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.


Voices Found: The Body of God

With some relief, we completed our study of Sallie McFague's The Body of God: An Ecological Theology last night at the women's theology book group "Voices Found." I say "with some relief" because it was a challenging read. On the other hand, it prompted some excellent discussion. For example, last night we considered the image(s) of God with which we grew up and compared those to the five (5) categories that McFague described: deistic, dialogic, monarchical, agential, organic (see Chap.8, Sec. I.3 at this link for a discussion of the first 4 and continue to sec. I.4 for a discussion of the fifth - also called "process").

All of us were struck by the plethora of monarchical language used in our worship which, as McFague points out, is at odds with our cultural context firstly because in the United States we do not operate in a monarchical government structure (don't get me started!) and secondly because in those countries that do, rarely is it a monarchy like the ancient ones upon which the analogies were originally based. McFague challenges us to come up with more relevant language for God to use in our worship (notably she quotes the version of the "Lord's Prayer" which appears in the New Zealand Prayer Book).

The rest of our discussion focused on the issue of global warming which were raised by McFague in this book - as early as 1993 (and, as one member noted by Rachel Carson even longer ago than that) and puzzled over why it has taken until 2007 for the world to take notice. What does that say about voices that are heard? Is this about gender bias? Or is it simply that Sallie McFague and Rachel Carson were just too ahead of the times -- i.e., if Al Gore (or his equivalent in 1993) raised the issues of global warming in 1993, would he have been heard then?

We are all looking forward to next month's meeting when we will be discussing Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead (available for purchase - on CD or in paperback or hardcover at Borders and elsewhere). While the subject matter is deep, it promises to be a bit easier reading! I hope all women will feel free to join us for that on Thursday, May 24th** at 7:30p.m. at the Borders Bookstore and Cafe in Orland Park.

**This is a one-time departure from our typical 3rd Thursday meeting because of Ascension Day services which will be held at Church of the Holy Family in Park Forest on May 17th.


St. Melito of Sardis

Curiosity got the best of me on this one, so I took the quiz to determine which Church "Father" I am most like. . .

St. Melito of Sardis!

You have a great love of history and liturgy. You’re attached to the traditions of the ancients, yet you recognize that the old world — great as it was — is passing away. You are loyal to the customs of your family, though you do not hesitate to call family members to account for their sins.

Find out which Church Father you are at The Way of the Fathers!

Poor St. Melito of Sardis has not merited a place in my Oxford Dictionary of Saints (however, I note that a new edition has been published - perhaps he is within its pages?). In any event, I was able to quickly scrounge up a bit of information about him here. So, there you have it - for what it's worth!


First Fruits of God's Reign

Sermon Preached Easter Day
at Church of the Transfiguration
April 8, 2007

After walking together through Holy Week, I can think of nothing more anti-climactic than a sermon on Easter morning. Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. What more needs to be said? We are an Easter people, walking in the knowledge that Christ died for us and was raised from the dead, stripping death of all its power. Well, maybe not all of its power – at least not yet; but Paul writes to the church in Corinth that Christ’s resurrection is “the first fruits of those who have died”[1] The image of “first fruits” would have been quite familiar to those earliest Christians and, in some more agrarian cultures, it is an image that perhaps retains some meaning. But for those of us living in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, the reference is more likely to slip through our minds – in one ear, out the other.

