Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23
The Mission of Advocacy and Action
The news on television is difficult to watch these days. Our country is being ravaged by a terrible Pandemic right now, and many people are losing their lives, and their livelihood. Yet, there is another horrid virus that permeates our world, and it has been around for centuries. This plague threatens to destroy our democracy, our common humanity, and our identity as children of God. I am talking about the social pandemic of racial violence and hatred. This virus is often found in our hearts hidden away, and which often manifests itself in subtle ways, with symptoms we barely recognize. Other time, the infection becomes a complete outbreak and we observe epicenters of indifference, hatred, and violent destruction.
Last month, a young Black Man, Ahmaud Arbery was innocently jogging in a local neighborhood, and he lost his life to this terrible disease of hate, violence and racism blatantly enacted by two flagrant carriers of the disease. If that were not enough, still have emblazoned in our mind are the images of the video of the tragic death of George Floyd, a young black man, who died unnecessarily, at the hands of abuse by a law enforcement officer. When will this end? What is the vaccine that will cure this disease of hatred? Why do we hate God’s children, our own sisters and brothers?
This outbreak is a greater threat than any health-related tragedy we face today. There is a treatment though, and it is called God’s love, and I believe we find the first responders for this outbreak right in the church. Our country needs the church’s witness of love, and our country needs the church to become the advocates for all of God’s people, because yes, no one should live in the fear of walking down the street. Church, you have a mission before you, because the world, our country, your city, and your neighborhood need to see Christs’ amazing grace in you. Church, you have a mission that began two thousand years ago behind locked doors of fear, when the Spirit came upon us, and were sent out to love and advocate and change the world of hatred and victimization. Today my friends in Christ, you can never forget your purpose as God’s people.
Successful Church/Small Church
Fifteen years ago, I was part of a church that forgot its purpose. That little community had dreams of building a new sanctuary. The initial plans were incredible, but the money needed to complete the project never came to fruition. The church was growing, the people were faithful, the local mission efforts were expanding, and God was stirring up spiritual renewal in incredible ways. Despite the lack of funding for the project, they built a grand edifice anyway, and took on a ton of debt. Before long things started to fall apart. The building became the focus of everything, and this little church forgot her mission of love completely. She lost her identity and struggled for many years thereafter.
Some churches think they are only effective because of their talents, their unique traits, their incredible assets, or their own individual history of so-called success. Some churches have a big new building, a big Christian staff, a professional fine priest, and all the money they need. Other churches suffer from religious covetness. They see their big brother and sister communities down the street and say, “Wow, if we could only be like them.” The concept of “bigger is better” is built into American culture. We believe that our size and programs and building are all a reflection of our spiritual success, as if the church is a mere purveyors of religious goods and services.
That consumeristic approach to faith permeates the church today. We covet others’ sanctuary, organ, parking lot, or leadership and we believe, if we had a bigger building, bigger budget, and bigglier everything, somehow we will have arrived, and now we are a REAL church. That concept, my friends is a misguided notion of church, and it is a distortion of Christ’s mission lived out through the church.
Diversity of Gifts for mission
In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he told that startup congregation, and he is telling us, that God has uniquely brought us together as a congregation, and God has given us specific gifts for ministry. God has gifted us for a purpose and we really need to stop trying to be something we are not. Paul is encouraging us to accept as individuals and the church corporate, that despite what gifts others around us possess, we are gifted uniquely for a particular mission call that no one else can do.
Paul wrote, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” He said some have the gifts of wisdom, others knowledge, some faith, a group with healing, some can do miracles, a few have the discernment of spirits, and a few possess the gift of tongues or language. Paul reminds us that “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” God has uniquely called St. Monica’s at this particular time and in this particular era, for a mission that you must be open to discern. You are ready and prepared for the next chapter.
In our diocese there are 77 churches. Only a few are larger than this parish, and St. Monica’s is ranked # 15 out of 77 in giving and attendance. Be careful about that ranking thing though, because when you evaluate your effectiveness in mission, based on a number alone, you tend to forget who you are and why you are here. The most unique congregations and I must say, the most effective congregations in this diocese are just like St. Monica’s. They are uniquely gifted for mission, and those gifts are needed for mission differently in each neighborhood, town, village and city.
