A blessed 12th day of Christmas to each of you. The Christmas season is almost over, I hope it has been a good one. I’m going to tell you a story this morning.
Once upon a time there was a little church. Well, it wasn’t so little, not as little as most folks thought of it. No one knew everyone at the church except the priest, but it wasn’t too big, either. Most folks knew most of the people there, and most knew most of what was going. It wasn’t too small. It wasn’t too big. It was just right.
It wasn’t a very old parish, just about the same age as the average age of parishoners. (55 is downright youthful in church terms). It had its ups and downs in the first half of its life. But it was a scrappy little community that kept on keeping on.
Then, I don’t know, 25 years ago, things started happening at that not so little church. Something was stirring. Things started happening. Children came around (or got themselves born). Ministries, enduring ministries began. Old ways ended. And that little church grew, not just in size, but in stature, in scale and scope. It growed up as a church! It became a parish! That first rector moved on, as they do. There was some static with the Diocese and a new one was harder to locate than should have been, much harder, and it took much longer than it should have, and when they did find one, she couldn’t stay as long as anyone hoped, but they persevered. And then just over 8 years ago, a 3rd rector was called.
Over the years, things ebbed and flowed. People, priests of course, and many others, came and went. But the heart of that not so little anymore church remained constant, beating steadily, leaning in towards God, trying to do its very best, trying to make real the commonwealth of God with each baby step they took together. It was, it is, a good church. Very good.
What makes it a good church? I am so glad you asked. The most important thing about a church, the thing that makes church church, and what that not so little church did oh so well was that they prayed together. They prayed together, well.
Prayer. Worship. Encountering God. That is the starting point of Church, everything a church does or can do flows from the liturgy, the shared, intentional experience of God. What the Church does is host an eternal and actual encounter with the Living God every week at altars remarkably like this one here. Every week, multiple times a week, religious experiences happened at that church. Right there. God was right there. And so were they, together, trying to face in roughly the same direction at roughly the same time.
They prayed earnestly and they prayed beautifully. The music was wonderful. The space is a little peculiar, someone described it as an Aztec pyramid, but there was spiritual power in that place. Everyone was so close together, not a bad seat in the house. They had a skylight over the altar, like a hole torn in the heavens… it pulled the prayer upward and outward. So many people were involved to make it happen. They had a luncheon once for everyone who was involved in the worship ministries; altar guild, the Eucharistic ministers, the lectors, ushers, choir, the choristers, and you know what, half the church was there. Half the church organizes for Common Prayer while the other half does it. Brilliant! Gathered around that altar, be it in smoky, candlelit silence (by far the best of its kind in those parts), early morning solemnity, the raucousness of choirs and kids and laughter and good coffee, worship, common prayer was the beating heart of the congregation, a place where hearts were opened in and to the presence of God, with and in the presence of each other. They prayed.
The prayer of that not so little church swirled around that place, getting into the nooks and crannies of everyone’s souls there, and then it blasted out into their neighborhood, and city-wide, and nationally, globally, cosmically, even. You see, that little church was in a city that had some problems. Some pretty big problems, a lot bigger than the city. The resources seemed more scarce then they probably actually were, but this isn’t the time to get into marginal tax rates and MUPTE. But where that little city lacked in resolve to focus resources, that little city was awash in creativity, of a spirit of trying new things, and that not so little church was right up in the middle of that. Years ago they helped get a warming center started; over decades they made moving into new homes easier for thousands of people; they hosted homeless families in their basement for 25 years; have fed breakfast month after month to the hungry and homeless; and put their money where their hearts were and housed people right there in their parking lot, truly making it the best parking lot in the land. Their parking lot was right out of Dorothy Day’s hospitality playbook, just tiny. That little church showed up. (And the city noticed. And the little church grew a little less little, in scope and scale and size).
Churches don’t exist to provide social services. That is not what they are good at, or at least they are certainly are not the best at. But they do exist to be generous, to be part of the community they are part of, because really, you can’t engage God just up, not just I-Thou. Church is also always simultaneously I-Thou and us-ya’ll. That is what Jesus meant when He commanded us to love God and neighbor. Sometimes you start with God and God leads to neighbors. Just as likely, though, we are led to God through neighbors, especially neighbors in need. “First you pray for the poor, then you feed them. That is how prayer works.” Yes. That is how it works for the poor and how it worked on them. In the beauty of Holiness and in the depths of suffering, God was found and served in that church. They had always worked hard in the world, but as time went on it became more and more central to their identity. Caring for the poor became part and parcel to yearning for God. And not everyone participated in those world-healing ministries, really more probably should have, but just being a member, adding their shoulder to keeping the prayer wheel spinning, making and paying their pledge, helping to improve the building, all of that helped ministry happen better and better for more and more people. Their kindness, generosity, their sense of obligation (perish the thought in that day and age!)… it made the world better.
