Thursday, October 31, 2013

Well done, good and faithful servant

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Proper 25C.  27 October 2013.[1]


            I am preaching on the second letter to Timothy today. The letters to Timothy probably didn't really come from Paul.  We don't know who wrote them, but as the New Testament took shape over the first 400 years of the church, the letters to Timothy were accepted, despite their uncertain authorship. 


            I remember, when I was a seminarian, talking about this with a group of people and at a certain point one man in the group became very anxious.  He thought I was saying that because we don't know who wrote these letters that they were less valid, or shouldn't be in the Bible.  Of course, that was the furthest thing from my mind.  The reason why the Church has kept these letters is because—no matter who wrote them—they are obviously inspired by the Holy Spirit, and the truth they contain has stood the test of time.


            It is likely that the portion we read from today is etiological.  Etiology is a description of why or how something came to be.  Quite often you will find this genre of writing in the Bible.  People didn't keep exact histories.  The Church loves etiology. 


            I know of a church where the Altar Guild would set out—next to the wine and bread—a drinking straw made of sterling silver.  Every Sunday it was put on the credence table next to the Altar, and every Sunday it was lovingly put away.  No one ever touched it.  The priest didn't use it for anything.  No one talked about it, because everyone knew why it was there. 


            Time passed, and priests cycled through, and ladies came off the Altar Guild, and no one wrote down what the silver straw was for, because, well…everyone knew, even though no one really knew!  Eventually it was believed that the straw was for stirring the water and wine.  That was the etiology.  It was the description of why the straw came to be, based on the information available and the best guess.


            Well, one day a new priest was celebrating the Eucharist and noticed the straw and asked what it was for.  The etiology made no sense, because water and wine don't need to be stirred.  After consulting with some long standing members it was discovered that years ago there was a very wealthy parishioner who had commissioned the silver straw because she suffered with lock jaw and still wanted to receive from the chalice.  She had died years ago, but the Altar Guild continued to put the straw out.


            There is so much about the life of Paul we do not know, but we know that he was such a formative person in the early church that people wanted to know more about him.  In second Timothy, the author has given us a faithful idea of what Paul might have wanted to say from prison towards the end of his life.  So this is our text:


I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.


            It is clear that the author wishes to take us into Paul's mind in the last days of his life—"the time of my departure has come"—he writes, so these words are meant to sound like Paul's last words. 


            Last words—especially the last words of a notable person—are always meant to be received with great reverence.  They have the weight of the person's life behind them.  Deuteronomy 33 gives us the last words of Moses—that he would not be entering the Promised Land with the Hebrew people.  The author of 2 Samuel (chapter 23) gives us the last words of David.  Last words are serious words. 


            Any celebration of the Holy Eucharist is a re-enactment of some of Jesus' last words.  "On the night he was handed over to suffering and death"…he took bread and wine and said,  "this is my body,"  "this is my blood."  Last words.  Powerful.


            So Paul says, "I am already being poured out as a libation."  It was an old custom—dating back to the religions of antiquity—that a drink offering would be poured out for a deity.  You see this metaphor come through Abraham's sharing of wine with Melchizedeck, and the suffering servant in Isaiah, who is poured out.  When Jesus says that the wine is his blood and that we are to drink it, he turns that custom on it's ear a little bit, and says—I'm poured out for you, as well as for the Father. 


            The author of second Timothy wants us to think of Paul considering himself "poured out," but what he doesn't say is that the custom of pouring out libations is a community experience.  What Paul is implying is—I am being poured out, so now it is your turn to pour yourself out.  Paul is saying—This is it for me.  I am on my way.  It is your turn to lead the Church until Christ returns.


            He continues, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing."  (Pause.)


            I don't know how you feel about these words.  I am very comforted by that second sentence about God being a righteous judge who will approve of me one day, along with all the other Christians who have longed for Christ's returning.  But that other sentence—or perhaps set of sentences— bothers me a little bit:  "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."


            At first I thought it was because of my age in life.  You know, when you're my age you hope that life will continue to open out.  You want to see your children grow; you want to serve the Gospel more effectively.  When you're still on the front nine, you don't like to think about the back nine.  And here is Paul—putting his clubs in the trunk and returning his cart to the clubhouse.   I wondered if that was my problem.  But no.  It's not that. 


