Sermon, Jan. 18, 2015

It’s the custom in the Episcopal Church, on Annual Meeting Sunday, for the Rector to present a little speech on where the church has been in the past year, and where she thinks it’s going. And it’s our custom at St. Dunstan’s, as at many churches, for that speech to be my sermon, so that you don’t have to listen to me give TWO fifteen-minute talks in one morning.

I could probably spend 15 minutes just talking about everything we’ve changed in 2014.  2014 was a year of a lot of transitions and new approaches. We hired our office coordinator Pamela in March, and she’s already become essential. We got new accounting and member database software, and then a new office computer that can run it all better. Anyone who’s been through software transitions can guess how many hours that’s taken! We upgraded our Internet service here at the church – a long-overdue transition. I spend a lot less time waiting for pages to load than I used to, and we can actually stream video, and show some of the infinite world of content – some of which is actually useful and relevant – on our awesome new TV & Roku setup in the Meeting Room. We found a new home for our elderly commercial dishwasher – you can visit it over at Sector 67 Makerspace, if you miss it – and we bought a new dishwasher which is used several times a week. We changed over most of the light bulbs in this building to LED technology, to reduce our energy use and, we hope, give us longer bulb life!

And then there’s all the new stuff we did in 2014. Our growth, numerical and spiritual, called for new spaces and opportunities to grow more and go deeper. We began to offer some kind of teaching or sharing time every Sunday at 9am. Our growing Sunday School now meets twice a month. We added a summer Vacation Bible School, which was wildly successful. And our Sandbox Worship began in the fall of 2013 but became a weekly gathering in March of 2014.

Many of you may not be aware of a lot of these changes. New lightbulbs, or the fact that your giving statement is generated by Quickbooks instead of ACS… who knew? But believe me when I tell you that all of these changes have taken a lot of time and energy, for your church staff and many volunteers, too. I’m looking forward to a year in which all these changes can settle out and become our new normal. But as much energy as they took, and as crazy as we maybe were to pack so many into one year, they were all necessary, for various reasons. We replaced things and models and arrangements that weren’t serving us well anymore – too old, too big, too expensive, too slow, too limited. We’re moving forward with greater flexibility, focus, and efficiency, better able to become whatever God has in mind for St. Dunstan’s in the 21st century.

I wish I could tell you that we’re done. That we’ve changed what we needed to change and upgraded what we needed to upgrade and begun what we needed to begin, and we’re good to go. But I can’t tell you that. We are living in a time of great change, for the world, for the church.  This is the decade in which the Episcopal Church, as a body, finally has to face and respond to the epochal changes in culture, faith, and economy that have transformed the face of American society and religion over the past half-century. That’s the urgency behind the work of the Task Force for Re-Imagining the Episcopal Church, or TREC. TREC was called into being by our last national church gathering, the General Convention in 2012. They recently released their final report, in preparation for this summer’s General Convention, at which I will serve as a deputy from our diocese.

The simplest way to explain their work is to quote a little from the report itself. (You can download the full report here.) 

“The members of the Task Force for Reimagining The Episcopal Church believe that the Holy Spirit is calling our Church to participate in God’s mission in a faithful and life-giving way in a changing world…. 

[We must learn how to form Christian community and practice Christian witness in environments where the culture no longer supports Christian identity, practice, and belonging as it once did.]

The Task Force spent two years in discussions with thousands of Episcopalians about their hopes, dreams, ideas, and concerns for the Church and about our collective mission to serve Christ. We also reviewed broad research on the identity and mission of The Episcopal Church in which thousands more participated. We studied how other churches and even non-religious organizations have innovated to pursue their missions in a changing world. We conferred, we listened and read, and we prayed. 

In this final report, we present our recommendations for changes in the Church’s structures, governance, and administration, to serve God’s mission in the world.” 

