November 13, 2022, Invitation and Transformation (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Good afternoon! What a joy and a pleasure it is to be here today for this wonderful celebration. Of course - and no offense to you good folks of St. Mark’s - I didn’t really have a choice – at least not if I planned to sleep at night for the near future. That’s because your new Rector, The Reverend Columba, in his usual dignified, formal way (i.e., -by text), offered me an irresistibly gracious invitation to preach at this service. It went like this: “No pressure, but since you didn’t show up at my graduation and you couldn’t attend either of my ordinations, I thought you should be able to come out for this – but, anyway, no pressure.”
Clearly Columba exhibits the makings of a first-class evangelist! He knows his own mind and is not afraid to share his convictions. He speaks truth to power. This kind of moral courage is critical in a church leader, especially now, when there appear to be so many things wrong with our society – and so much to fear.
A recent study reports that gun violence in the United States increased to record levels in 2020, with a disproportionate number of victims of color. Over 38 million people in this very wealthy country live in poverty, and reports from the environmental summit in Egypt tell us that the catastrophic earthquakes, fires, and floods we have long feared have arrived – and will increase if we don’t make significant changes in the way we treat God’s creation. These circumstances are affecting our mental health, with alarming increases in rates of depression, anxiety, and PTSD worldwide. Fear and despair are woven into the fabric of our culture. We have never needed God more.
Ironically, however, in a time in which the loving, non-violent, and healing way of Jesus is so desperately needed, people are less inclined to reach out to the church for help. Christianity is a hard sell these days. A recent article in The Atlantic suggests that the long-held “traditional” values of the United States - nuclear family, God, and national pride- are not the values of our youngest citizens. When researchers tried to figure out why, they found that young people have a “blanket distrust of institutions of authority – especially those dominated by the upper class.” This includes churches. A Princeton University study confirms this finding. “Mistrust of religious leaders was often cited [by young people] as a reason for eschewing a childhood faith…and some viewed clergy as little more than scam artists.” In other words, now people are afraid of us – and fear breeds hate.
It is hard, under these circumstances, to even consider inviting others into our church communities. As one of my parishioners told me, “I’m afraid to invite people to church because I worry that they will think I am one of ‘those’ Christians and stop speaking to us.” The act of invitation is complicated. It’s often difficult to find the right tone to use when inviting someone to share something with you. This is especially true if you care profoundly about whether the invitee will accept your invitation. The process of invitation makes us feel vulnerable, even frightened. After all, when someone rejects an invitation to experience something we deeply care about, they reject part of us as well.
But this is exactly what Jesus asked his disciples to do. Like us, they lived in a time of turmoil and inequity. There were very firm boundaries between those who were “in” and those who were “out” – and there were social and economic repercussions for crossing those lines. Yet Jesus demanded that his disciples do just that. They were to go out into their repressive, exclusionary, and dangerous world “like lambs into the midst of wolves.” They were not allowed to pick and choose who they would evangelize - their invitation was for all of humanity – and to have any chance that their invitation would be accepted, they would need to put aside their own prejudices and traditions so that they could learn to respect, understand, and live in peace with the sometimes dangerous strangers they encountered.
This is what we must do as well. Too often invitations are offered as if they are gifts – “aren’t they lucky to be on our guest list?” But the invitation to join the community of Christ should be just the opposite. We must present ourselves with humility, confident that the presence of diverse people and ideas will enliven and strengthen our communal life in Christ. We need one another – because it is only by working together that we can drive away the fears that haunt us. It is only together that we can transform the church – and ultimately the world – into the beloved community glimpsed by the prophet Isaiah.
Columba will help you with this work – but you must help him as well. He comes to you with many gifts – and a desire to use them for the benefit of this community. This is good news - but it also puts him at risk for the most insidious of clergy faults. He will begin to think he can or should do everything himself. This will not only endanger his mental health, but also deprive this community of one of its most precious resources: the work of its people.
God has given humanity all the gifts we need to do the work we have been called to do – but we must use them collectively. That means that part of Columba’s job is to help you discern your talents and use them for the benefit of this community. Understanding and honing your gifts will be a blessing to you, and a gift to your rector, because it will remind him, as St. Paul says, not to think too highly of himself. After all, it is God who saves us – and it is to God that we should give our praise.
I can see that I don’t have to worry about you supporting Columba – and each other. Looking out among you, I see a community filled with the inspiration and love of the Holy Spirit. Revel in that – and then, tomorrow, take it out into the world – but go together. Transformation begins with invitation – and today I invite you to work with Columba the Joyful to share the joy you feel today with the world around you. Start by letting go of the fear-based rhetoric that leads us to compete with and exclude one another. Stop thinking about how we can make sure our church survives and turn to the survival of the many lost, lonely, and suffering people in the world who need Jesus. Learn to travel lightly, letting go of those things that our culture says we need, so that we can be truly open to the strangers we encounter. Have faith -because I have no doubt that, together, we can transform this world into a community in which every part of God’s creation can live in love and peace, like lambs resting amidst the very wolves we used to fear. AMEN.
Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions (April 28, 2022), New Report Highlights U.S. 2020 Gun-Related Deaths: Highest Number Ever Recorded by CDC, Gun Homicides Increase by More Than One-Third, https://publichealth.jhu.edu/2022/new-report-highlights-us-2020-gun-related-deaths-highest-number-ever-recorded-by-cdc-gun-homicides-increase-by-more-than-one-third. John Creamer, Emily A. Shrider, Kalee Burns, and Frances Chen, US Census Bureau (September 13, 2022), Poverty in the United States, 2021, https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2022/demo/p60-277.html. World Health Organization (2022). Derek Thompson, (September 5, 2019), “Elite Failure Has Brought Americans to the Edge of an Existential Crisis,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/america-without-family-god-or-patriotism/597382/?fbclid=IwAR1kEiV9YKAGdW3-6hCO24UyEUdYbTJF7yGiRj8zTY373PIbeXqxS5aM3ag Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson, quoted in Derek Thompson, (September 5, 2019), “Elite Failure Has Brought Americans to the Edge of an Existential Crisis,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/america-without-family-god-or-patriotism/597382/?fbclid=IwAR1kEiV9YKAGdW3-6hCO24UyEUdYbTJF7yGiRj8zTY373PIbeXqxS5aM3ag