Sermon, April 19

Today’s Scripture lessons have a lot to say about what faith looks like, feels like, in daily life, and in life’s inevitable hard times.

In our text from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is preaching to some of the Jews of Jerusalem, and calling them to faith in Jesus. Listen to what he says about the fruits of faith: “Repent and turn to God, so that you may be freed from your sins, so that you may be refreshed by God, and so that you may be part of the great work of salvation and restoration which is God’s eternal and ultimate intention for all creation.” Forgiveness, refreshment, and hope. Is that what faith feels like?

Psalm 4 is one of my favorites, a psalm for hard times and long anxious nights: “Answer me when I call, O God; you set me free when I am hard-pressed… God does wonders for the faithful; when I call upon God, God hears me. O God, you have put gladness in my heart; I lie down in peace, at once I fall asleep, for only you, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” Trust. Peace. Assurance – blessed assurance. Is that what faith feels like?

In the third chapter of the first letter of John, the author says that belonging to God, being God’s children, helps us to know and do what is right, much as a human parent guides and forms a child to have an inner sense of right and wrong. The author goes on say that the heart of right action is love. Knowing God as a loving parent, and feeling able, with God’s help, to do the right thing, and the loving thing – is that what faith feels like?

In the 24th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the disciples have just received news that two of their members have encountered the risen Jesus on the Emmaus road. Now Jesus appears among them, puts their fears to rest, lets them touch him and eats some fish to satisfy them that he is not a ghost. Then he opens their minds to understand the Scriptures, and sends them out to proclaim the good news and continue his mission in the world. Connected with the Bible, our holy text, reading it and talking about it and playing and struggling with it, in such a way that our engagement  feeds our sense of mission and purpose in the world – is that what faith feels like?

Refreshment. Hope. Peace. Confidence. Love. Purpose. Power. Is that what faith feels like?

Not all the time. Not for me. On a good day, when I’m grounded in God, sure of who I am and whose I am: Yes. That’s what faith feels like. Over the arc of my whole life, looking at God’s work in me and through me: Yes. That’s what faith feels like.

In any given moment of any given day, dealing with a stressful email exchange or worrying about how to muster resources or volunteers, or rushing to rearrange the furniture between events, or dealing with the demands of parenting growing kids: Not really. My faith doesn’t always feel like that. Not every moment. Not even every hour. Not even, always, every day.

I know, though. I know that all of that is available to me. I know that sometimes, that’s what faith feels like. That it’s calm in the midst of the storm, trust in the face of fear, hope when the world seems to be crumbling around us, direction when the way is uncertain. I know that because I’ve had those moments myself, and because of the witness of other people of faith, including some in this room right now, who testify that the resources of their faith were there for them, in their time of need.

“Resources of faith” seems like a suspect phrase. It smacks of the therapeutic mindset that’s become dominant in American culture, the mindset that assumes that the goal of human life is happiness, and that our griefs and struggles and hurts can be, should be, solved, resolved, or medicated away. “Resources of faith” sounds both therapeutic and consumerist: like we’re coming to church for what it does for us. Like we might quit church like quitting a therapist who we feel isn’t helping us with our issues; or maybe like we come to church like coming to that acupuncturist, because we really feel better for a few days, or at least a few hours, after each visit.

But I think we do come to church for what it does for us. And I think that’s OK. In fact, I think it’s the point. Jesus teaches his followers to meet together, to care for and support one another; he gives them the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, to teach them and lead them and work in and among them, and stir up in them the God-given gifts and skills that enable them and empower them to do God’s work and witness to God’s love. In our baptismal covenant, we promise to be faithful in worship and fellowship, love and serve our neighbors, strive for justice and human dignity – WITH GOD’S HELP. That’s the deal. With God’s help. And one of the Scriptures often read when the church ordains someone to the priesthood, calls people like me to the work of equipping the saints for the work of ministry. That’s y’all: the saints.

So God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and me: it’s our job to nurture, strengthen, and support you, as God’s beloved children. It’s our job to make sure that the resources of our faith are real and present and available to you. Because it is hard work, maintaining calm in the midst of the storm, trust in the face of fear, hope when the world seems to be crumbling around us, direction when the way is uncertain; it is hard work – but we don’t have to do it alone. We have each other, and we have God. We will, with God’s help.

Since last September, I’ve been participating in something called the Missional Leadership Cohort, a program offered by Luther Seminary in St. Paul. It’s a two-year peer learning program; there are twelve of us, all Episcopal priests who are fairly early in our ministries. We have met together twice, will meet twice more. We are reading together, learning together, talking together about the challenges and opportunities facing our churches, and The Church, the Episcopal Church, mainline Protestantism, American Christianity…  all of the above.

The goal of the program, I would say, is to help and equip us, the participating clergy, to look at the challenges facing our individual parishes in light of the great sea change in American culture and religion of the past half-century; and to undertake thoughtful, playful, innovative ways to tackle those challenges, in light of that big picture, with all its change, loss, and opportunity.

