It is a great joy for me to be with you all at Holy Trinity Clearwater. My name is Eric Cooter, and I am the Diocesan Missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida. I serve on the Bishop’s staff overseeing a new movement found in other parts of the church, but one in which, we in south Florida, are just now beginning. Through this movement we are encouraging renewal in our existing congregations and at the same time, developing new forms of Christian community in an ever-changing culture. In addition, we are beginning a new project to revitalize campus ministries throughout the diocese, by developing opportunities for spiritual formation, leadership development, and local mission work involving young adults. As in this movement, the church finds herself in a challenging time in our history and yet, there is emerging in our midst a renewed focus on local mission. A movement that will require us to innovate, experiment, and to take some risks.
The spirit of risk taking is subtly evident in the gospel narrative we heard today. Simeon prophetically became a voice for the good news when he proclaimed, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” We find this beautiful sonnet set in the midst of the story of Jesus’ presentation in the temple.
Now, this ancient Jewish ritual in today’s gospel pertains to two distinct Jewish traditions. Despite the interesting nature of the rituals themselves, I want to draw our attention away from the temple ceremony, and ask you to focus on the encounter between Simeon, the child Jesus, and Anna.
Simeon on that day, held the future of salvation (Jesus the child) in his arms. In the simple experience of holding a baby, Simeon came to know that salvation was literally in his grasp. Simeon experienced God himself in flesh, and that encounter was so transformative that he had to proclaim it to others. Also in the story, we hear about Anna, who never left the temple, praying and fasting there night and day, and she was so moved by the encounter with the child Jesus that she too spoke about him with everyone within whom she came in contact. Simeon and Anna experienced grace firsthand, and it was so great, they just had to proclaim it to others. These two prophetic characters remind us that “the good news is not a private possession to be received and hoarded; rather the good news must be shared. “3
You see, the Spirit calls us who come together as community each week to be fed, to be nourished, and to experience God present in Word, Bread, and Wine; we who have experienced grace firsthand, to go out into the world and share that experience with others. John Stindahl in an article in Christian Century questions whether or not our mere personal experience of grace, is really the end of the salvation story. He writes, “Are we not both ethically and spiritually called to dissatisfaction with such partiality? Should there not be more, and should not the blessing be made something present, rather than just a memory of the past or a hope of heaven?”
In other words, “should we not with enthusiasm, love, compassion, and urgency be willing to share the good news of God’s grace with others?” To share our experience of God is, by the way, one of our baptismal promises, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” We the Body of Christ are to be witnesses to God’s transforming grace, to a world that so desperately needs good news.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann says, “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.” We are like Simeon and Anna, a part of the narrative salvation, a part of God’s mission. We today hold in our arms, the future of salvation’s story, and we are being sent out into the community in which, we have been planted to be bearers of Good News. This is our mission!
Help the Church to Grow! Why? Missio Dei
If you ask most church leaders today, both lay and clergy alike, what their most important challenge will be over the next few years, most will probably say, “growing the church.” The real dilemma though is discovered when we begin to wrestle with yet, another question, “why do we need to grow the church?” We need to ask if the reason we should grow the community is so we can merely sustain the building, the programs, and the tradition? I believe only a minor part of the answer would be “Yes,” but only if we keep focused on the church’s purpose. The church must grow in order to partner with God furthering God’s mission, to restore all people to each other and God in Christ.
The mission of God, the Missio Dei remains as it has from time immemorial however, the reality today is, we must go into new places, and discover new ways of engaging the people around us, and to do so with a renewed passion. The mission field of God’s church is outside these walls, and that mission field is changing dramatically. Technology is advancing exponentially and with it, people form relationships and community in new ways. Social media, the expansive availability of data, and the ongoing demands for people’s electronic attention, is creating a growing need for people to reconnect spiritually, and to do so not so much online, but in flesh and blood community. We are being called back to the basics.
There is a growing need for people to once again enter into relationships of trust, and to seek transcendence- something beyond them. Yes my friends, I believe that in the 21st century, people are seeking God once again. However, they are going to need passionate guides, risk-taking mentors, and trusting fellow sojourners who will walk the path of spiritual searching, alongside them. Did you know that fewer people are affiliated with the institutional church today than ever before? That does not mean their spiritual hunger has diminished. To reach them, we must innovate and take a risk to re-engage the changing culture.
In 1988, a national survey was taken in the U.S. asking about people’s religious preferences. In that survey, 8% of the American population reported they had no religious affiliation at all. That same survey was taken again 20 years later in 2008. The number of religiously unaffiliated doubled from 8% to 16%. In 2012, Pew Research polled Americans again (4 years after the 2008 survey) and the number had jumped from 16% to nearly 20%. The landscape of American religious engagement has, and is changing. Another startling statistic is that 33% of young adults under the age of 33 claim no religious affiliation. More young adults are less religious now than at any time in our history and thus, I believe we are at a crucial time in the life of the church.