TREC urgently calls the attention of all Episcopalians to the fact that big, big changes have gone on outside the church, and that big, big changes are needed inside the church, for us to adapt and flourish in this new reality. We’re not talking about moving a service time from 7:30 to 8am, or rearranging the chairs, or updating the website, though all of those things may be good changes to make. We’re talking about rethinking what it means to be church. What it means to belong. What it means to follow. What it means to serve.

I find it both terrifying and comforting to be reminded that the changes we’re dealing with at St. Dunstan’s – different patterns of belonging and giving and participating, different things people are seeking in a faith community – that’s not just us. It’s the whole Episcopal Church – and more: it’s the Protestants and the Catholics and even the Evangelicals, friends. Everybody in the church as it has been is striving to get a handle on the church as it is becoming.

Which brings me back to the TREC report. Because a lot of what it contains are recommendations for General Convention to deal with: resolutions about how we elect bishops, for example. But early on in the report, they lay out a call to the Church as a whole, and to all its member parishes and people. A set of simple yet transformational practices that they believe were the heart of the Christian way since the days of Jesus, and that still have the power to renew us today:

Follow Jesus together into the neighborhood, and travel lightly. 

The TREC report uses a portion of Luke 10 as its keystone Scripture, and I’d love to study that Scripture with all of you sometime; your Vestry read and reflected on it together this week. But it’s not one of our readings today, and in the interests of having this be at least 30% sermon, I do want to pull in today’s Scriptures. Fortunately, they connect pretty well with the TREC practices. Follow Jesus together into the neighborhood, and travel lightly. Let’s take a look, piece by piece.

Follow Jesus together.

The TREC report says, Christianity is an embodied way of life, not just an institution or set of ideas. The Episcopal Church has a distinct and rich heritage of interpreting and expressing the Way of Jesus, [how to live as Christians in the world.] The renewal of our Church will come only through discerning the shape of that Way and practicing it together in the power of the Spirit.”

Today’s Gospel from John brings us, quite simply, a story of following Jesus together. Jesus calls Philip. Philip knows Andrew and Peter, who have already begun to follow Jesus. Philip goes and calls his friend Nathanael, shares what he’s heard and seen from this new rabbi, and urges him to follow Jesus too. All of these young men are taking a risk – doing something new and strange and daring, leaving home, following this rabbi, questioning the status quo, risking trouble with both religious and political authorities.

But they’re doing it TOGETHER. With friends. When you’re starting something new, or hard, or new and hard, having friends beside you makes all the difference in the world, doesn’t it?

Follow Jesus together. What might that look like for us here at St. Dunstan’s? I think it looks like deepening our bonds of friendship and mutual care. Spending time together. Having real conversations. Bearing one another’s burdens. Sharing in both weeping and laughter. Listening and responding to one another, in the language of our parish mission statement. Building up the “together”. And building up, too, our shared sense of what it means to follow Jesus. Exploring Christianity as an way of life. Talking and wondering and sharing and praying – together – about what lived faith looks like and feels like for us. When are we conscious of bringing our faith into our daily life? – or of needing our faith? I anticipate with hope some holy conversations in the months and years ahead, as we explore what living faith means for us, individually and together.

Follow Jesus together, into the neighborhood. 

The TREC report says, “Jesus sends us together into the places where ordinary life unfolds. We are sent to [share the good news of God’s Kingdom and share in God’s work] of peacemaking and healing…. For many churches now disconnected from neighbors, this will mean attempting small experiments in [listening and in] sharing God’s peace [with our neighbors].”

The word “neighbors” here is used with a literalism that challenges us: the people who live near your church. Most churches are fairly disengaged from their immediate neighbors and the issues and concerns of their neighborhoods. TREC challenges us to re-engage, to look, listen, and learn. To seek out where God may have work for us to do, or may already be at work among our neighbors, and to join in that work.

Looking outside our church walls can be overwhelming. There are SO many issues, and SO many needs. SO many voices telling us that we live in terrible times. Watching the news can make us feel that we, like Samuel, are living in a time when the word of the Lord is rare, and hopeful visions are few and far between. But don’t let the news mislead or overwhelm you. There are good things happening in the world, in the big picture and over the long term. There are many ways in which human life has substantively improved in the past century. Maybe the realization that God is still at work in the world can turn our despair to hope, our discouragement to courage.