Churches get into trouble when they try to be something God has not gifted them to be or do. Christians get into trouble as well, when they try to be something they are not gifted and called to be and do. When God’s people misguided, try and enact gifts that have not been given them by the Holy Spirit, they become inauthentic and find themselves unable to serve faithfully. A life of faithful serve though, surprises us especially when our God-given calls shift and change from time-to-time. God, when we least expect it, often calls us to do something bewildering and unforeseen, but you can be assured God always calls us to love.
Discernment of the Spirit’s leading is essential.
Have you heard the old adage, “If you want to make God laugh, make a plan?” Two years ago, I thought Terri and I would be on diocesan staff for years to come, but God laughed and started nudging us to discern a return to parish ministry. At the time, I wondered why would God take us from a perfectly good ministry that I loved, and move us back to serving in a particular parish? However, we listened faithfully to those nudges that we heard from others being guided by the Holy Spirit, and it was only because of our openness to faithful listening that moved us to consider coming to St. Monica’s in the first place.
And here we are after two years, realizing that God called us to bring our gifts of administration, finance, organization, pastoral care, and leadership development to this parish when it needed it most. God called us at the right time, for the right circumstances, and for the right community who needed our gifts at the right moment, for the right circumstances, even when we did not even see it clearly at that time.
If we had not been faithful to the practice of discernment and holy listening, if we had not been willing to answer a particular call on our lives at that particular time, then we would have failed to practice prayerful obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leading. We would have not been with you for the two years when it seemed you needed us most and obviously, we needed you most. See how God’s perfect will works?That same practice of Holy Listening and prayerful consideration of the Spirit’s nudges, although it seems strange and not at the utmost opportune time, leads Terri and I onto a new path of loving service as the Canon to the Ordinary in Oklahoma.
My sisters and brothers of St. Monica’s, you need to be open to the surprising and often unforeseen nudges and leading of the Spirit, as you enter a time of transition and discernment. You need to practice Holy Listening and prayer as you begin the process of discerning the holy call of your next spiritual leader. Remember, you will not be hiring a priest, as if they are some spiritual purveyor of spiritual goods and services. You will be listening to God’s call on the next man or woman who has been ordained to be with you in times of celebration, times of pain, and times of uncertainty and even death. You may find this hard to believe, but if you believe God has a purpose for this community, then you can trust that God has already chosen your next leader, it is merely up to you to listen, pray, and discern who that person might be. Choose wisely and do so, with God leading the way.
God’s Spirit is the power that fuels the engine of Christian community.
Today we heard about a little band of spiritual apprentices, you know, the first apostles, who went from being poor fishermen and the “not so elites of culture,” and became the movers and shakers of the Jesus movement, which is 2+ billion strong today. Just remember, that they were not effective in growing the church, because they were the “best of the best” and they thought they “had this plan worked out,” nor because they were professional Christian consultants. They effectively accomplished the mission God gave them, because they recognized the gifts of the Holy Spirit, they listened to the Spirit of God leading them, and they remained faithful in service and evangelism.
Many of you have been successful in your own careers and sometimes you have a difficult time depending on and trusting God. It is difficult to release our hold on the idea that “I can stand on my own two feet” and trust that “God’s got this.” Right now, I encourage you to lower the anxiety level you may feel about this transition. Please trust God, trust your bishop, and trust the incredible vestry leadership you have in place, who are already well on their way to faithful, prayer, discernment, and holy listening, because you have a purpose, a mission, and job to do. This neighborhood needs the unique gifts you have as a community of faith, to show others the amazing grace, God’s reconciliatory love, and the forgiveness and restoration found in Christ. Sisters and brothers do not get distracted and do not remain in fear and anxiety like that motley crew of ragtag fishermen, zealots, and tax collectors, who gathered behind closed doors in fear and anxiety, caused by the incredible circumstances of their day.
Never forget, that when we are afraid, Our Lord Jesus shows up in the midst of tragedy and fear and says to us, like he did on that first Pentecost, “Peace be with you.” Right now, Jesus is telling St. Monica’s, “Folks you have a job to do in this world, so relax, trust me, listen to the Spirit lead you, stay faithful and support the church’s mission.” Jesus is telling you, “Please know that I got this.” My sisters and brothers, as you enter this new exciting chapter in this parish’s long history of faithful mission, as you continue to stand in the midst of tragic times like these in broken and hurting world, as you stand up for others as a witness of Christ’s amazing grace, I remind you of Jesus’ comforting words, which are simply these, “Peace be with you.”