            And then I wondered if it was because Paul seemed so satisfied passing the cup to the next generation.  Paul can say, "I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith."  Because he has.  He really has. 


If Paul's life is to be the standard by which Christians are measured, I'm afraid there aren't many people who will make it into heaven.  Paul emerged from a Pharisee background to become probably the most influential Christian ever.  He founded churches, traveled extensively preaching the Gospel, got shipwrecked, got thrown in jail—all for the utter conviction that Jesus is the Messiah, and that God loves everyone. 


            You look at the life of Paul, and here he is passing the torch, and who among us feels adequate to receive it?  I don't.  I would almost bet anything that Timothy didn't either.  I'm not sure I will ever be able to say that I have fought the good fight.  I might be able to say that I have kept the faith—but keep the faith as Paul kept the faith..?


            You start to compare your life with others and it can become a very painful thing to do—especially when you pluck out those people who are unusually gifted.  


            Why do we do this?  I don't know.  (Pause.)  I think we reach a tipping point at some point at which we no longer judge ourselves next to others, because it's unfair to our own lives.  We are given our own set of circumstances, and must make our own choices as best we can.


            I want you to think for a moment about your life.  But please, don't be critical.  Sometimes people like me step into a pulpit and it seems like everything we say carries with it an implicit criticism.  The preacher holds up virtue and the people consider their vice.  Can we just suspend all of those churchy thoughts? 


Consider your life, knowing that you cannot change the past.  You were born as you were born.  You were a handful.  You were loved enough that someone changed your diapers and fed you and held you.  Without that love, you would not be here.  None of us would. 


            You grew up.  You made mistakes.  You were disciplined by people who did not know how much to be strict, and how much to be permissive.  Some of your parents were too strict.  Some not enough.  But you survived, and became an adult.  Adulthood brought challenges you could never have foreseen—and thank goodness, because you would never have chosen them, if you had had a choice. 


            I'm asking you to consider what you have come through.  All of it.  Good and bad.  Rich and poor.  Sickness and health.  All of the waters you have navigated and choices you have made.  Some where good choices, some were not.  As you look back, you wish that you had known then what you know now—but be careful, because there is so much that you did not know then, and do not know now


            You survived all of this.  You woke up this morning and came to church after all of this.  Everything you've been through is sitting right there beside you in the pew.  And I want you to hear me say, on behalf of the Church, and on behalf—I hope—of Almighty God:  "Congratulations."  "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."  (Pause.)


            I don't believe that any of you would be here today if you weren't already trying to live the very best life you can.  (Pause.)  My guess is that virtually every decision you make, you consider carefully.  And your decisions carry the force of experience and the best of intentions.


            You have survived the human experience up till now, and after this service, you will go back to lives that you have structured by your decisions and backgrounds, and you will continue to do your very best, as you probably always have.


            No one has ever had it easy.  Everyone is dealt their own cards.  Every day there are choices and problems and frustrations.  It's nothing short of a miracle that we have all made it to this point! 


            I am saying this, because I doubt very seriously that anyone else will.  But you deserve to hear it, because it's the truth:  You have fought the good fight.  You have run the race.  You have kept the faith.  There is laid up for you—just as surely as was laid up for Paul—a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give you on that day.


            You are just as worthy as Paul to receive the Gospel of Christ and pass it along, as best you can.  It is not a condemnation of your life, but a promise: that those who have done their best to fulfill it will be redeemed of all their sins, and be welcome in God's presence for all eternity.  "To him be the glory forever and ever." (2 Timothy 4:18) 


            And to you be the support and courage you need to live the remainder of your holy and beautiful lives.




Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


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[1] Adapted from Proper 25C.  24 October 2010.


Monday, October 14, 2013

You will come to know him

Proper 23C.  13 October 2013.

The Very Revd Alexander D. MacPhail


            Several months ago, we began to notice that in the outside corner of our house, next to the back door, some bugs had somehow made their way through the bricks and mortar to build a nest inside the wall.  They were black and yellow, but we couldn't be sure what they were.  Are they bees or wasps?


