Sermon for Pentecost XXI, October 18, 2015
Mthr. Susan J. McCone
St. John’s Church
Isaiah 53: 4-12 – “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises are we healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has on laid him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future?”(vv.4-8a).
Hebrews 5:1-10 -- “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’; as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
Mark 10: 35-45 – [story of James and John asking to be seated on Jesus’ right and left hand, “in your glory”] “…Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’”
In recent weeks, conversations, circumstances and random events have led me to spend a lot of time thinking about what we are meant to be doing as a church...both the wider Episcopal Church and as St. John's -- this specific outcropping of the Episcopal Church in Washington, CT. and then by extension what it is I am meant to do as your priest in this place.
When I first came here six years ago, St. John’s really was not a part of the larger Episcopal community in any meaningful way. Whatever the reasons or causes, the parish was looking inward; it didn't particularly identify itself, or function in a meaningful way, as part of the greater Diocesan community, the much wider national Episcopal Church, and certainly not as part of the global Anglican communion.
In fact, after one of my first Sundays here when I had preached about the issues which were soon to be considered at the upcoming convention of the national church, a parishioner chastised me at coffee hour, saying St. John's was "God's little church on the hill" and it didn't need, or want to know about those things. And the reality was that -- except for inviting the other Episcopal churches in the immediate area to participate in Lessons and Carols and at the Vigil -- St. John's had gotten to the point that it pretty much kept to itself.
Trust me, in many ways, personally, I would like to be an old time Rector...devoting my time to reading, studying, teaching and preaching. But, in today's church in a single priest parish, I need also to be a CEO of a small business, a fundraiser, a marketer...and to learn about septic systems.
I have never much cared for going it alone. I have always felt that I did my best work when I could engage with others with different perspectives, ideas and talents. The idea of a big airy tent with its sides flapping open to the world beyond was a much more attractive place for me to be than a stuffy silo, however safe and secure that might feel. And, it is my experience in every sphere of human endeavor --business, education, social, philanthropic or religious, we can do more in community than we could ever dream of doing or accomplishing on our own.
Our Mission Statement expressly embraces that broader vision of what we are called to do as a church. In case you haven’t read it recently, it is right there on the Welcome Page of our website – and then -- if you click on "Welcome" in the left hand column -- it is stated in more detail in the section entitled "Mission." Clearly, our sense of mission is not something we should, or even could, pursue, much less accomplish, alone. Almost by definition "mission" can only be realized in community – by all of us acting together mindfully, in consort and with intentionality, and, where it makes sense, in collaboration and cooperation with others from the larger community around us.
The broader church’s mission, as well as St. John’s mission, is to give way to the missio dei, God’s mission, in which we, as people of faith, are called to participate. We need to reach out to our Episcopal brothers and sisters, but also to other communities of faith. In Washington, that means working together with the Congregational Church, the Covenant Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Jewish Coalition, the Muslim and Buddhist communities to pursue our mutual mission of service, education, hospitality and spirituality
In the last five years, I think we have come a long way in throwing up the flaps of the St. John's tent. We have cultivated different ways of appealing and responding to the diversity of our own parish community, as well as the diverse needs and interests of the greater Washington community.
Parson's Table every month, the interfaith Seder on Maundy Thursday; this year the sponsorship of the interfaith community Thanksgiving Eve service; as the host site for Conversations on the Green, Women in White, meetings of substance abuse groups, pilates and yoga, monthly meetings of the Garden Club; the Concert Series and lectures open to the community, the generous hospitality offered in events designed to foster fellowship like Mardi Gras and Burn's Night; the Food Fair and the Bazaar which serve different audiences in the community, and engage different sectors of our own parish community; and our service projects of backpacks, Thanksgiving pies, Christmas gifts and Easter baskets to people of the wider community.
All of these activities and efforts are ways in which we share the use of our resources and invite the wider community to join us in ways that personally speak to their interests. Some of these activities are important financial resources for supporting the costs of our own commitment to being good stewards of these buildings; to providing financial assistance to our neighbors through the St. John's Emergency Fund; and to supporting the work of the staff and the business of the Church.
But, some of the activities are simply self-sustaining and that is fine. The "profit" that is produced from all of this activity is not meant to be measured just in dollars and cents, but in the good will that is fostered among our neighbors, and in the invitation it extends to those who are looking for a spiritual home.
And yet, the instinct to hunker down inside our individual silo, slog along on a narrower, easier, less demanding agenda dies hard. I know because some people tell me that they wish we could return to the "old days" when the Church did less, asked for less of a commitment from parishioners in time and effort and, yes, dollars. But, I believe, I know, that if we retreat to the "old days," we will not simply stand still, we will slip away, we will disappear...and that, I believe would be an abdication of the mission to which God has called us.
