Sermon, Sept. 10

Happy Lammastide! Lammastide is a harvest festival celebrating the first wheat harvest of late summer – hence the focus on bread. We borrowed this feast from the Church of England a few years ago because we needed a way to mark and celebrate the beginning of a new program year.

The church’s calendar, in terms of our formation programs and many of our ministries, follows the secular school year, because that’s convenient. That’s the rhythm of our weekday lives, so we roll with it. We need a break sometime to rest and plan, and summer is when it’s easiest to take that break.

But the church’s New Year is the first Sunday in Advent – not until December. In terms of the church calendar we are in the most undistinguished possible part of the year – late in the Season After Pentecost. There are NO major feasts between late May and early November.

Some churches call this Welcome Back Sunday. But that’s a little insulting, frankly – it implies you’ve all been gone. And you haven’t.

The English church, our mother church, has a number of agricultural festivals as part of its calendar and culture, like Rogation Day and Lammastide.

So in the interests of having a way to mark a new beginning, and to remind us to attend to the cycles of the natural world, we have borrowed this harvest festival, Lammastide, and are making it part of our calendar and practice here.

Bread is a really powerful symbol. It stands for “food”, and even more broadly, for that which sustains us – in the Lord’s Prayer, for example, and in the name of the organization “Bread for the World,” to which our church belongs.

Bread has ritual and sacramental and symbolic meaning and use in many faiths and cultures. Today’s Exodus lesson is about the Passover meal, the great holy meal of Judaism. That meal has two key parts: the lamb and the unleavened bread.  This passage is a lot like our Eucharistic prayers, which in turn are based on passages from the Gospels. It tells a story that explains why we are eating this bread, what it means to us and how it makes us a people. And it tells us, Keep doing this.

That’s not an incidental connection. It’s easy for us to forget, but the Gospel writers cast the Last Supper as either a Passover meal or Passover-adjacent. The holy, people-making bread of Exodus is part of the foundation for the holy, people-making bread of the Eucharist.

Bread, then, is not just food, not just sustenance, but also unity and identity.  As we will say at the Eucharist this morning: We who are many are one body, for we all share in the one bread. In the Didache, the oldest know Christian liturgy, the Eucharistic prayer includes these words: “Just as this broken bread was scattered as grain on top of the hills and was gathered together and became one, in the same way let your people be gathered together from the remotest parts of the land into your kingdom.”

Scattered and gathered, many made one. In sharing the Eucharist, in sharing all the other ways we eat together, we become companions – a beautiful word that literally means, People who share bread. Com, with. Pan, bread. Companion. The word has a sense too of a fellow-traveler, of pausing on a long journey to share what you have in your bags.

Look around you: You all just shared a little bread. And in a little while we’ll share bread again, in the Eucharist.  We are all companions. Fellow-travelers, sharing bread.

This new beginning, this moment of looking back with gratitude and forward with purpose, this feast of bread seems to me like a good time to talk a little about why church.

Being part of a church isn’t the cultural norm anymore. That means you’re all doing this on purpose. You’re choosing this, when there are so many other ways we could be spending our time, energy, and resources.

To begin with, let’s be clear that, even though we often talk about it that way, church isn’t a place we go;  it’s a thing we make, a thing we become. I read a piece earlier this summer that argued that people participating in their churches’ ministries shouldn’t be called “volunteers,”  any more than a father caring for his children is “babysitting.”  The article argued that you “volunteer” for an organization at which you’re an outsider, a guest.  Whereas this church is YOURS. Your baby. Church happens because you come, and do, and give.

There are plenty of reasons NOT to choose church. A writer and scholar named Marylin McEntyre outlined some of them in an essay published this week.

Here are some of the reasons she names:

First, “Churches can be clubby and exclusionary.” Sometimes you just feel that there’s no room for you – either you don’t fit the demographics, you’re not wearing the uniform; or the church simply isn’t really interested in new people. I don’t believe this is true at St. Dunstan’s, but I am mindful that as we grow, we need to step up our culture and practices of welcome to make sure people coming here the first and fifth and tenth time feel welcomed and connected.

