Why Are We Here?

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma on July 21, 2013
The ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year C)

I don’t know about you, but it’s very easy for me to procrastinate and be distracted by  any number of tasks – especially when I have something really important to do that’s difficult to define and harder still to accomplish.  Now the activities I may busy myself with are, in fact good and even important and necessary – but they’re a distraction from what I truly need to do at that time.  You know, it’s just so much more satisfying when I know what to do, how to do it, and I can tell that it’s finished and it’s done well.  And everyone else can see it, too.

Mary and Martha are both attending to the requirements of hospitality; Martha is attending to providing food for their guest while Mary attends to the guest himself.  She is giving him her presence, her attention.  Both are necessary and I’m sure Jesus will enjoy the meal Martha is busy preparing, but to many eyes, it appears that Mary is a slacker. 

The church can get distracted, too.  We can be very busy doing good, important, NECESSARY activities – often because they’re easily identified, described, measured, and completed.  They can be checked off the to-do list and we can all feel successful.  However, when we focus ALL of our attention and energy on those needed activities, do we ever ask ourselves how they relate to our core purpose?  Do we even check to make sure that we’re focusing ANY of our energy and attention on that core purpose?

Paul writes about the purpose of the church in his letter to the Colossians.  After singing this magnificent him about the glory of Christ – through whom and for whom absolutely everything was created and through whom absolutely everything has been reconciled to God – he brings it down to the local congregation.  He says even you, this one little congregation, are the Body of Christ.  Christ is in you. He has made you holy and blameless before God.  And you have one purpose: to Proclaim Jesus Christ.

And there’s the rub, isn’t it?  How do we proclaim Jesus Christ?  What does that even mean?  Who IS Christ to us?  How can we even know if we’ve succeeded?  It’s so much easier to hold a potluck, or clean out closets, or focus on the budget – all of which are good and important and necessary and MAY be used to further our core purpose or may be used to procrastinate.

In his book, Youth in the Community of Disciples, David Ng addresses this very topic.  He reminds us of our essential identity and our central task when he enumerates the many purposes that distract us from our core purpose.  These include:

  • Entertainment, where worship leaders put on a show and everyone has fun
  • Refuge – a sort of life raft in the sea of brokenness and evil that will keep us safe until Christ comes again.  Here the goal is to keep everyone comfortable.
  • Fellowship – forming and maintaining social relationships; everyone feels they “belong”.  Of course this is important, but it’s not the core purpose.

No, the core purpose is to proclaim Christ.

  • We talked about the core purpose of the church at the College for Congregational Development, too. There we described the purpose as:

  • To Gather the People of God as the Body of Christ,
  • To Transform us, and then
  • To Send us into the world as Transformative Agents for the Commonwealth of God.

It can be tempting to focus on the Gather part rather than on the Transform part and especially on the Transformative Agents part.  After all, we can count how many people have Gathered and we can tell if there are new folks.  But how do we transform lives?  And how do we know if what we’re doing is working?

For that matter, Who are the new people?  Are we Proclaiming Christ to those who don’t yet know Christ?  Recently, I read a blog post titled,

“9 Signs Your Church Is Ready to Reach Unchurched People.”  I’d like to share a few of them.

Your main services engage teenagers.  The writer contends that if your Sunday morning service is boring, irrelevant, and disengaging to the teenagers in your church, it probably will be to unchurched people as well.

  • Your members know unchurched people.  It’s important to have relationships outside of church – people you know well enough that you would feel comfortable inviting them to church.
  • Your members are prepared to be non-judgmental.  Nuf said.
  • You’re good with their questions and don’t feel the need to answer them.  You’re comfortable letting them find their own answers.
  • You’re honest about your own struggles.  We’re not perfect, so let’s be honest about it; it opens a lot of doors, surprisingly.

I’ll stop there.  If you’re interested you can read the rest of the post yourself.

What do you think?  I know several of them made me pause.  They remind us that it’s not all about us.  They remind us that our purpose is to Proclaim Christ.

So, How do we proclaim Christ?

We Proclaim Christ when, like Martha, we feed hungry people.  We Proclaim Christ when, like Mary, we attend and listen.  We Proclaim Christ when we share our stories, telling how Christ has transformed our lives.

That’s why we’re here – to be transformed so that we may be the Body of Christ in the world; agents of transformation for the Commonwealth of God.

Let’s not be distracted, we’re here to proclaim Jesus Christ.

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.