Year C, Pentecost May 15, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“All who are led by the spirit of God are the children of God.”
Good morning everyone! A blessed Whitsunday to you! Whitsunday is just the Anglican way to say Pentecost. It is this day that we remember the very particular arrival and indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a gathering of the disciples. It is the beginning of our story of being a church.
This foundational story of the Church, that’s the church with a big “C”, it really sort of encompasses the whole thing. First off it is a gathering, a gathering for a purpose, in this case for a cultural celebration of the harvest festival of Pentecost. Church is always gathered and is always gathered for a purpose. And that gathering, what an array! Folks from all over the empire, from Rome all the way around the Med to Libya. All sorts of people in all sorts of colors and you have to imagine with all sorts of perspectives on the world. And they gather outside the conventions of society. At that first “church” service, already barbs were being flung at them, people sneered “They are filled with new wine.” And most importantly, this purposeful gathering of all these people standing together outside of their cultures were brought together, bound together, animated together by the very real presence of the Holy Spirit. God was with those people in a very particular way that morning, and that very particular blessing of God has remained with the Church to this very moment, to right here, right now, 2000 years hence.
This morning, I want to talk a little about the Church, specifically about this church, about what we are, about what we are not and maybe about what it is that we should be.
So, what is church?
The technical definition, according the Book of Common Prayer, is that the church is “the community of the New Covenant.” The New Covenant being, of course, the new relationship we are offered with God given to us by Jesus Christ. Arising from Israel, a Messiah came, a chosen one out of a chosen people to bring the love and mercy of God to the whole world. St. Luke’s canticle “The Song of Simeon,” says it perfectly, that Jesus Christ is “a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.” Well, it was given to the Apostles, and through them to “all who believe in Him.” That’s us, members of the body of Christ, the church.
Right there from square one, there is sort of a dichotomy within the church. On one hand, we have this direct relationship with God offered in a wholly new way through the grace and love of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, we have this gathering starting with the apostles, a physical manifestation, which in very short order became a physical organization which, as these things do, became an institution. So there is a relationship with, the experience of God, a living God, and there is the people and our habits and traditions, memory, history and things gathered together in and as an institution. In these two parts of our experience of Church lie a dynamic tension. Sometimes it is a creative tension, sometimes a very productive tension, and sometimes a distracting, confounding and dangerous tension. Let’s flesh this out a little more before we turn our gaze to our little corner of the Kingdom.
First is the relational side, the Gospel side. This is the religion part of it all. The still small voice of God revealed in prayer, in silence, in your experience of the divine as God is revealed to us in all the glorious ways God is revealed to us. It is what you feel when you gaze out at the sea and feel God in the vast expanses of the creation, or in the beauty of particular aria, or in the words of scripture, or the depths of silent prayer. It is the joy you feel when life triumphs over death, when mercy is offered, not shame, when forgiveness and apology are offered and accepted. The Church happens when the least of these are served, when suffering is alleviated, when the lonely are befriended, the mourning consoled, the hungry fed, the homeless housed. The church happens when the ignorant are enlightened, the confused are directed, the wrong are righted, the astray steered, the exiled returned. This is the breath of God moving over the deep, the dove descending from the hole in the heavens, the spark of Christ that lives in each of our hearts, represented by those the tongues of flame alighted on all of those heads so long ago.
On the other hand, we have the vessel. If it were not for those apostles, for Paul, and for the people who paid for the codices and ink for Paul and the Evangelists to write on, for the communities that read them and translated them and preserved them physically and in art and music and poetry we would not be sitting here today in this beautiful building so valued by society that we don’t pay any taxes. The Church is a vessel. All those religious bits, the sensations, emotions, feelings and experiences of God, if it were not for the container of the Church, the vocabulary, the form, the very existence and collection of Holy Scripture itself, none of the rest of it could exist. Memory exists separate from institutions, but memory is transmitted through institutions. Pentecost happened in the absence of the church, but if it were not for the church that formed that day, it would have been forgotten, and with it the traditions, the ways and means that we as heirs of the New Covenant enact our relationship not only with God in Christ with the Holy Spirit, but with each other, the gathered members that make up the Body of Christ that gathers us.
So we have the Gospels, the life and being of God living in each of our own hearts and there is the institution that carries it all. There’s the “what” we are and what we do and there’s the “how” we do it. There is the content and there is the media. Can you imagine that tensions can arise? That conflicts of interest between the word of God and the institutions founded to witness the word of God could exist? Can you guess how the radical, self-emptying gospel of Jesus Christ and the conservative, social ballast that is the church might work at cross purposes at times? Oh heavens, yes, and I could go on ad nauseam about the tensions and incompatibilities of the church and the gospel, an institution that has lifted up St. Francis, Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day over here, and the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the clergy sex abuse scandals of recent decades and a litany of other structural sins over here. Rather, I’d like to bring this together in speaking of our little slice of the ecclesia, the Body of Christ, because this church, our church, we have God in our midst, fabulous, life giving ministry and deep, Godly relationships and we have our struggles, our very real and sometimes pressing struggles as an institution. Church is a both/and world and resurrection is no exception.