            It is a serious question, because if they're bees, they might build a hive in there, and we could have honey in the walls.  And even though it's a sweet problem to have—I mean, think of the money I'd save on honey!  My Scottish forebears would be thrilled.  However, the concern is that the honey would attract other kinds of vermin.  And as you know, I'm not exactly on speaking terms with other kinds of vermin.


Also, if they're bees, I shouldn't kill them because we need bees to pollinate the plants that give us food.  The population of bees has fallen off precipitously in recent months, and scientists don't know why.  It's rather alarming. But if they're wasps, great!  Wasps don't winter over.  They die out at the first hard freeze, and they don't keep the same nest the next year.  So I knew we had it made in the shade if they were wasps.


            I found a dead one and began comparing it to pictures I found on the internet, and I still couldn't tell.  In one picture it resembled a bee, and in another it looked like a wasp.  I tried home concoctions for repelling them, but nothing worked.  One site said to hang up drier sheets, so I taped up drier sheets—no change.  One site had directions for making a trap, so I made one.  No change. 


Eventually I talked with Jo about it, and she mentioned knowing a bee keeper.  So I called him up and he came out.  He looked up at the soffit and in about five seconds pronounced them yellow jackets.  Wasps. 


Now I had studied the pictures on the internet and scrupulously compared them with the dead one.  I was not intending to be disrespectful to the man's expertise, but I simply asked, "Are you sure?"  He said, "I've been around these insects for thirty years, and I know bees and wasps like…"  And he paused, looked at my clerical collar and said, "I know them, like you know Christ."


Now, I ask you: How was I to respond to that!?  The devil in me wanted to say, "So you're not sure, then?"  But he had me between a rock and a hard place, because I'd like to think I know Christ pretty well.  I speak about him with great affection each Sunday, and I speak with him all the time.  But if I am to be honest with you, I do struggle sometimes with how little I know him.  Or perhaps, how little I feel I understand him.


And that uncertainty doesn't bother me, really—it doesn't really shake my love or  my faith in Christ.  For instance, I know my wife very well, but I can't really predict how she is going to respond to something.  I don't always understand why she feels or thinks in certain ways, but my faith and love for her remain despite the uncertainty.  She is able, routinely, and thankfully, to surprise me.  Christ Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine—how can anyone claim to know him perfectly or understand him?


Of course, you know me, I tend to over-think things.  There are certain hallmarks of character and past behavior from which you can extrapolate potential reactions and responses.  I know, for instance, that if the question is, What would Jesus think about my helping someone in need, that the answer will be, of course, yes.  But to suggest that I, or really anyone, would claim to know Christ to a point of expertise seems very arrogant.  I don't even know a bee from a wasp.


Fortunately, I'm not alone.  The Church has wrestled with this issue going all the way back to our beginnings.  There was a phase in the early church when Jesus was just Joseph and Mary's son.  The church meeting in nearby Antioch—the place where followers were first called "Christians"—knew him as a local prophet who was more than a prophet, but they emphasized Jesus' humanity more than his divinity.  This way of thinking has become known as Antiochene Christology—that Jesus was human and divine, but really mostly human.


As the church spread to Alexandria in Egypt, a land that is known for a very textured spirituality and history.  This would be the land of the Pharaohs, and ancient beliefs about the divinity of kings and the after-life.  Jesus was not considered a local boy, son of Mary and Joseph, but a divine being, far more than human.  So the Alexandrian Christology that grew out of that culture said: Jesus is more divine than human.  And for many years the early church, the church of the first three hundred years had no single, uniform position on the divinity and humanity of Jesus. 


If you preferred a more spiritual, other-worldly Christ, then you likely preferred reading John's Gospel.  Jesus is depicted in John as above it all, removed—even, at times, aloof.  But if you were a follower in Galilee where people still remembered stories from their parents or grandparents who had seen Jesus in the flesh, you likely preferred Mark and Matthew's Gospels.   Earthy Jesus.  Man of the people, angry with the religious conventions of Pharisaical practice and Temple greed. 