Some of you are wondering, what challenge does she mean? What’s the big challenge at St. Dunstan’s? And in fact there isn’t any one thing. We are basically healthy, for now. But that sea change will wash over us, just as surely as it will over every other church in the nation; and now is the moment to start imagining a resilient, engaged, joyful, purposeful future for St. Dunstan’s.

Back in January, when I was posting those Facebook pictures of the beach in south Texas, I was gathered with the other Missional Leadership Cohort folks for study and conversation and prayer. The purpose of that gathering was for each of us to discern, with God’s help, one question or area of inquiry, in our parish contexts.  And what I felt called to focus on, friends, is … what faith feels like.  For you. For us. Whether and when and how God and the Spirit and the resources of your faith are available to you, present to you, in daily life, and in life’s inevitable hard times.

Here’s another way to map what I’m wondering about. Here’s your church: this gathered community of study and prayer and fellowship. And here’s your faith: this thing inside you that’s been shaped over your lifetime by people you’ve met and things you’ve read and churches you’ve belonged to and encounters with God. And here’s your daily life: the places you go, and the people you interact with, and the ways you spend your time in work and play and service and rest.

And the question, my question, as part of my project, which I hope will become our project, is this: What are the connecting lines between those three sites, church and faith and life? And could they be stronger? Is our life as a church strengthening your faith; and is your faith strengthening you for daily living?

Does what we do together at church, as a church, feed and strengthen your faith? Does it give you a stronger sense of the resources of faith, of refreshment, hope, peace, love, confidence, power and purpose, as more than just words? as things you feel and know and do?  as spiritual practices that offer you grounding and grace? AND does your faith strengthen you for life? Is it giving you what you need to be the person you want to be, in the face of the distractions and demands, stresses and stumbling blocks of daily living, and in the face of life’s inevitable hard times? Does your faith help open your eyes to notice God’s presence in your church, your home, your workplace? To know deeply that you’re never going it alone, but that, in the ancient words of a Celtic prayer, the divine presence stands behind you and before you, beneath you and above you, in quiet and in danger, in hearts of all that love you, and in the words of friend and stranger?

Those are the questions I have for you, right now. And I think this might be really important, this business of the intersection of church, faith, and life, so I really want your answers. Your input, your feedback, your perspective, your ideas.

So I’m going to ask a lot of questions based on these core questions, over the next few weeks. First of all, there’s going to be a survey! A dozen questions. Check the boxes. That sort of thing. A link will go out by email tomorrow, in a special message. I hope all of you will take it. And if you really don’t like computer surveys, we have a few print copies available as well. The survey will be running for a couple of weeks, then some other ways of exploring these questions will follow. Some write-on-the-poster type stuff, as we’ve done before. Some focus group type stuff.

All to evaluate where we are now, to develop some sense of how those church/faith/life connections are for us, today. I hope that those data will offer some direction, some areas of opportunity where we could shape our life as a community of faith to help us live our daily lives more fully and confidently as children of God. The next step, in the fall and winter, will be to try some things –  don’t ask me what, I really don’t know yet! – but to try some things, and evaluate them together, and see if we can move the needle. If we can walk together towards becoming more and more a church that equips the saints for the work of ministry, for the hard and lifelong work of being God’s people in and for the world.

Let me close by anticipating, and addressing, one concern. We are blessed at St. Dunstan’s with a lot of people who care urgently and passionately for the needs and well-being of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized, in our community, the nation, and the world. People who experience the call to witness to God’s love as a call to serve and advocate for those in need. I’m with you, friends; I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m afraid that to some of those folks, this question, this project, may sound troublingly inward-focused, like some self-indulgent Christian navel-gazing. Now, at that same retreat in Texas in January, I saw a quotation from a great sermon that speaks to this better than I can. This sermon was preached by Bishop Mariann Budde, at the occasion of her consecration as bishop of Washington, DC, in 2011. She told her new diocese, 

You have called me as your bishop at a time when the first priority for the Episcopal Church is the spiritual renewal and revitalization of our congregations,… not as a retreat from social and prophetic witness, but in order to be more faithful to that witness, with greater capacity not only to speak but to act in God’s name… [We live] in a time of deep spiritual longing yet [shallow] spiritual grounding, and that’s as true within our congregations as outside them… God is calling all of us first to take our own life in Christ seriously. To tend to that life, to re-learn or learn for the first time the core spiritual practices that define a Christian. God is calling us to strengthen the ministries of our congregations, not for the sake of the buildings alone, for all that we might love them, but for what our churches are for:  [to be the] spiritual base camps where we gather for inspiration and renewal and strength, and from which we go out to help Christ heal and reconcile the world.

That’s the endgame, friends, that’s the big picture: not just to become a church where members get their spiritual needs met, reliably and effectively, though that would be a good and holy thing; but to become a church that sends its people out, not just members of a church but disciples of Jesus,  strong and confident, hopeful and purposeful, to do justice, love mercy, seek and serve Christ in all people, and build the kingdom of God.

As we undertake this season of inquiry and conversation, I invite your participation. I invite your input, your insight, your curiosity. I invite your help. And I invite you to bring an open mind and heart to this work of wondering, seeking, and building.

May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen us, that in this, and in all things, we may do God’s will in the service of the kingdom of Christ. Amen.