You know what you find here. In the darkened sanctuary, smoke drifting up to the heights; in the gentle quiet of 8:00, the bubbling energy of 10:30, the sisterhood of the Lunch Bunch and Piecemakers quilters guild, the joy of a Godly Play classroom or Chorister rehearsal. You may find life in a book you prepare for Wednesday adult ed, in practicing centering prayer or saying the rosary like we learned last year. Or you find the very face of Christ looking back at you over a chaffing dish full of eggs on any given second Sunday, or over grape juice in the yellow room with our children, or you find God in the grief of someone broken, lost, forgotten whom you meet at Egan, or at Shelter week, or at the Library, who you now see and feel confident enough in yourself to actually engage because of what you have learned here at Church. Or you are lifted to new heights in the descant offered by our choir at the Fraction. Or you are in the choir and you are not just lifted, but are launched God-ward in the joyful noise you make. Or in the consoling words of a friend, a true friend in Christ whom is part of your life because you are here. How many relationships, how deep a cloud of relationships exist, do we exist within because of this place? How many? The web of relationships here brings people together who would have such little chance to ever meet let alone become soul friends. Goodness gracious that is all good stuff. Because that’s why we are here.
There is also how we are here. There is also the institution. That’s the property committee meeting every month to keep track of this place. The vestry deciding how to allocate our resources. The Altar Guild praying their work, no doubt, but it is not so fine a line between what looks like prayer and what looks like polishing pews with Pledge. And there is writing your pledge checks, and folding bulletins, and going to meetings in Corvallis or to convention or to Godly Play teacher training. We do an awful lot of holy work in the world. You do. We are exemplars of church as servants, of us as a people and an institution opening our doors wide for folks to come in here and for us to go out there to help. And that takes a lot of work, and it takes a lot of resources, not just to do that holy work, that’s the religion part, but also to support that holy work, that is the institution. And right now, we’ve got some institutional challenges.
It is always a balance, right? The needs of the world in tension with our capacity to serve. Right now we are facing some challenges, in particular some fiscal challenges. The Finance committee has reconstituted and quickly discerned that we have some issues. We have been spending more than we have been bringing in. We haven’t been going into deficit, but we have been closing our budget with savings accrued in times when we did not have clergy and from the generosity of bequests. There is not immediate existential crisis, but if we don’t reduce spending and/or increase our income, we’ll have a painful time in two years; very painful, as the gap we may face equals half of our lay staff budget. Half… so think our secretary or everyone else on staff. We don’ t have that much discretionary spending. We can’t very well reduce our EWEB budget or our phone bill. So we are getting ahead of it, and have begun making some adjustments to our spending starting right now. We’re reducing some spending on supplies for the children’s programs. I’ve cut some things from my expense budget, mileage and phone reimbursements. We won’t have a Christmas ad in the R-G. And we are going to lose Gay our secretary for one day a week. And all of that is just $5000 of the $20,000ish we need to make up. Baby steps now, but if we don’t figure some institutional things out it will become very noticeable, very quickly.
And beyond finances, there are people resource issues, too. We have no problem filling the schedule for the breakfast or Egan or Shelter week. The life given and received there is palpable. But volunteering in the nursery? Serving on a stewardship committee? Coming to the 1st Saturday Garden Party or coming onto the Altar Guild, the regular week to week, institutional commitments that enable the work we do here to have a place to do it? That all seems to be getting harder and harder. Now in too many churches, in my humble opinion, too much collective energy is focused inward, on the life of the institution for the institution’s sake. (Not something I can be accused of, hence at least some of the problems listed above).
The church exists for the Gospel and for service to the world. Yearning for God and answering the cry of the poor, that’s why we are here and not to simply exist as an institution. And yet, as I am learning as I continue to learn about how the church works and how to be a priest, that without focusing our resources and time and energy on maintaining this institution, the Gospel that this institution exists by and for will not find it way into the world as Jesus Christ intends for it to reach the world. That’s the challenge that we face.
So we’re listening to the finance committee. We’re tightening our belt. We’re beginning some strategic planning. We’re looking to address stewardship in a different, more year round kind of way. I’m looking to pair back some commitments outside and look a bit more inside. And we are looking to you, here, members of the body of Christ to pray on your place in this place. What do you hold onto that needs to be let go of? What are you not holding on to tight enough? What do you have to give? What do you need to receive? Everything is fine. We just need to be prepared to keep it that way. AMEN