CHURCH II – Shape
3rd Epiphany, Jan 25, 2015
St. Augustine’s Anglican Church
Rev. Jonathan Crane
This is the second of three sermons on the Church
As we continue to meditate on who and what we are
This is the longest one yet.
We heard this morning:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord….And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, [repented].” (Jonah 3:1-5)
Nineveh was a recalcitrant city
Frozen in their way
And Jonah a reluctant prophet
But the Word was brought
And Nineveh believed God and was saved
The future about to set upon them was shifted and changed
They all did it together the great and the small
is, if not recalcitrant, at least struggling to move in a new way
And the prophets are gathering
the writing is on the wall
One potential prophetess
Diana Butlar bass
Describes herself as a weather lady
She studies the climactic changes of Christian community
not on the local level
as in, to use the analogy, checking the window see if we need a winter coat right now
or as if checking specifically this parish status or that
But she is studying the great trajectories and shifts of church weather
the big picture, the numbers, the long view
Statistics from across North America
The conglomeration of thousands of local units
Show that, overall, the picture is clear
5 decades of decreasing numbers in North America of people who call themselves Christian
Not a single year of increase since the peak in church attendance in 1965
Excluding immigration, all denominations are affected
5 decades of decrease
Some congregations continue to thrive and grow of course, but this is the big picture
Some will bemoan this big picture as the degradation of society and moral alignment.
Others celebrate that church and Empire are finally being disengaged.
At St. Augustine’s, I get the sense that we are a mixed bunch, and generally aware of these shifts
I hear people among us who are keen to explore what lies ahead.
5 decades of decrease
Perhaps another prophetess of these things,
Takes a church basement image to give perspective
She looks back to the early days of Jesus
And every 500 years since she observes,
Every 500 years give or take a few,
The church has had a giant rummage sale
>that is, a moment when the church has had to do some significant sorting and cleaning house.
Her dates cover
-The fall of Rome around 500 (– or Constantine others suggest)
-then around 1000: the great schism of the Eastern and Western church
-and then the reformation in the 1500s
>Each of these moments when the church has been faced with drastic change
And here we are Mrs. Tickle calculates
-And here we are in 2000 wondering what is going on what drastic changes are coming our way
Are we on the verge of another significant moment?
Are we at a moment that will indelibly mark the passage of the church’s history?
Tickle’s argument is that we are entering into, what she calls, “the great emergence.”
We have questions to answer that were not being asked before
We have realities and a global world that were unthinkable to generations even earlier in this century.
The rate of change in culture and technology continues to increase exponentially
And in the midst of this world
The church is being challenged to carry the name Jesus anew in this time
We are being called to move into a new way of being in the world while remaining connected, and drawing on the deep gifts of our history
Overall, in the big picture, our modern prophets assert
it is undeniable that there is change in the air
And of the church
At lease the church tested by demographics
The question is not, “WILL it change?”
But “what changes are needed for this new era breaking in upon us?”
Someone said about the Anglican church that if the “1950’s ever came back, we’d be ready.”
It’s true that as a whole, we’ve been slow to change
But part of our sorting
Part of our rummaging and changing
Is to rethink entirely what we need for the journey
And it is not a small task.
No explorer of a new land
would do well to rush out the door without having duly considered the journey
-We would not call that wisdom, but foolishness
Instead there is a special kind of energy expended in this planning
A kind of problem solving
A kind of putting yourself in the new place and feeling with your mind and heart the experience
It takes a kind of energy that supplants the usual daily routine
The church will need to expend much energy in this time imagining and testing
We will get tired.
