Monday, July 29, 2013

Something to Take Home

Last Sunday I did something pretty unusual for me: I gave the congregation five "invitation cards" per person to use this week--either in direct invitation to others to join us at St. Edward's or to leave behind in a conspicuous place where one might be found and pondered over. I essentially gave them some homework to do. My hope and prayer is that at least a majority of the nearly 40 people in worship on Sunday are busy thinking, praying, and spreading the Good News with those cards. But as I thought about it some more, it struck me that all of us, as Christians, have "homework"--living our lives in alignment with God's will and purpose. As one parish's web site says:
"the first and most important avenue of ministry for any baptized Christian is their daily life and work. What they do and say in their homes, at the work, and in their leisure. In addition to that, God calls each baptized Christian to take his or her place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church."
-- from
St. John's Church, Grand Haven, MI (emphais mine)
Those of us who work for the church for a living often forget that just as ordained ministers do not work only on Sunday mornings, so too those in the pews do most ministry outside the church walls. Certainly, as is pointed out, God calls us each to take our place in the life, worship, and governance of the church. However, as clergy we can often drift into a sense that if we can't find someone to teach Sunday School this week or to count the offering or to serve on the Vestry (church board) then people aren't really doing ministry. We're not sure what they're doing, but it isn't ministry!

Similarly, those in the pews can see those of us with collars as "professional ministers." Sometimes when I am asked to pray at a Kiwanis Club meeting or other semi-public event, I jokingly say "I'm a professional: Don't try this at home!" Of course, the reason it is a joke is that prayer is something that everyone should try at home--and at work, and anywhere else it occurs to them!  Similarly, most ministry both inside and outside of church is not done by clergy but by the laity.

The reality is that, for a Christian, all of life is ministry if lived intentionally so. Whether you are preparing a sermon for Sunday or preparing a meal for a friend or your family, service to others or even service to the Christ who lives in you can be ministry. As Brother Lawrence writes:
“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”
Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God  
So the lesson for all of us this week is to be as mindful of God in all of the work we do as I suggested members be mindful of distributing invitation cards. Our ministry is also our invitation--our invitation to others to love God and love others as God has loved us. Hope to see you on Sunday!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Faith and Fruitfulness

It is summer here in California, which means we get to enjoy the bounty of fresh, non-shrinkwrapped summer fruit that does not have to travel long distances to reach us. When we talk about "fruitfulness" in our Christian lives, I think a lot about the freshness and flavor of such fruit. The Bible also is full of references to fruitfulness, not least in last Sunday's letter from St. Paul to the Colossians:
"You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God." -- Colossians 1:6-7
I was thinking about this passage as well as the Parable of the Good Samaritan on Saturday, when it happened.

It was the classic preacher's nightmare--you finish your sermon, put it to bed, prepare to go do bed yourself and suddenly you hear of an event you cannot not include in your sermon--such was the case with me and likely thousands of my colleagues when we heard of the verdict in the case of the killing of Treyvon Martin late Saturday night. Juxtapose that with the fact that the Gospel appointed for last Sunday was the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus' answer to the question "Who is my neighbor?" and you have the need for late night or early morning sermon revision.

I didn't say a lot about the verdict and am still thinking about what would be the most helpful thing to say about it. In my sermon, I did reflect on the fact that St. Edward's is a typical suburban Episcopal church largely composed of relatively well-off white people who "drove here in decent cars, know that we will have lunch after church, have a place to sleep tonight, and are unlikely to be hated or feared in the next 24 hours." I also noted, as Marty Kaplan wrote, that "we have been taught to be helpless and jaded rather than to feel that we are empowered and can make a difference." After having attended a recent conference called the World Domination Summit (WDS) with 2,800+ people whose collective goal is to "live remarkable lives in a conventional world" I was keenly aware that the church is pretty much out of touch.

I can't tell you the number of blog entries I've read, conferences I've attended, books I've dug into, and conversations I've had about "growing the church." Some of them are great, most are encouraging, all of them pretty much focus on how to doing what we're doing better than we're doing it. Some even are designed to encourage discouraged clergy who are taking care of struggling, vulnerable churches. 

Few people in these conferences are talking about changing the world, and none has 2,800 people.

What I learned from my experience at WDS was that there are a tremendous number of people, mostly younger than I am but a few older, who look at the world and have a burning desire to be a part of, if not lead, positive change. Few consider the church to have any part in that effort. I detected a few references to Jesus during my time at WDS, a song about Lazarus coming out of the tomb, and some discussion of the Christian community by Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, but mostly the church was absent from the discussion.

What I talked about in my sermon on Sunday is that few younger people are interested in joining a church of passive privilege--they  have better things to do with their time and money than being a part of a group of people who they perceived to be disengaged and insulated from the world's struggles and either unwilling or unable to make any meaningful contribution to the goal of changing the world. If we want to grow the church and draw new people in, we will need to be a church worth being a part of. We will need to be a church of people whose faith bears fruit.

How do we do that? Three ideas spring to mind:
  1. Be aware of the many blessings we have in our lives and be actively grateful and generous, knowing that we are blessed to be a blessing to others.
  2. Be proactive in addressing the injustices of the world, not fearfully reactive and hiding behind walls of safety and privilage.
  3. Be intentional about growing and being fruitful in our faith, knowing that we can always be better disciples of Jesus than we are now.
There is much more to unpack about all of this, but the above is a good start.