It wasn't until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that the Church came up with language for who Jesus is.  They decided that they wouldn't try to come up with a percentage—they wouldn't even say 50/50.  How are we to know?  Jesus was and is so completely like us, and so completely not like us.  He endured the cross and shame.  He healed and preached and gave and loved.  More than any of us have or can.


And so they said, "He is fully God and fully human."  Fully.  Both divine and human natures meet in him, with confusion, without one overcoming the other, without one being more or less than the other.  Fully. 


And that then became part of our Nicene Creed, and to this day that is how we speak of him, as a living mystery.  A man who died and was raised, and who lives and reigns with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.  He will come again to take us to himself, just as he promised. 


Before the Lord ascended into heaven, we might think that he should have saved us from the confusion.  It took us around four hundred years to get to "fully."  There are other major questions that we continue to ask that he might have saved us from, or some ways of talking about him that would give us a deeper insight into who he is.  But instead of giving us some kind of heady explanation that we can file way in our minds—as if "to close the book" on him, as it were—instead of that, he gave us actions.  Things to do that would—by our actions—teach us who he is. 


When you pray, as Jesus prayed, for the poor, for the sick, for the needy of the world, you are learning who he is—the one who truly cared and prayed for them before you did.


When the water is poured, and the bread and wine are given, when the feet are washed in humility and love.  It is in the washing that you can come to know him.  And in the eating and drinking…


When you are offering yourself, you come to know him.  When you give from your heart to the Church, to your friends and family, to the poor who need help, you will come to know him.  You will never get to the bottom of it, though.  You will never receive the Body and Blood of Christ so much that you can claim expertise, but there will be moments of transcendence when the veil is lifted ever so slightly, and God lets you peek into the Kingdom of God.


This is a season of the year when the Church asks you to consider your patterns of giving, hoping that the Holy Spirit will awaken generosity in our hearts, and with that generosity, allow us to collaborate with God in spreading the Gospel in and through this church.


So, I ask you to think about those actions of generosity and prayer that have deepened your understanding of Christ.  And I ask you to allow the Holy Spirit to awaken generosity in you.


In the giving, you will know him.  In the receiving, you will know him.  Not as a stale formula or ancient creedal statement, but as the living, breathing Christ, who becomes known to us through the actions he taught: giving, receiving; giving, receiving…




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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

Monday, October 7, 2013

I ask you, what is more amazing?

Proper 22C.  6 October 2013.

 The apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our faith!' The Lord replied, 'If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea," and it would obey you. Luke 17.5,6


            Some time ago I read a fascinating article about attention and observation.  The author wanted to communicate that our brain takes in a surprising amount of visual and auditory information all the time, but we only process a very small percentage of it.  The reason for this is because we focus our eyes and ears only on what we want to see or hear.  Our brains intuitively, or even reflexively, decide what is relevant and begin to filter out other things. 


            This is something amateur and professional magicians have known for centuries.  You can deceive someone's perception by momentarily diverting their attention, and it can be fun, if you like that sort of thing. 


            One of the best ways of hiding something is to not hide it at all—to find a way of making it blend in with what is already there.  People can get so accustomed to someone or some place that they don't notice when a little thing changes.  In my last church I wore a beard for the first year I was there.  And one weekend I decided to shave it off.  There were people who occasionally came to church and they noticed right away, but I was interested to see that people I interacted with throughout the week—people who dropped by the church all the time—didn't notice at first!


            You get so close to something you can't even see it, or you don't notice it.  Children are the perfect example—not that you need yet another example.  They wake up every morning looking pretty much as they did when you put them to bed, but occasionally, they wake up and BAM!  They're an inch taller. 


            I look in the mirror every day.  No change.  No change.  And then one day, BAM!  A grey hair.  I'm told this gets worse.


            But just as your body can change, so can the inward and spiritual self change.  Depression can creep in from the corners, just a little bit day by day.  Winston Churchill called them "visits by the black dog."  The black dog that appears in the field and wanders over to your house.  If you pet him and feed him, he'll live with you.  Most things will.  You get used to having him around.  Hiding in plain sight.            


