My sermon from Annual Meeting Sunday at St. Mark’s. I hope it sparks conversation about where we are headed and the work God calls us to.
The church in America as we have known it is dying. There is no polite way to say this. The church as a destination, as a place to which people are attracted in order to get religious goods and services, no longer holds sway in our culture. And let’s also be honest about that while we’re at it, the very reason many churches have existed throughout the 20th century was to provide goods and services. We are known as consumers, aren’t we? Churches have long marketed themselves as a place to find personal fulfillment in a spiritual life and to provide programs to meet that need. But people are not wanting that sort of spiritual product any more, if we dare call it that. Their lives are too busy, too overwhelmed, too crazy for yet another item on their to do list, and so church takes a back seat. Many people find a spiritual connection elsewhere; they are spiritual but not religious, and many will never darken our doors on a regular basis.
Annual meeting Sunday is often a time to look back over the past year, discuss the highlights and then roll out some new programs and ideas for next year. It’s State of the Union: Church Edition. It’s a time to get you rallied behind me and the leadership of the parish and to have you be excited about the days ahead and make you want to give of your financial resources and time and maybe invite a friend or two to come to church. It’s all about the church, this institution, and the stake we have in its long term success.
But I don’t think that this vision is ultimately what the church is about. It’s not about us and the three Bs of church life—budget, bodies and buildings—it’s about the work of God being done in this community. We are to focus on how Jesus Christ is on the move in this very neighborhood, and taking our place alongside Christ in that work.
I love the church a great deal—I am a company man, you know—but I believe that if we spend time making programs and events hoping it will attract people onto our campus, then we are missing the mark. Church shouldn’t be about enticing people into our great buildings in the hopes that they will become members; it should be a place that pushes us out into our neighborhoods in order to share the love of Jesus Christ with everyone we can. And I want to state as emphatically as I can, sharing the love of Christ isn’t done in order to get new members for St. Mark’s. Rather, we are encouraged to be a blessing to the world, and we desire to do that without any hidden agendas. We all know what’s it like when someone approaches us with a clipboard and a smile; we know that they probably want to get data in order to sell something to us. And the church has done that as well in the past, so people do not trust our intentions. Their guard immediately goes up if we meet them on the street or at the Harvest Fair and say we’re representing a church. They think we want to convert them or get their money, or at least mine them for information so we know how to reach other people like them.
And the jig is up. And that is really good news.
I’ve always felt deep down inside that what God wanted was more than to bring me personal happiness or the supposed “good life.” I’ve come to realize that God wants to bring healing to all of creation. The church is to be, as theologians have put it, “the sign, witness and foretaste of God’s reign.” We are called to live in to the reality of God’s kingdom here and now.
And you get an idea of what this looks like when Jesus heads into Capernaum. He’s there, among the people, and then on the Sabbath, goes to the synagogue and begins to teach with amazing insight and authority. While he’s teaching, a man comes in and begins disrupting all that is taking place. Jesus can see the man is possessed, and rather than turning him away or telling him that he can’t be there or that he is too distracting, Jesus had compassion. He rebuked the evil spirit and brought healing to that man. He responded in a kingdom way. Notice that Jesus doen’t first look at the man and say, “Now, would you like to become a part of this worshipping community? Because if you do, I may be able to heal you, but only if you sign up first.” He saw a need and took action. The kingdom was realized because Jesus focused on people and reached out.
Last week I told you about 3 characteristics of discipleship, that we are called to connect, grow and serve. I asked you to think about those things in light of our annual meeting. I hope you did this—and if not, quick, you have 40 minutes to think of something fast!—in relation to what God is calling us to do at St. Mark’s. We’ll talk about that over our brunch, but I also want to direct the question away from just how does St. Mark’s connect, grow and serve the St. Mark’s community, but what does this look like in our neighborhoods? Churches spend a great deal of time looking in at themselves, in grand navel-gazing, but God wants to bring reconciliation to the world. Christ came not to build buildings, but to be among people, changing lives, bringing healing, making a difference, to be missional.
The vestry and I have been wrestling with this idea of becoming more missional this past year. Being missional doesn’t just mean doing more outreach or creating new programs or doing evangelism. It isn’t about creating a better “destination” so more people are attracted to St. Mark’s for our great events. Being missional essentially means engaging in God’s kingdom work in our local neighborhoods—work that God has already begun and invites us to be a part of. It is living into “an alternative imagination for being the church.” Church not as destination or attraction, but as a community that sends all of us out so we can live out the kingdom of God in the world, precisely because that’s where God is, among the people.
What if this year we decided to get to know our neighbors? What if we sat down with them, listened to their stories and engaged with them? What if we did this, not because we wanted them to join us at St. Mark’s, but simply because Jesus tells us to do it? Recently one of our vestry members called the Southborough Senior Center to see what their needs are. You may have seen the news article recently that the center had to raise prices on the meals they provide due to the loss of some funding and grants. The person she spoke with was grateful for the call, gave a full report of what has happened with their funding, and encouraged her to call back if more questions came up. A few days later, another friend of hers saw her and reported that her name was brought up at a Senior Center meeting simply because she had shown interest with a phone call.
People are hurting in our world and wanting others to notice. Marriages are facing tough times and are in need of help. People are convinced that no one really cares about them for who they are. They are people here today who are lonely, hurting and broken and there are many more out in our local community. People long for the kingdom life that God offers. We can share the transformational love of Jesus with people without trying to make them Episcopalians.
I need your help to do this work. I can’t be one of a few here who engages in missional work. God calls each of us to model the kingdom and live the good news, and God will equip us in that. We can all make a difference here in Southborough or whatever town you live in. God wants to engage in our neighborhoods, and we are Christ’s body, his hands and feet in this world. Second, this year will be difficult for me and my family: my father was diagnosed this past week with non-small cell lung cancer. I will occasionally need time to be with him and my extended family in Michigan—I’ll be traveling there the end of this week to be with him for his birthday. As I get more information about his diagnosis, I’ll communicate that to you. I certainly appreciate your prayers during this time, and I also know that there are others out there who are hurting as well. How might we connect, grow and serve them and one another? The church as we know it is changing, and a new church is emerging. A church centered on the work of Jesus Christ. St. Mark’s is on it’s way to being that kind of church, and I am very excited about all that God will call us to in the days ahead. Amen.