Sunday, March 21, 2010

God's Purposes and our Preconceptions

Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?" Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. Therefore Jesus said, "Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me." -- John 12:3-8

After being bombarded with the message that God cares very much for the poor, this passage from the Gospel from yesterday's readings brings most of us up short a bit. We're used to Jesus speaking against extravagance, against accumulating wealth, and against enjoying life at another person's expense. And yet he speaks sternly to Judus Iscariot when he makes the quite reasonable (but disingenuous) objection that Mary is being way too extravagant in this anointing of Jesus' feet.

Beyond the prefiguring of burial that is in this story, it also demonstrates to me that we make a big mistake if we ever think we have figured out Jesus. Every time we think we know what God is going to say to us and go off before getting the full message, God brings us back and reminds us that we are not as smart as we think we are! In God's plan, money is a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. We can get so wrapped up in doing good things for others that such efforts can crowd out doing great things with others. The mission of the church, after all, is not to feed the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick, or other good things. Such activities naturally arise out of the real mission of the church:
The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
An excellent example of making sure that we are doing what we are doing as a result of our discipleship rather than as a replacement for it is put forth by Sara Miles in this short video:

Social service, then, becomes simply another aspect of worship and discipleship--we are simply translating that reconciliation process from the sanctuary to the soup kitchen (in the case of Sara's church, St. Gregory of Nyssa, they are the same space). As we continue to discern God's calling for us at St. Edward's, it might be well for us to consider how the three areas of worship, fellowship, and outreach might be knit together as a whole.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sunday Preview: Losing and Finding

Two of my primary resources for sermon preparation are my friend Sarah Dylan Breuer's blog and Exegetical Notes by (Lutheran) Pastor Brian Stoffregen. Both offer me some very interesting ways of looking at any given text, and the text for this coming Sunday is no exception. In Brian's commentary, he says the following about the Parable of the Prodigal Son:

My friend used the example of misplacing his truck keys. He knew where the spare key was -- with his wife -- 45 miles away. The absence of his keys made him feel incomplete -- at a loss -- life was not right for him because those keys were not where they should be.

An implication of this is that congregations, rather than thinking of the unchurched as "the lost" whom need to be found, (which also means that we consider ourselves as "the found,") or "the lost" who need to find their way back home; we might consider ourselves to be incomplete without those for whom Christ has also died.

We hear a lot about "the lost" when discussing mission and evangelism. "They" tend to be "out there," because certainly anyone in a pew on a Sunday morning couldn't possibly be "lost"! Yet how often do we actually consider the church incomplete without "them"? Perhaps more profoundly, how often do we acknowledge that, more often then we might like to admit, we can become lost ourselves--cut off, sometimes inadvertently, from our relationship with God. Some things to think about, to be sure...

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Out with the old and in with the...?

Thanks (again) to Episcopal Café, who got it from Susan Russel's blog An Inch at a Time, I came across a blog entry from Walter Russell Mead, son of The Reverend Lauren Mead, renowned futurist of the Episcopal Church, entitled The Holy Crap Must Go. A sample of his thesis:
The mainline churches in particular are organized like General Motors was organized in the 1950s: they have cost structures and operating procedures that simply don’t work today. They are organized around what I’ve been calling the blue social model, built by rules that don’t work anymore, and oriented to a set of ideas that are well past their sell-by date.
Though I love the title, and appreciate the sentiment, the blog entry suffers from what most of them suffer from--identifying the problem without suggesting a solution. I am a cradle Episcopalian, raised in the Episcopal Church, my faith nurtured in the Presbyterian Church, Southern Baptist Church, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter in college. I am also a Master's degree-holding, classically seminary-trained, ordained Episcopal priest employed full-time as Priest-in-Charge of St. Edward's. Our congregation is one that was founded in the fifties in a farmhouse and now has a wonderful (but aging) church building and education building, a significant budget deficit, and the opportunity to re-imagine what being the church in the twenty-first century is about. Also, the fact that I am here is a direct result of the decision by both the people who are here and by the diocese not to cede control of the buildings and name of St. Edward's to those who instead chose to depart, but to hang on to both name and buildings--stepping out in faith that God has something good for us in the future.

The difficulty is that it is much easier to plant something new, nurture it, and watch it grow, than it is to revive something old. Putting it a bit more starkly, and not referring to St. Edward's (which is very much alive, thank you), it is easier to give birth than to resurrect. What we at St. Edward's are grappling with now is--what next? Who is God calling us to be and what is God calling us to do in a twenty-first century world that hardly cares, or sometimes barely notices, that the church exists at all? That is a conversation we began at our Annual Meeting on January 31 and that we will be continuing as a Vestry in a series of "mini-retreats" on the first Tuesdays of April, May, and June. Please keep us in your prayers.

The problem with the article, and many others like it, is that it gives no road map, no way of distinguishing the "holy" from the "crap." Put another way, one person's trash is another person's treasure. One person's outmoded and dated way of worship is another person's treasured place and path of comfort in a rapidly changing world. I neither can nor would want to undo my seminary education. I neither can nor would want to simply leave the accumulated wisdom, structures, and ways of doing ministry behind in favor of some "new and improved" way of doing church. By the same token, it is clear that the needs and attitudes of people in the 1950s are not the needs and attitudes of people in the 2010s. Much like the auto companies, it has been literally decades since we were able to rely on our denominational brand and reputation as the church of the upper classes to attract people and keep them coming back.

There is an additional irony here. The irony is that St. Edward's is located in Silicon Valley, the birthplace of the technological revolution that was the beginning of this new post-industrial era. Fueled by risk-taking venture capitalists, the story of Silicon Valley is the story of the information revolution and the mavericks who believed they could change the world. Exemplified in the famous Apple 1984 Superbowl commercial, the story of the Valley is of small, nimble companies running circles around their larger predecessors. So, how can a church in the middle of Silicon Valley become that nimble, flexible, change-the-world church? That is the $64,000 question.

I'm also reminded of the scriptures for tomorrow, specifically the Parable of the Fig Tree. Jesus tells the story of a landowner who comes back to a fig tree, year after year, for three years, failing to find any figs. He tells his gardener to cut it down, saying "Why should it be wasting the soil?" The gardener convinces him to let him put some "manure" on it to see if it will bear fruit next year. Perhaps that is the lesson to learn--don't get rid of the crap, use it to stimulate growth!