Kinnaman, 41.
6.  Barna and Kinnaman, 97-102.

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