Another way that not so little church made the world better was how they welcomed children, how they formed them. There had always been kids around, sometimes more, sometimes fewer, but in those days, goodness, the church was lousy with them! They’d parade in every Sunday like they owned the place, crowding around the altar. Some of them had been baptized in a creek. Some in a sheep trough. Some hadn’t been baptized, but it was God’s table, and all were welcome there. And those children generally first came because their parents made them. They kept coming back because they loved it, they loved the other children there, they had a child-centered community, shepherded with the big love children need. These kids loved it so much they would sometimes have to drag their parents to church. Even the priest’s wife never got a Sunday off because her girls refused to miss even one week.
And it took a lot of work to have so many kids around. Parents with younger children are often short on energy, time and money. Church is a place that can really help with that, but that takes a lot of everyone else showing up for that to happen. And in general that worked pretty well, and there was always a sign-up sheet in the back of the church, even if there were quite a few open volunteer slots that made the leaders nervous. There was a life there, vibrant life, a vibrancy that can’t come from anywhere else but the laughter of children.
It was pretty loud there, at least on Sunday mornings, but another part of that church that shone like a diamond was silence. Folks gathered around the altar and listened for God in silence together. Week after week, month after month, year after year that silence grew and grew, and with it, the heart of the church grew and grew. Prayer like that, centering, contemplative, meditative, prayer, it gathers a lot more than the few who gather to do it. For two years running 10% of the church went on retreat together. That is amazing. The great mystery of faith is most palpable in the mysterious corners of life, mysterious corners like silence. In silence love occurs with no words, no movement, it is love with simply intention behind it for the sake of the world. In the silent place before that altar a great light shone forth, and that beautiful not so little church was more beautiful, more holy, more exactly where it was supposed to be than most anyone could ever guess because of that little plot of silence they carved out of this noisy world. What a gift.
As the heart of common prayer grew, and the reach out into the world followed, and the children flocked, and the contemplative silence wrapped all around, the interior heart of that church grew, too. How could it not, right? Folks started taking care of each other better. Some studied very hard and learned how to bring the church right to the suffering, one on one ministry, person-to-person-through-God ministry. And some organized to work hard on caring for, stewarding the community as a whole. They cracked the hospitality nut, got the kitchen in order, made sure the cookies and coffee never ran dry (they had good coffee there). They fixed the place up so that it was beautiful and functional for gatherings and celebrations, as well as forming their children and serving their neighbors in need. The heart of that place grew and grew and grew, and now there is nothing they can’t handle. The death of beloveds, changes of leadership, the increasing anxiety of an election year, whatever, that not so little church is in the best shape it has ever been, and people beyond those walls know about it, and they lived happily ever after and every little thing was alright. The end.
That’s a pretty nice story about a very nice church, a good church with its heart in the right place. Not perfect. But what is? It was church.
Here, you’ve got some challenging days ahead. Busy days. The responsibilities that the priest carries are being spread loaded across the congregation. God bless Melissa, your senior warden, she gets the brunt of it. I’d like to say that she didn’t sign up for this, but she did agree to stay on as Senior Warden after I told her about my departure. But there is hard work ahead for all of you. I am sorry to put that on you. All I can say is that you can do it.
There will be challenges. Power vacuums will be filled, they need to be, and that can be complicated. Tensions that have been held in check by the status quo may surface; personalities that have been restrained by formal leadership can increase; issues that have never arisen before, might. Some people just don’t react well to change and can behave very out of character. But you know what, the thing about Resurrection, like the church in my story, is that it is healthy, remarkably healthy. Poor behavior, which likely will happen, won’t hurt anything because this community is strong, it is healthy, it is resilient. It is so healthy and strong and resilient that you all can respond to troubles with love and forgiveness, because that is what struggling people need. And that, love, is what really counts, not who is in charge.
Big changes aren’t coming, they are here. The priest-congregation contract has always been that priests come and priests go, and you remain. That’s church. It is you, the congregation that is the heart of the parish, that is the parish, and this parish is/you are thriving. And God abounds here, Love abounds here; and every little thing is going to be alright. AMEN