            But the spiritual self can also be strengthened and one day find itself stronger than it once was.  I remember reading about someone who had lost their spouse, and during the stages of grief discovered that she was a lot stronger than she believed.  The pain of grief was very real, but she found that she didn't crumble—the years of her husband's love had made her stronger than she knew.


            This is actually a bedrock principle of Anglican Christianity, that we grow spiritually in the daily disciplines of the devout life.  Daily prayer can go through phases of weariness and apathy.  I will admit to this, if no one else will.  I try to have daily prayer at home, but there are days when it's pretty much the list I maintain of those who have asked for my prayers and that's it. 


And the nagging thoughts come to mind about sitting at the feet of Christ, carving out a little time for meditation, but I just can't do it.  At least, for a season, I just can't.  But when I can, the Holy Spirit flows, and prayer opens my heart to the love and mystery of God. 


When you and I pray, there can be areas of thought and emotion that God can work with as our minds jump from one matter to the next, forming connections, inspiring actions.  Sometimes just the merest thought of prayer, or even just the fleeting glimpse of a steeple on a church can remind us of the many attributes of God's majesty.  It can inspire us to nobler thoughts, or provoke compassion within difficult relationships. 


But we're so close to it, because it happens within us, that we don't notice the growth or the amount of change that takes place. 


`The apostles said to Jesus, "Lord, increase our faith." And Jesus replied, 'If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea," and it would obey you.'


            Don't get hung up on the power aspect of the promise.  It's hyperbole.  Jesus is saying, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed—and you do—then big things can happen.  Big things.  What are big things?


            Well, sit there and think about it for a moment.  You and I have seen our share of difficulties.  Life is not a seamless succession of great delights—we have had struggles.  We have survived struggles in the past, and there are struggles to be met in the future.  What is more amazing: that a tree can be uprooted and planted in the sea, or that you could navigate the unsteady waters of early adulthood, children perhaps, middle age, financial ups and down, illnesses and sometime deaths in the family or among friends?


            You think a tree being moved is amazing?  You are amazing.  That you have borne up over years of grit and grace, and still rise to sing the praises of God…              The problem is that you are so close to yourself that you cannot see the faith within you…the strength you really have. 


            You may or may not believe this, but you have been surrounded by God's love since you were formed in your mother's womb.  You have never known an existence apart from God, therefore, you cannot know—you are too close to God to see—how much he bears you up, binds up your wounds, and gives you life. 


            Your faith is bigger than the smallest of things, but it isn't the size that matters.  This isn't about what you accomplish, it is what God does when you open yourself to what God is doing.  And big things—seemingly immovable things—can be changed and made whole because God became more to you.


            Increase your faith?  Look back on your life, see what you've been through.  See what God did in you, through you—sometimes, despite you!


Look at that!  You've got plenty of faith!






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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Proper 21C. 29 September 2013.

To listen, click here.

For the Parish (BCP 817)


Almighty and ever living God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, hear our prayers for this parish family. Strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless, and restore the penitent. Grant us all things necessary for our common life, and bring us all to be of one heart and mind within your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.





            It is so good to be here this morning.  Really any day one can be at Shrine Mont is a good day, but I am especially happy to be here with all of you to worship God.


            I want to take this opportunity of having both churches of Beckford Parish together to speak about some recurring themes in conversations I have been having individually with you: some anxieties and concerns about our common life that weigh on all our minds.  And I want to address those matters in an honest and faithful way.  The sermon is usually dedicated to biblical and spiritual matters, and while not very biblical today, there is a spirituality to churches of our size that we might do well to address.


            But before I get into that, I want to give thanks and celebrate the fact that we are not alone, and that we are not just "us," as it were.  We are a part of the largest domestic diocese in the Episcopal Church, within the third largest Christian body in the world, known as the Anglican Communion.  We are the oldest continuing Christian body in the Commonwealth of Virginia, dating back to infancy of the United States. 


But even more importantly, we are followers of Jesus Christ, who died and was raised.  We are resurrection people—people who are baptized into the faith that God loves us and frees us from sin and death.  We are people who care about the dignity of every human being, and want to do our part to bring about a more peaceful and loving humanity called: the Kingdom of God.