And, like preparing for any trip
You find in the process a new kind of creativity
You rummage around in the storeroom and realize that “this old thing my father left me” on the shelf may be just what is needed
You brush the dust off, and it becomes the key element
In fact you never really understood what that old thing was for
Whereas some of the tools you love to use in your homeland, will be no longer pertinent
The needs of the land and the roughness of the journey will determine what is truly needed or not
Our experience in the church over the next 50 or 100 or 200 years
Will no doubt be marked by reclaiming old things in a new way
And learning new skills and forms as we go along
We should not think it will have come together even in one generation
This work will take more than one lifetime and more than several lifetimes to explore
The church has a lot of imagining and rummaging to do
And in this new time
And we ought to take our preparation deliberately
We need spaces to test our sense of this new journey
To test what is old and what is new
And to plan rightly our best guess of what is needed
A best guess, because any explorer worth his or her salt
Will go prepared mostly for the Unknown
We are to expect to be surprised
And like an explorer, to expect perhaps to not to make it
At least, to not make it in the shape we began in
Instead, it is the process, the deliberating, the knowledge of the land that if done well, leaves the explorer packed as best as possible
Ready for anything
It is why it was so critical last week
To begin our conversation of the church
With the Trinity – with GOD as our focus
And with the basic things of the church
The ways that we share in the life of God
Fresh in our minds
Eating together, prayer, teaching, work in community
We should not forget these things
And we should not forget the resurrection
And how in baptism we are made a new person
These things shape the trajectory
And remind us of what is truly important
The church is about the empty tomb
The church is about GOD
The church is about how we and all of creation come to share in the life of God through Jesus Christ
It is critical to begin here, and lead with our best theology, even as our theology is being re-shaped and re-articulated.
So what does this rummage sale look like
What are we to expect?
I have been thinking of this whole season of the church as if it is one huge explorative conversation
Thousands of people from a million different parishes
Clergy and lay, Christian and even some non-christian
All weighing in on their best guess
We are studying the world around us
Listening, like missionaries do
-For the ‘redemptive stories’ of our land
-Listening for the new stories popping up
-Listening to which old stories are being re-told
-We are hearing the changing of the world
and listening for the beat of angel’s wings in the tumult
And when we hear that flutter, when our heart is caught by the Word of God speaking in the quietest of ways, we speak up
And tell others
Many books have already been written by authors of all different disciplines
Trying to track the changes and give their voice to where God is at work
Blogs are up
All to give space to this grand Conversation, this grand Listening and Sharing
We do not know what the church will encounter in this era
We do not know what the church will look like tomorrow let alone in 10 years or 50
There is so much we do not know
But we know from Acts 2, that those first Christians gathered and broke bread, and prayed
And that is what we continue to do now
And we know that the Lord’s prayer remains a good word in our midst
And we know that we are the Body of Christ now on earth
The hands, feet, ears and, God willing at times, the Voice
This is a grand conversation
But we forget how much energy it takes
It has changed the roles in the church
And clergy and lay, the structures of the church and all our various organizations
Are scrambling and sorting out what needs doing
We need to give one another grace on all accounts
I have settled myself that this is a piece of my vocation
A part of being a priest at this time
That I am a two footed priest
I have one foot joyfully in the traditional church, and one foot joyfully in the church to come
Thank goodness God is the author of dance
And the promise continues to give us what we need at just the right time
We will be okay
And God remains God
The world needs to hear the news of Jesus
We all need this Word of grace
And we all need the wisdom Jesus taught
And so the church must continue to be this voice in the needful way
Must ask what your vocation is in this transition era.
How will you be a prayer and a prophet in this season?
One thing I am absolutely confident in
Is that we each may have a voice in shaping what the church will be
This cannot mean that we try to recreate the past
It simply cannot be
But it does mean that we need, NEED, need, need, need to speak
Newly of the past
to recount the Strengths of days gone by in terms that people can hear today
It is the same Jesus, but we may need to use different words and patterns of conversation so that his voice can be heard
And likewise, we need all people to dream and imagine and plan and try and become familiar with failure
As we fail and learn and plot on ahead as the people of Jesus gathered
What voice to you bring?
Do you speak of the gifts of the past?
Or the call of the future?
What do you have to teach your young priest about what will carry him well into the future?
What dream of Christ do you carry that will make the footsteps of your church firm.
We need to hear it.
The church needs to hear it.
The wider conversation needs to hear it.
You reluctant prophets.
All of us at times reluctant learners
God is here
May we walk all of us,
Together in peace and in unity
Into these new things
Where Christ already is.