In publication after publication and poll after poll it has become commonplace to proclaim the “de-churching of America.” Experts talk about the "country becoming more secular, like Europe." But, recent Gallup and Pew studies demonstrate that, in fact, people are going to church – and embracing religion – in numbers that defy these popular perceptions.[i]
While it is true that a recent Pew study stated that 35 percent of Millennials – adults born between 1981 and 1996 – identify as “nones,” those saying that they have no religious affiliation; and other studies, over the years, have noted a drop in regular church attendance, especially among the young, these same experts note that America is far from becoming a godless nation. On any given Sunday, for instance, some 4 out of 10 Americans still make their way to churches and synagogues, mosques and temples, not just mainline Protestant churches – am aggregate number that hasn’t fluctuated dramatically in the last fifty years.[ii]
In fact, Gallup reported recently that while regular, weekly attendance may be off, Americans are no less likely now to attend religious services than they were in the 1940s and ’50s. This was the period just before the "über-religious years of the mid-1950s and early ’60s," when Americans, in lockstep, got married, had children (in that order), and went to church every Sunday -- maybe more out of habit or social convention than any deep religious conviction or sense of piety. The lesson, says the editor at Gallup, whose company has tracked church attendance for 70 years, is that religious worship in the US is cyclical.[iii]
The cycle we are in now is challenging: our lifestyle is dramatically different than it was in the traditional church's heyday: work patterns, complicated schedules for every member of the family, travel opportunities, athletic commitments, school schedules, a myriad of social obligations all combine and compete to work against predictable, week-in, week-out church attendance.
But, just here at St. John's, in the last two years I have baptized 23 children born to those classified as supposedly religiously uninterested and unaffiliated "Millennial" parents. We do not see them here every Sunday, but they are here, and at an important moment in their family they have chosen to mark the passage with a religious service here, often citing the Episcopal church as a denomination that represents the philosophy -- ethically and morally that they want their children to learn. These families show their sense of belonging to this community by their service in a variety of ways: maybe not until they return to bring their next child to be baptized; but also by their generosity in pledging or supporting programs that speak to them where they are.
I don't think anyone can know what the current cycle will look like as it continues to unfold over the next five to ten years...but I do think that the Episcopal Church and St. John's are uniquely well-poised to reap a rich harvest...IF we intentionally and vigorously embrace our dialogue with other faith communities, seek to share our common ground and understand our differences.
Despite the historic form, formality and beauty of our liturgy, Episcopal worship is intrinsically flexible, able to embrace a wide spectrum of worship without sacrificing its authenticity; our music has broad classical appeal; our progressive, and inclusive social philosophy is welcoming to a large portion of an increasingly diverse society.
And as a church we need to understand, accept and respond to the reality that people go to church for different reasons today. We can't count on them coming out of habit or tradition...and thank goodness Episcopal Churches don't get people into the pews by fear or guilt. In a noisy and cluttered world people more and more come to a church when they need a sense of peace, a necessary respite when their soul yearns for solace; for a sense of belonging, of being part of a community in a culture that is in all other ways in their daily life isolating; for participation in service and social action that can achieve something more meaningful as a group than they could affect by their individual efforts alone; and for a spiritual experience, for the possibility of a moment of transcendence. Frequently, what brings someone into the fold has little or nothing to do with a tenet of religious faith or style of liturgy.
As Jesus, in no uncertain terms, tells James and John who are intent on pursuing their own narrow agenda, we are called to continue God's mission, to restore and redeem all of humankind to God as modeled in the life of his Son, Jesus Christ.
It’s really quite amazing how God speaks to us in a timely fashion for whatever task lies before us: take today's texts, each of which speaks in a different voice about the missio dei: the prophet Isaiah speaks to the mission that God sent Jesus among us to begin; the Gospel of Mark speaks to the mission into which all of us who are baptized in his name and are called to continue -- something of which James and John needed a sharp reminder; and the writer of Letter to the Hebrews speaks to the mission into which I have been called to serve you as your Rector.
The work of being "church" in the world today is daunting: demanding and energizing, and sometimes -- terrifying, or at least overwhelming. But the tent is huge and there are many willing to help us if we open wide our doors and our hearts, and invite them to join us in this great work; and if we give of ourselves generously, dare I say sacrificially, of our time and treasure and talent, each of us as we are able.
We are called – each and every one of us, individually and together, in very steady and stretching ways -- to do the hard work of participating in the missio dei…here and now…on this “lowly ground” as John Donne called it.
To be true to that call to mission we need to look up and around us, and see that we are part of something bigger, bolder, better than anyone of us alone could possibly imagine. We need to take heart and get about the work of the huge challenges that lie before us; always encouraged and comforted by our psalmist's assurance that God is present with us in our labors: “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them and show them my salvation” (Ps. 91: 15-16)