            And we are the people who have chosen to make our spiritual home in Beckford Parish.  Some of us were born and baptized in this community; some of us have come from other churches.  But for whatever reason or background, this is our place at this time.  This is how we fit into the Church, how we wish to worship and discover God; and these are the people we wish to kneel beside.


            It is not edifying to say this, but it is painfully obvious that there are not very many of us.  In fact, there are fewer of us now than there were last year, and there are various reasons for that.  Some have died; some have moved away for better healthcare or to be with family; some have wished to be part of larger churches with more programming; and some have felt overwhelmed by the recurring challenges of being in a small church.


            Whenever parishioners wish to walk apart, there is a pain in that decision, and it's usually not one-sided.  There is often pain in the decision for those who leave; and there is pain in the community that remains.  For those who remain, it isn't just the loss of giving, or other forms of support; it is a pain that we ourselves have been left.  And it is understandable that we would feel that quite personally—I know I do. 


            And with this pain, the questions come up that sound like a family reeling from a divorce, "What could we have done differently?  Why weren't we "enough" for them?  What does this mean?"  And the answers to those questions are complicated, because people are complicated.  


            I think it may be helpful to back off from the many complexities that are part of those decisions to look at just our size.  We are a small church.  Almost all of the churches in Shenandoah County are small.  Even the larger ones are not really that large.  This is because people who prefer rural life like the smallness.  We like to know our neighbors; we like to have a few close relationships.  For many of us (not all, but many of us) church is about relationships.  It is about God, of course; but it is also very much about relationships.


Not everyone wants going to church to be primarily about relationships.  For many, the church is about the programs that the church does; or it's about being part of a large group of people; or it's about special events—organ recitals, Evensongs, food pantries—and relationships are there, of course, but they are more incidental than they are central to the experience. 


Now, I don't mean that to sound black and white.  I think every church ought to have some array of programs, and at least a handful of special events.  The grass is not greener in a larger church.  Larger churches struggle with creating authentic and meaningful community.  It can be hard, in a large church, to really get a feel for what people are thinking and feeling.  It can be hard for a person who wants to know people to really make their way in a larger setting.  Some leave large churches because they feel they will not be missed. And even though there are more people in a large church, it's not like everyone is sitting in the pews with their hand in the air, wanting to volunteer.  Larger churches also struggle with finding support of every kind.


            But what I want to say is that those of us who have found a spiritual home here tend to want the Church to be about God, and about enjoying the relationships we have developed.  We can think that programs and special events would make our churches more attractive—and they might—but at a base line, it's our friendships that keep the church going.


            I also want to talk about young families.  Every church wants young families.  Every organization you can name would love to have more young adults.  I like to joke that whenever Karin and I go to a church on vacation, I'm often tempted to say, "We're a young family, and we tithe." 


The Episcopal Church, along with the other mainline churches, tend to be more attractive to professionals than blue collar workers.  I don't mean that to sound elitist. I want people from all vocations to feel at home and welcomed in our churches, and I have known many working-class people who have been good and faithful Episcopalians.  But it can't be denied that we tend to attract professionals more. 



So where are they to work?  Shenandoah County has no colleges, very few big businesses, no large law firms or computer companies.  I am told that some of that is deliberate—that folks don't want Shenandoah County to grow in that way.  The downside, of course, is that a young person or family just starting off cannot find employment in our area.  So you see that that is a major, major factor? 


A young family moving to Shenandoah County is likely moving here to be closer to family, and if they can find work in their field, they will likely go to the church where their family goes.  If they go at all, which brings me to another crucial point.


People my age and younger have grown up in a culture that has not encouraged the expression of authentic religion.  The stereotype has been formed that "Christian" means a host of social positions that do not represent the ideals of classical Christian theology.


In addition to that, technology has begun to provide a kind of virtual community that in many ways has replaced the relationship aspects of the church.  The internet has made people my age and younger more connected with each other, and more able to self-select the people we interact with.  This has made the church seem—from the outside—

like an antiquated form of community. 


