The Church as First Responders

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Seattle on Pentecost, 2012  (Year B)

For years, I wore the same kind of sneakers.  It was great, when they wore out, I could just walk into the store and say I need this shoe in this size, pay for them and walk out of the store with a pair of shoes that I knew would be comfortable and fit me.  Then, one day, they were gone.  They suggested an alternative, the shoe that replaced the one I wanted, but it didn’t fit right and wasn’t as comfortable.  Back to shopping.

Have you ever had that happen?  You go in to buy an old standby and it’s now “new and improved?”  Improved beyond recognition sometimes.  Or worse, it’s just not available anymore – not enough demand.

Are you ever afraid that will happen to your church; that it will be “improved” beyond recognition or worse, that demand will drop so much that it just won’t be available anymore?

I imagine that Peter might look at us and think we are “new and improved” beyond recognition.
At Pentecost we look back and remember the very beginnings of the church.  We all wear red to symbolize the fire of the Holy Spirit that ignited this incredible movement that has spread across the globe.

It’s also a good time to reflect on what it means to be the church; what it means for us to be church – especially in this time of transition – to look forward to what God is calling us to become as church.

There are a lot of metaphors for the church.  Museum for saints is most often used as a metaphor for what we are not – and for what some people think we claim to be and therefore it makes us hypocrites.  It’s usually used in contrast to another metaphor –a hospital for sinners.

Metaphors are helpful up to a point but sometimes we take them too far.  For example the metaphor of the Church as a Shop. Eugene Peterson wrote about this in his book, Working the Angles

The pastors of America have [become] a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns–how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists.

Churches do share some attributes with business.  We incorporate and register with the state, we name officers and are run by a board of directors.  We own property, buy insurance, and hire employees.

Maybe we’re taking the metaphor too far, though, when we wring our hands wondering why we don’t have as many customers as we used to.  Is it because we’re not trendy enough?  Or are we too trendy?  Maybe it’s our “product line” or inadequate “marketing.”  And what is our product, anyway?  God? Jesus? Programs? A nice nursery? The Gospel?

If the clergy are shopkeepers, what about the people in the congregation?  Are they all customers? Or are some in Sales or Marketing or Customer Service or even Production?  Maybe Church as shop is not adequate.

This morning I would like to offer a different metaphor for the church and I hope you will ponder it in your hearts in the coming weeks.  What if we were to think of ourselves as a community of First Responders?

Many people these days, are talking and writing about what’s going on in the world – the changes and especially the pace of change.  They’re describing not only the details of specific changes but the global, long-term ramifications of these changes.  I have found that Diana Butler Bass articulates it very well in her most recent book, Christianity After Religion.  She is an Episcopalian and a historian who writes about the church and teaches at our seminaries.  I’ll let you read the book for yourself, but one of her central points is that what we have been observing in our churches is happening, now, all across the country, in every denomination.

And what’s happening in the church is just one little piece of the shifting that is happening in the world.  She and others claim that we are in the middle of a major paradigm shift.  Increasingly people don’t trust traditional principles and institutions.  We’re finding that the things we used to stake our lives on are no longer reliable.  This paradigm shift is something like an earthquake in people’s lives.

Now, we know something about earthquakes around here and about the importance of earthquake preparedness.  We’ve heard the three-days-three-ways commercials and we’ve heard Liz Osborne talk about how to prepare our homes and cars, and workplaces so that we’re ready when the Big One hits.

Well, I suggest that we, as the church, put together earthquake preparedness kits of sorts so that we are ready to respond as this earthquake of a paradigm shift progresses.  The thing is, the purpose of this kit I’m talking about is not to help us survive; it’s so that we can help others – so that we can be First Responders.

What shall we put in the kit?  What will be the food and water, the flashlights and roadmaps, the emergency blankets and first aid supplies that people will need when the dust settles and the earth stops moving for a moment?

Jesus calls us and the Holy Spirit empowers us to bring light into darkness, to bring comfort and sustenance to those in pain or in need – whether it’s because of a personal crisis or a chronic longing for God, or a radical shift in how they view and understand the world – when their home has been shaken off of its foundation, so to speak.

So, if we are to be a community of First Responders, then maybe the building is to be a base camp or aid station.  It’s a place for us to come for rest and renewal, for refreshment through holy food and drink with our community; for comfort and encouragement, for sharing our experience and learning new skills.  It’s a place to store supplies for our emergency kits and to receive  “9-1-1” calls.

But most calls for help won’t come through the church’s phone.  Most will be simply a look or a whisper or even an angry shout or an act of violence.  We need to be prepared to recognize the call and to respond with what is needed; to offer salvation in many forms.

You know, Jesus and the apostles didn’t offer one-size-fits-all salvation.  They didn’t set up shop and persuade people that they needed and should buy what they had to offer.  No, they went to the people, bringing the salvation they needed.  Sometimes salvation was healing of an illness; other times it was casting out demons or raising the dead; it was restoring people to their families and communities, or on occasion, forgiving sins.  For some salvation was a bit of fish and a piece of bread or even words of hope.

And so, as we dress in red and remember how the Holy Spirit came like flame to ignite the church on Pentecost, what is our prayer?  Are we hoping it doesn’t happen to us?

Or do we pray that the Holy Spirit will come to us now and light a fire in our hearts and in our church that we may continue Christ’s work in the world, bringing salvation as First Responders.