The image of the first fruits comes from the Hebrew Scriptures and is used sometimes to refer to a firstborn – usually male – son[2] or firstborn livestock[3], but more typically refers to the first fruits gathered from the fields[4] – the first wheat and later, by extension, the first wine, the first oil, the first fleece from the sheep.[5] Regardless of the precise referent, the context is always the same – the first fruits are to be offered to God. In the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament - the Festival of Booths, arguably the most important early festival, is described as an occasion for offering the first fruits to God. The Festival of Booths serves as a reminder of our beginnings with God and as a reminder of our ongoing dependence on God for all that we have. It is a festival of thanksgiving and of promise. Just as God provided food, shelter, and water to the Israelites as they fled from their slavery in Egypt, so God continues to provide for our well-being.[6] The importance of this festival of remembrance, thanks, and promise is expressed in the book of Deuteronomy:
Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.[7]
It is interesting (at least to me) that the Old Testament prophets begin to turn this image around by refering to Israel as the “first fruits of [God’s] harvest”[8] – God’s chosen people, set apart. I point this out because the earliest writings in the New Testament –for example, Paul’s letters to the churches – pick up this thread of the tradition when referring to Christ as the first fruits. Implicit in this claim is that there is more to come. That first Easter morning is not the final word. In fact, it is only just the beginning of God’s reign breaking into our world. It is an invitation to each of us to share in the excitement of all that is to come.

Paul writes that Christ “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”[9] In the first century, as today, God’s will for creation is not yet complete. All enemies – all of the “death-bringing powers – hatred, exclusion, destruction, marginalization . . . have not yet succumbed to God’s life.”[10] So, Paul’s words serve as an invitation to share in the excitement, in the anticipation of the future; but equally, or perhaps more importantly, they serve as an invitation to seek out ways in which we can share in the work that needs yet to be done – ways in which we can cooperate and co-create with God, to usher in God’s reign.

An article on the front page of this morning’s Chicago Tribune highlighted one way in which this invitation to be co-creators with God is being lived into by two communities in Wheaton. There, members of the Christian Sudanese Community Church join with a group of Sudanese Muslims to share in the most holy of days. Their gatherings include the sharing of meals on Christmas, Easter, and at the breaking of the fast of Ramadan.[11] This is particularly notable given the decades of ethnic and religious violence in Sudan – violence that has resulted in the loss of millions of lives and the displacement of even more from their homeland. The “death-bringing powers – hatred, exclusion, destruction, marginalization . . . have not yet succumbed to God’s life.”[12] And yet, a group of Christians and Muslims come together in Wheaton to mourn their shared losses and to celebrate their ever enlarging circle of friends across religious and ethnic lines. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. . . . But each in his own order.”[13]

That first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away – the first sign that Jesus had risen from the dead. The stone which entombed death had been rolled away revealing the power of God over death. And so we join together today to offer our thanks and praise to the God who offers us his son, Jesus Christ, to be the first fruits of the new creation. But we also join together to renew our commitment to join with God in bringing about the fullness and the richness of God’s new creation.

How is Transfiguration being called into this Easter invitation? How are you being called? What stones of hatred, exclusion, destruction, and marginalization are we being called to roll away so that life may abound?

Let us pray:

Great Resurrecting God,
may we see in the real lives of all people
the truth of your resurrection power and possibility.
May we roll back every stone
that continues to entomb any part of your creation.
May we invite you to re-create each one of us
until resurrection and liberation prevail for all.

[1] I Corinthians 15:20.
[2] Genesis 49:3.
[3] Exodus 34:19.
[4] Exodus 23:16.
[5] Deuteronomy 18:4.
[6] Kramer, Amy. “Sukkot: Festival of Booths.” Everything Jewish. Copyright © 1998-1999. Accessed online on April 7, 2007.
[7] Deuteronomy 8:17-18.
[8] Jeremiah 2:3.
[9] I Corinthians 15:25.
[10] Carter, Warren, Randall Bailey, and Christine Smith, “Easter Day, Year C: Witnesses to New Life,” Out in Scripture, accessed online on April 4, 2007.
[11] Working, Russell, “Bridging Sudanese Divine – in Wheaton: Congregation to Unite Muslims, Christians at Easter Service Focusing on Culture and Reconciliation,” Chicago Tribune Early Edition, Vol. 160 (98): April 8, 2007, 1, 20.
[12] Carter, Bailey, and Smith.
[13] I Corinthians 15:20, 23a.
[14] Adapted from Carter, Bailey and Smith.