You can listen to a sermon online.  You can listen to most of my sermons online!  Of course, that assumes you have the attention span to listen to a sermon.  You can talk to someone regardless of where they are, because most people—especially people my age and younger—carry their cell phones all the time.  So we have the connection, and we can find spiritually enriching things online, if we wish.  There is no Sacrament in this form of religion.  No way of receiving Communion, but much of the relationship aspect is taking place, just in a very different, very self-selective way.


One other factor is the lack of denominational loyalty.  Time was when you were born and baptized into a church in a particular denomination, and if your family moved, you simply found the local church in your denomination, and there you were.  Those days have long since passed.


I recently met a man who said that he and his wife were Episcopalians, but they lived in Strasburg.  Of course, I started foaming at the mouth for them to come to Emmanuel, but he said, "We don't have an Episcopal Church where we live."  I said, "Sure you do, Emmanuel in Woodstock! Just right down the Valley Pike."  He said, "We don't live in Woodstock."  And there was no convincing him. 


And there are any number of other reasons why people do or do not wish to be part of churches.


So what are we to do?  How can we address this?  Because it's an issue, and it's an anxiety for those of us who really care about the future.


Well, let's start by recognizing that there are major reasons that are largely beyond our control for why our churches are small, and why it's difficult to grow them.  Those reasons don't absolve you or me from not inviting people to church, or not working toward a healthier and stronger future for Beckford Parish.  In fact, all the evidence says that the number one reason why people come to any church is that someone personally invited them.    


Second, let's realize that what attracts us (at least what attracts people who might want to stay) is our small size, and with that the ability to get to know people.  We have seen that people who prefer a larger church may come for awhile—perhaps even years—but eventually, they are going to be willing to make the drive, if what they really want is the larger church with its programs and events.  The people we are most likely to attract and keep are people who primarily like being part of a small community and forming lasting relationships. 


So inviting people and investing time in building those relationships is really the most effective thing we can do.  And I want to be quick to say that I think most of us are trying to do that.  A new person in either church is going to be welcomed.  The follow up is crucial, and the first couple months are crucial to making sure they develop the relationships that may hold on to them. 

They expect me to be welcoming and nice—it's what clergy do—but it's really your effort to build relationships that matters most because they know that clergy can and do move on.


So what can you say about Beckford Parish that will encourage them to stay? I can't give you a script, but try to speak affectionately about the community.  It wouldn't be honest to say that we are unique, except for the uniqueness of this combination of personalities.  But I'm not sure uniqueness is really a selling point anyway. 


I think what people most want to know is that they can trust us with who they really are.  They want to know that beyond politics, beyond family background, beyond military service or education, or anything else, that they can be who they really are.  That their spirituality will be honored; that their jokes will get a laugh; that no one is going to hurt them if they wish become vulnerable with us.   Isn't that, really, what we all want?  I mean, really..?  Isn't that what we all want: to be accepted for who we really are?


Third, we can continue to do whatever level of mission and ministry is feasible for our size.  Saying that "we run on relationships, not programs" does not mean that shouldn't attempt outreach and programs.  Programs and ministries serve to put an exclamation mark behind what we say we believe, and they also promote cohesion and community.  They grow the church spiritually, even if not numerically.  Those of you who have helped with community dinners know this.  Something happens when we're rowing the boat together and in the same direction!


And fourth, and perhaps most important of all, we must keep our trust in Jesus Christ.  What I have said about the challenges facing the Church can also be said for every lodge and civic organization in the book.  What is different about the Church is that we have come to believe that God has revealed himself to us in his only-born Son, and wishes to collaborate with us in fulfilling all things.


Therefore, I urge us, above all, to place our trust for the future in Christ.  There are major factors that are inhibiting church growth that are beyond our control; however God also remains beyond our control.  And God continues to send his Holy Spirit in ways that are far more profound than all our efforts.


Christ did not look at a little boy's lunch of five loaves and two fish and say, "Well, that will never do."  He took the little boy's lunch and gave thanks and with it fed 5000 men, plus women and children.  In a similar way, I think God holds small churches up and gives thanks, and does far more with us than we know.


We all just want to find God, and find our place in this world.  I think our success—which I use for lack of a better word—is more about offering a place to people who need to belong.  So let's invite them, get to know them, and give them this place—just as it was once given to us.




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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel