Mission in the 21st Century Parish

Sermon Preached Easter 3C
Church of the Transfiguration
April 22, 2007

In the beginning was the big bang. As matter expanded from that initial singularity it cooled. After about three minutes the world was no longer hot enough to sustain universal nuclear interactions. At that moment its gross nuclear structure got fixed at its present proportion of three quarters hydrogen and one quarter helium. Expansion and further cooling continued. Eventually gravity condensed matter into the first generation of galaxies and stars. In the interiors of these first stars nuclear cookery started up again and produced heavy elements like carbon and iron, essential for life, which were scarcely present in the early stages of the universe’s
history. Some of these first generation stars and planets condensed in their turn; on at least one of them there were now conditions of chemical composition and temperature and radiation permitting, through the interplay of chance and necessity, the coming into being of replicating molecules and life. Thus evolution began on the planet Earth. Eventually it led to you and me. We are all made of the ashes of dead stars.[1]

This is how John Polkinghorne, Anglican priest and physicist, tells the creation story. And, my friends, it is as clear to me today as it was to Dorothy when her Auntie Em’s house landed some who-knows-how-many-miles- away in the wonderful land of Oz that “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”[2] Have you looked around you lately? Because the way we tell the story of creation is not the only thing that has changed!

For one thing, the family dinner table. How many of you remember watching Leave it to Beaver or The Walton’s on TV? Do you remember all the conversation that took place around the dinner table? Today, in most households, the family dinner hour has been all but forgotten. A Queens College study confirms this: in 2000 we are 40% more likely to eat out for three or more meals per week than we were just 10 years earlier.[3]

Another change has to do with the institution of the church. From 1992 to 2002, the average Sunday attendance at a church service decreased by 13% and levels of confidence in the church as an institution in 2002 were 14% lower than they were just one year earlier.[4]

I could bore you with more statistics but that information is available on the internet or in an old fashioned library – oh! make a note, that’s another major change! The point is that change goes on all around us and sometimes the changes are so overwhelming that our initial reaction is to just shut our eyes and wait for the spinning to stop. Sometimes I wonder if our churches are doing just that – our eyes are closed, the changing world is spinning around just outside our doors, but we are afraid to go out because we don’t know what to say to the change, or maybe, we are hoping that if we do not go out the change won’t affect us.

In order to be relevant in the 21st century, the post-modern parish must do more than provide the best worship experiences inside our doors and the best children and adult formation opportunities inside our doors – though these are both important endeavors. We must not content ourselves with inviting people in to our programs. If they don’t come, they lose out? No! We must become willing to move outside of these four walls and engage the community and the world that exists just beyond our doors.

People in our society are asking questions, seeking deep meaning; but the church has become only one of the myriad places they go in search of the answers. More and more people tell us they are “spiritual, not religious” – a clear sign that something the church is offering is no longer relevant to the lives of many people. For these persons, self-help books, the latest health trends, or another mocha latte seem to offer a quick spiritual fix. And they do. But, what they do not offer – and those of us inside the doors of the church know this to be true – is the permanence and depth of the Gospel. This is the power of what goes on inside our doors – the power of the Gospel. But it can only reach those who are seeking, those who are out there asking questions, if you and I dare to go outside. And, when we go outside we must rip off our blinders of sameness, rigidity, and inflexibility.

This morning’s first reading tells that wonderful story of Saul who is “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”[5] I love that expression: “breathing threats and murder.” Where else do we hear the word “breath” in the Bible? In the second creation account – as God is creating the first human, God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”[6] What a contrast – God’s breath of life and Saul’s breath of threatening death. So in this story, Saul is struck blind by a flash of light from heaven and he remains blind for three days. In the meantime, the Lord calls out to Ananias and tells him to go to Saul. Fearing for his life, for Saul’s history of persecuting Christians is well known throughout Damascus, Ananias obeys the Lord and

“laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”[7]
Today, we are sitting inside the walls of this building with scales covering our eyes. We do not dare to see that the world outside has changed and we do not dare to imagine what changes we must endure – no, what changes we must cause to happen – in order to be relevant to this new world, this new creation. My friends, “the Lord Jesus appeared to me on my way here and has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” – is that too bold a statement? Then look to your neighbor, for we are all baptized by the same Spirit. Lay your hands upon your neighbors eyes so that the scales of institutional sameness, rigidity, and inflexibility may be wiped away making way for a new way of being church in the 21st century, a new way of responding to the mission field that is outside the doors.

Because the goal of mission is not getting more people in the pews. The goal of mission is not increasing the amount of money in the budget. The goal of mission is, and always has been, spreading the gospel. We must get back to the business of doing mission.

In today’s gospel[8] Jesus asks Simon Peter, “do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus says to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he asks him, “do you love me?” Again, Peter responds, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” And Jesus says to him, “Tend my sheep.” This occurs again a third time and Jesus says again, “Feed my sheep.” “And, after this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”

My friends, the old creation story doesn’t cut it anymore. We know too much. But we can’t just sit and wait for things to go back to the way they were because it isn’t going to happen. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Follow me. What is the mission and ministry of Transfiguration? This is a question for us all. What is our mission? Where are we called to go? And what will be your part? Let us open wide the doors of this church and follow Christ where we are led.

[1] John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (London: SPCK, 1986), 56 in Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 43-44.
[2] The Wizard of Oz (1939).
[3] A. K. Kant and B. I. Graubard, “Eating out in America, 1987-2000: trends and nutritional correlates,” Preventive Medicine 2004 Feb; 38(2):243-9.
[4] B. A. Robinson, “Trends Among Christians in the United States,” (Ontario: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 1999, updated 2006); B. A. Robinson, “Americans’ Level of Confidence in People and Institutions,” (Ontario: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 2002, updated 2004). Both articles accessed online on April 19, 2007.
[5] Acts 9:1.
[6] Genesis 2:7.
[7] Acts 9:10-20.
[8] John 21:15-19.