That was easier when we had five new households a year instead of fifteen. But we’re so excited to be challenged by growth; we are going to figure this out and keep improving our welcome.

Another reason not to go to church that McEntyre points out that some churches are boring. Now, this one can be a touchy topic for liturgical churches, where doing and saying the same thing week after week is just part of what we do. But repetition isn’t intrinsically boring. Before I was ordained, and the question of boringness or non-boringness became ultimately my responsibility, I worshiped at Episcopal churches where their liturgy was repetitive, yes, but alive, intentional, gracious. And I worshiped at Episcopal churches where the liturgy was just boring. Of course, churches can be boring beyond their worship, too. McEntyre points out that sermons, websites, and church ministries can also all lean towards the safe, the predictable, the lukewarm. I gotta tell you, even when I talk with people who don’t love what we’re doing at St. Dunstan’s, I rarely hear that we’re boring…!

And finally, some churches elevate something above the Gospel. What McEntyre actually says is, Some churches are partisan – they hold some political leader or ideology above the witness and teaching of Jesus Christ. They’re not reflecting on society and current events in light of the Gospel, but simply holding up a party line borrowed from the surrounding culture.

But churches can also risk making an idol not just out of a particular political ideology, but out of peace – not the kind of peace that comes from God, the peace that passes all understanding, but the shallow peace of avoiding the difficult subjects, and never talking about what really matters to us.  In fact, there’s recently been a significant movement calling people to leave churches, primarily evangelical churches, where the leaders don’t shine the Gospel’s light on today’s challenges.

It can feel risky to talk about the big stuff; that’s why we hold tight to the Gospel when we do it. But the point is that both political partisanship, and political silence, can be ways to hold Jesus at arm’s length, and keep church as a social club instead of a community of grace and transformation.

I want to add a reason that’s not on McEntyre’s list, but that I’ve been thinking about lately. Sometimes people quit church because so much wrong is done in the name of Christianity. Evil things – things that the opposite of what Jesus Christ taught and lived – are proclaimed in the name of Jesus, by people who see themselves as Christians. The deep divisions in Christianity – and in American public life – are beyond the scope of this sermon. But I know there are people who just can’t take it anymore. They know that not all Christians are like that. They know that what they’re hearing is a distortion of the Gospel. But it’s just become too poisonous. The very name of Jesus feels tarnished to them, because of how some Christians have used it. I find that terribly sad, but I understand it. I can’t blame them.

Nobody’s left yet, so I guess I haven’t convinced you to quit church yet. So let’s turn to the reasons FOR church that McEntyre names.

Some of the reasons have to do with the way a healthy church meets us where we are, and addresses our deep needs. For example:

A healthy church will allow you to acknowledge guilt and experience forgiveness. McEntyre writes, “It may not seem that acknowledging guilt would be a particularly attractive reason to attend church, but you find, if you do it, that it’s amazingly restorative. Most of us carry around guilt like a stone in a pocket. Sometimes you get so used to its weight you stop even noticing it. So it can take a long time, if you’re leading what seems to be a decent and innocuous life, to get to a place where guilt becomes pain and you long for forgiveness. When you do get there, a healthy church is a good place to go.”

Of course there are other ways to address guilt or pain or anger that we carry from the past. But there is something distinctive and gracious about the church’s language and practice of confession and forgiveness – whether the weekly words of confession we share, or the Rite of Reconciliation for an individual. McEntyre says, “[In church,] we can afford to confess because confession doesn’t mire us in shame, but lifts us into sure and certain hope and a life of gratitude.”

Another reason to choose church is that being part of a church gives you access – immerses you – in a rich heritage of words, music, symbols and holy stories. It connects us with a centuries-long conversation about how to live as followers of Jesus. It enlarges and enriches our imagination, imprints words of prayer and Scripture and song in our hearts as resources for moments of need.

And in healthy churches, the riches of Scripture and tradition aren’t seen as something fragile that we have to protect behind glass like a museum exhibit, but as robust and living gifts. As McEntyre says about the Bible, “Healthy churches wrestle, working out their salvation over coffee and concordances, knowing there is nothing pat or simple about the living Word, but that it invites us into subtle, supple, resilient relationship with the Word made flesh who dwells, still, among us.”

