This past week I attended a gathering of clergy where we talked about our concerns and hopes for our various parishes and the Episcopal Church as a whole. Although it was not the stated topic of the day, our conversation eventually drifted – as it so often does – to the subject of “how do we bring people back to church.” Eventually, someone introduced a topic that is the bane of many clergy: Sunday morning youth sports. Most priests have at least one family in their congregation – and often many – who are not seen at church for long stretches of time because one or more of their children plays some kind of sport on Sunday mornings. “How,” moaned one of my colleagues, “do we make church more meaningful and valuable than soccer”?
The thing is, I don’t think the real issue is whether people think church is more important than soccer. I think that sports are just the thing that families do on Sunday mornings now. In the 20th century, families went to church. Now they go to youth sports. And for a lot of people, church didn’t have much meaning anyway, which made it easy for them to switch when there was a shift in societal values. So, for me the question is not how we make church more meaningful than soccer – or anything else. The question is how we communicate that church is meaningful – that it is valuable – that it is invaluable. The question is how we tell people who we are.
But first we have to know the answers to those questions. According to John Nielson, “The question of identity is important to everyone. So much of our life is framed by the struggle to truly understand who we are and why we are here.” The same thing is true of institutions. It was certainly true of the fledgling Christian community we have been reading about during this Easter season. We have heard from the authors of letters of Paul, Peter, the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of John, all trying to explain what “the Way” – the original name of the Jesus Movement – was all about.
By most accounts they were pretty successful. Not only did they sextuple their membership as the result of one apparently fabulous sermon, but they also attempted to live harmoniously by sharing both their material and spiritual lives, with the result that they continued to grow. Theirs was an idealized lifestyle – one that has resurfaced again and again under different names over the many years since – communes, kibbutzim, socialism, and “intentional community” – all have been repeatedly tried with great hopes, but most, including that of these earliest Christians, have failed. It seems that human beings are simply not evolved enough yet to successfully share everything.
Luckily, the growth of Christianity was not dependent on the manner in which its disciples lived. Nor was it about being willing to suffer for our religion, despite the way our reading from Peter has often been interpreted. The text does not say that we as Christians should seek out suffering in order to identify with Christ. The author’s message is simpler than that. Suffering, he says, happens. It is present in our lives from birth – and it is a crucial part of rebirth – and rebirth is what becoming a Christian is all about. Membership in the body of Christ necessitates the radical alteration of who we are. And, as anyone who has tried to drastically change their body or behavior can tell you, transformation can be painful. It requires enormous strength and motivation. So, when Peter tells us that enduring suffering is good, he is not saying that pursuing it will make us like Jesus; he is saying that when we are struggling with it, Jesus is present with us, as our example and our reward.
To know Christ is to know the Good Shepherd, the gateway to salvation. Some scholars have suggested that the twenty-third psalm, familiar to many of us as a poem of comfort, is better described as a Song of Confidence, because in its six short stanzas it reminds of us of what we will find in the course of our transformation. It describes what it means to be reborn in the image of the true God – a God who revives not just our souls, but our “whole selves,” a God who “hounds” us with kindness, whether we want it or not – a God who fully knows us –enough to call us by name –enough to lay down his life for us. It tells us how to recognize the Way of Jesus and to follow it.
Are we, like the early Christians, devoted to God’s teaching? Do we make time to pray together, to break bread together, and to enjoy fellowship with one another? Do we listen for the voice of Jesus as he calls us by name? Are we willing to suffer for justice, to resist abusing when we are abused, and threatening when we are threatened? Who are we?
These are some of the questions that your faithful vestry reflected on yesterday at our annual retreat. Our goal was to review the amazing work done during the interim, when parishioners were asked to think about who we are as a community and our hopes and dreams for the future, and then to synthesize that input into a formal mission statement and vision for Grace Episcopal Church.
Like the early Christians, your vestry members prayed, heeded the apostle’s teaching, broke bread together and shared fellowship. They listened for Jesus’s call for Grace Church and considered what the greatest strengths and desires of this community might be. I asked them to do this foundational work so that we can move forward together with a strong sense of identity. A mission statement expresses who we are. It describes the heart of our community, “our unique and strongest gifts for ministry… [and provides us with] a tool to communicate the personality, passion and purpose of [our] parish… [It will hopefully] energize and provide direction to [those of us who are already here, as well as create] an invitation for those seeking a community like [ours]. A vision statement, on the other hand, is aspirational. It helps us decide who we would like to be and what mark we would like to leave on the world. I believe that in the best spirit of collaboration, the vestry accomplished this task and I am pleased to share these statements with you. Our mission statement: “Grace Episcopal Church: working together to welcome, support, and serve all God’s people. “ Our vision statement: “We strive to be a vital, loving community. We believe in practicing the way of Christ. All are welcome at God’s table. We grow spiritually by offering help and hope to all we meet.”
I am most grateful to be part of this vision for the future of our community and I encourage you to support our mission and to tell others who we are “with glad and generous hearts, praising God” and securing “the goodwill of…people,” so that “day by day the Lord [will add to the] number of those [being] saved.” AMEN.
John W. Nielson, (May 17, 2012), “Who am I”? in The Les Mis Project: Finding the Gospel in the music of “Les Miserables,” https://thelesmisproject.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/who-am-i/.
Linda Buskirk, (January 6, 2012), “The value of a mission statement,” Episcopal Church Foundation: Vital practices for leading congregations, http://www.ecfvp.org/blogs/937/the-value-of-a-mission-statement.