As Simeon stood with babe in arms, looking into the eyes of God’s salvation story manifest in flesh, we the church find ourselves looking into a culture that is unfamiliar with the very narrative of salvation we hold so dear. The next generation of Jesus’ followers, lack a familiarity with the story, and they desperately need guides, mentors, and spiritual sojourners.
Throughout the diocese, we are beginning to go deeply into our culture by encouraging people to meet folks where they find them. Right now we have alternative communities that meet in either local eateries or in homes each week. Young and old alike, religious and spiritual seekers, churched and de-churched, gather together to explore the deep spiritual questions and to seek Christ in their midst. The key to this form of ministry is not that we are trying out the latest hip evangelism fad in hopes to get folks in the pews. No, we are creating space for authentic relationships of trust to emerge, so the visible presence of God’s grace in the people gathered, shines through.
This renewed form of evangelism and community development emerged out of an intentional listening process, which took place a long time before the first gathering was scheduled. Fresh forms of ministry emerge organically when we invite those to whom we want to minister, to join and help us lead the movement. Innovative ministry in the 21st century rejects a previous notion that we have all the answers and now, we can just package it all up and take it to those not in church. Rather, this fresh approach to an ancient mission practice, readily admits that we may not have all the answers and thus, we must listen first and for a long time, to those to whom God is calling us to serve. This shift in mission approach is one of the greatest challenges the church has to face in order to re-engage in local, contextual mission in the 21st century.
SAY: “WHAT NEW PLACES IN THE COMMUNITY WILL WE GO TO MEET NEW PEOPLE?”
Fr. Randy informed me when he invited me to preach today, that this is one of the questions with which, Holy Trinity’s strategic planning group will be wrestling, as you seek to discern God’s ongoing call on this community. I think this is a great question, and I believe it will be a part of the difficult questioning which will be required, in order for the broader church to regain its grounding once again, as we partner with God in God’s mission.
The church’s purpose is partnering in the Mission of God. It is not an optional program, a sideline project, or a small budget line item; it is truly the spark that ignites the fire in the engine of ekklesia (the Greek word for community). We are called to partner with God in conveying the Good News of love, mercy, reconciliation, and grace to all of God’s creation both by word, and especially by action.
Holy Trinity’s heritage is deeply grounded in mission! As I prepared for my time here with you today, I perused through your website and it was not long before I discovered that you, the people of God in this place, understand clearly your call to local mission. On your home page it says “WE are on Fire for the Lord!” Do you hear the passion in that statement? Just like Simeon and Anna, you have experienced spiritual transformation in this community and you are on fire to share that with others in your surrounding community. The challenge today and in the future, may be how you explore igniting that fire in others, who may never passively, show up at the door of the church, as they might have done in the past.
Your website goes on to describe Holy Trinity in this way, “We are a beacon in our community.” The church of Jesus Christ is truly a lighthouse in the culture in which, we find ourselves. The challenge today and in the future, may be for us to ask the people that surround our congregations, “In what ways can we better demonstrate, teach, and model the way of Christ to you, and to invite you to join us in this journey?
I also read that you are a “loving community to each other and to the world and you love your neighbors as yourselves.” The challenge today and in the future, may be for us to work on creating new ways for mission to move outside these four walls and by doing so, we may go out into the community and make Christ’s love manifest in action.
Lastly I read that you “wish to grow the Body of Christ to serve Him, and share His love with others.” My friends there it is clear, concise, and simple. Your mission and your desire to grow, is so that you may share Christ’s love with others. The challenge today and in the future, may be for us to constantly evaluate how, in everything we do (from parish events and worship, to fellowship and welcoming the newcomer) are we focusing on our core mission, to “Share his love with others.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, what a wonderful opportunity God has placed before you. You are living into the heritage of the saints before you, folks like Simeon and Anna, who stood at the great crossroad of missional engagement. I want to offer some things for you to consider as you go forth:
(1) Begin this journey by prayerfully asking the Holy Spirit to give you a vision for local mission renewal.
(2) Seek out the people to whom God is calling you to serve, and ask them how God’s people can serve them.
(3) Invite those with whom you will develop new relationships of trust, to join you in developing ministry, and give them leadership in the movement.
(4) Trust that this is God’s mission and thus, you can truly rely on the Spirit to lead you on.
Remember, “God has acted in Jesus in a final and decisive manner, which requires humans to be set for or against God’s salvation; neutrality is not an option, as God’s work confronts humanity. “3 In a culture that is changing faster than we can fathom, God’s mission continues. We need only adapt to the changes around us, and continue our partnership with the one, Jesus Christ, who calls us to share Good News with all in whom we come in contact. ￼￼
1 Stindahl, John K. “Holding Promise.” Christian Century 119.25 (2002): 17. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Jan. 2014.
2 Strickert, Frederick M. “The Presentation Of Jesus : The Gospel Of Inclusion: Luke 2:22-40.” Currents In Theology And Mission 22.1 (1995): 33-37. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.
3 Soards, Marion L. “Luke 2:22-40.” Interpretation 44.4 (1990): 400-405. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.