Which brings us to a third reason to choose church: You might find God here. In McEntyre’s words: “[A healthy church is a place] of divine encounter… It provides a place, a way, an invitation, and a sacred space in which, if you come with an open heart, you may find yourself, in spite of yourself, practicing the presence of God.”

We use many practices: silence; music and song; art and story; hearing sacred texts read aloud, and reflecting on them, in community or alone, but always with the Holy Spirit’s breath at our ear. And then there are our sacraments – all of them, but especially the Eucharist, our weekly practice of assent, of saying Yes, again, to being part of this body, part of Christ’s body, part of what God is doing in the world.

McEntyre is realistic about this: We don’t have big experiences of God’s presence every week, or every year. We often come to church distracted, reluctant, confused, or weary. And I’m keenly aware that church isn’t “perfect” every Sunday, or any Sunday. But, as she writes, “underneath the distractions and irritations runs a current so strong it carries me in spite of myself. I float in mighty waters.”

Naming our guilt and experiencing forgiveness; being blessed by our heritage of music, prayer, and Scripture; and feeling, now and then, that God is here, with us, with you.  These are all gifts that may be healing and inspiring for the individual.

But as I said before: church isn’t a place we go because we enjoy the services it provides. It’s a thing we make, a thing we become, together. It’s a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Forgiveness and grace, song and story and sacrament, are all doorways into something bigger that ourselves. And paradoxically, coming to see ourselves as part of something bigger can help make our individual lives more bearable and more meaningful.

McEntyre writes, “A healthy church will help you get over yourself. God loves you with infinite, unconditional love…, but to experience that love fully, you have to get over yourself—excessive concern with your own welfare, your own family, your own ambitions or failures.”

I think that’s probably true for some people – that we struggle with a spiritual myopia that keeps us overly focused on what’s right in front of us. But I know we have people in this congregation, too, who have more or less the opposite problem – call it spiritual vertigo: that sense that you’re standing in the middle of something huge and unstable and dizzying. Some of us are so aware of the big picture that it’s paralyzing. We feel stuck, helpless, overwhelmed.

Either way – whether what ails us is myopia or vertigo – I believe that a healthy church can help us back towards seeing ourselves in relation to the world in a way that’s both realistic and hopeful. What we do together here, our prayers and songs and Scriptures and sacraments, our holy conversations about how to live and act and serve, and just being together in the power of the Spirit – all of that, all of it helps us recalibrate our sense of self and of agency, of our capacity to act.

Doing church helps us look at the world in light of the Gospel. McEntyre writes, “A healthy church will look at [cultural] norms with a critical eye, holding them up to the light of Christ, which involves deep reading of Scripture and deep engagement with biblical ethics… A healthy church will have the conversation and invite you into it. It will [show you where the work is happening, and] teach you to pray as you go.”

And doing church helps us realize that we have something to offer, however weak or small or poor or busy we may feel. She writes, “In a healthy church you begin to recognize yourself as someone with gifts to give—time, money, energy, expertise—and you begin to want to give them, because the grace that comes with giving is suddenly so startlingly apparent.”

I hope, I believe, that St. Dunstan’s is a healthy church. I hope, I believe, that being part of a healthy church will be good for you. I want that, for you. But I also hope and believe that all of us being church together is good for our community, our world.

To borrow words from our baptismal covenant, we can resist the forces of evil the corrupt and destroy the creatures of God more effectively when we’re resisting them together, whether that’s acting as one body, or encouraging one another in our separate vocations of justice, kindness, and generosity.

And there are evils done by churches, in the name of Jesus, that are best undone by churches, in the name of Jesus.

So that’s what’s in my heart, and in my prayers, as we celebrate our companionship today. As we share bread, and become, always and again, the body of Christ, given to us and for us, to bless and heal and redeem each of us, all of us, and the whole world.

Article cited: 

“Choosing Church,” Marilyn McEntyre.