Yes, there are many voices that clamor in our ears, about the needs and struggles of our neighbors, near and far. What young Samuel discovered is that sometimes the voice that wakes and calls and stirs you turns out to be the voice of God. In the months and years ahead, let’s ask God’s Holy Spirit to help us listen with discerning ears to the voices around us, to discover together where God is calling us into new or deeper engagement with the world around us.

Follow Jesus together, into the neighborhood, and travel lightly. 

Travel lightly. 

Jesus, in sending out his disciples to preach and heal, told them to carry no bag or purse, not even an extra pair of shoes. The TREC report says, “Jesus sends us out empty-handed so that we might rely upon God’s abundance, which sometimes comes to us through the hospitality of our neighbors. We must hold [our inherited institutions and practices] loosely as we make space for alternative patterns of organizing our life together. We must discern what of our traditions is life-giving and what unduly weighs us down. Traveling lightly means going in vulnerability, risking being changed by God and our neighbors.”

Traveling lightly is very much what Paul is talking about in this portion of the first letter to the church in Corinth. Paul is writing this letter in a time when he expects Jesus’ return, and the end of the world as we know it, pretty much any day now.

A few verses earlier he used the phrase, “In view of the impending crisis…” In Paul’s later letters he begins to shift gears, to offer teachings on how to live as followers of Christ for the long haul. But there’s a theme here that carries on in Paul’s letters and in Christian thought over the millennia – what the Buddhists call non-attachment. “Let those who buy be as though they had no possessions, and let those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.” Paul says, if you’re invested in the way things are, you’re less ready for the way things are becoming, less open to the unknown future that is even now taking shape in the present.

I don’t think “traveling light” for us, in the here and now, means ignoring our spouses or burying our emotions. But the Episcopal Church as a whole is undertaking the needful work of discerning how to “travel lightly” into the 21st century, changing or laying to rest practices and structures and patterns that weigh us down or hold us back. And we can ask those same questions in our parishes. No sacred cows; everything on the table. If there’s anything we do just because we’ve always done it, anything we have just because we have it, it’s worth taking a thoughtful and prayerful look at it together, and asking ourselves:

Is this blessing us, or our neighbors? Is it life-giving, energizing, joyful?  Could it be? Can we make it so? Can we name why it matters to us, and are those Gospel reasons or human reasons? Does concern with protecting or preserving it

make us fearful, or reluctant to follow a new call? Is it something that attracts and engages new members, or creates stumbling blocks and closes doors? Is there anything that needs to die, that we are called to name, and grieve, and lay to rest? Is there anything that wants to be born, that we are called to draw forth, and baptize, and nurture? If we spend a year or eighteen months asking those questions about everything, I absolutely believe we’d have a lot less baggage to carry forward and a lot more energy and enthusiasm for the journey.

Follow Jesus together, into the neighborhood, and travel lightly. 

The TREC report says, “We believe that, rather than an anxious focus on how to preserve our institution, a joyful focus on these basic practices [of Christianity as a] movement will hold the real key for moving us into God’s future.”

We are in a good place, St. Dunstan’s. We have such a concentration of good, loving, committed, smart, brave, curious, generous, interesting, amazing people here. I am so blessed to be your priest; I am so excited by what God is doing among us and with us.  We have our feet on solid ground financially, for the moment; we have the blessing of young and old  caring for each other and living our faith together; we have strong and joyful worship at the heart of our common life. This is a wonderful year to say, Where do we go from here? What do we become? To say, with Samuel, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening! To hear, with Nathanael, the words of Jesus: You will see greater things than these! 

Seeking the way of Jesus, together – hearing God’s call in the many voices around us, and following it into deeper engagement with our neighbors – holding lightly the way things have been, in confidence that there is hope in the way things are becoming … let us follow Jesus together, into the neighborhood, and travel lightly.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, stay with us, as we walk in new paths; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.