A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie-Griggs.
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 5 Pentecost, Year A (9 July 2017)
We have this dog. Bartlett. A rescue who came to us last November. He’s sweet and smart, and he’s very well behaved. Most of the time. Not long ago he and I were wrapping up our afternoon walk; he’d been pretty good and followed my directions well, which wasn’t a real surprise—he’s well trained and he knows the routine—we go the same route every day.
But this time something distracted him, and he totally lost it—took off running like a greyhound in another direction—he’s fast and he’s strong. I didn’t want him to go that way. I wanted him to go MY way. But he would have none of it. He ran, I pulled. I shouted. He kept running. I kept resisting. And I resisted face first into a tree.
Lying dazed on the ground, I heard a still, small voice speak to me:
“Why didn’t you drop the stupid leash???”
That would have been the smart thing to do. But it was more important that I remain in control.Sometimes it’s like that with institutions. They go along a single path for a long time until something changes. The change is inexorable and powerful, and no matter how hard they yell and pull and resist, the change comes anyway. And if they don’t find a way to deal with it, they run face first into misery, or irrelevance, or extinction.
I’ve been hearing since seminary that the church is dying. Attendance is down; the culture is shifting, priorities are changing. It’s a huge topic in diocesan workshops and conversations, church publications, vestry meetings, staff meetings. Where are the packed Sunday school rooms? The overflowing offering plates? How are we going to keep the roof on? The changes we are seeing are pulling hard, and the mainline church—not just the Episcopal Church– is struggling to know how to respond. And one of the easiest responses is to just keep pulling on the leash; to keep things on the same track it has always been on. If we could just do things the way we used to back in the day, then everything would be okay. That way lies the tree.
The major generational and cultural shifts pulling on us are not going to stop shifting just because we resist them. Each generation has a set of core values and formative experiences that affect how they engage with the world and more specifically the church. The generations that built Mainline Protestantism in the 20th century have birthed wonderful and creative and different generations who have been formed by certain shared experiences–for example 9/11, Katrina, and I would argue the 2016 election–who see church differently. It’s simply not the central spiritual, formative, social focus for them that it has been for their parents and grandparents. That is not to say that they are not spiritual, or that they have not been formed ethically or morally or socially because I will argue ferociously that they have been—just not necessarily by the church.
The generations that built mainline Protestantism need to come to terms with the fact that the generations that followed them are not going to keep that edifice standing in the same form that we have known.
But that doesn’t mean the church is dying. We just need to consider dropping the leash. Theologian Phyllis Tickle, in her 2007 book, The Great Emergence argues that the Church goes through a period of major transformation about every 500 years. She called it a 500-year Rummage Sale. the most recent being the Protestant Reformation, which just celebrated its 500th birthday.
And sure enough, the ground is shifting beneath us. One sign of this shift came a number of years ago with the rise of the group describing themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Almost immediately lines were drawn between those who felt that that was a cop-out and those who heard it instead as a wake-up call, or better still, an opportunity for growth and transformation. Those who heard the wake-up call wanted to understand what has brought the SBNR’s to the point of rejecting something that had been a mainstay of personal, family, and community life in this country for a very long time. And for many it still is. I’m not saying that the church as a worshiping, healing, serving community is not vitally important—God is still very busy calling people into ministry, both lay and ordained. God perseveres in finding a way to realize God’s Dream for Creation. But it is up to us to discern what new path God is trying to show us—not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to remember the roots and foundation of our call to be God’s People in the world.
What does discipleship look like to a church experiencing a 500-year rummage sale?
Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
I always thought Jesus sounds like a classic grumpy old dude in this passage. But this is a serious critique of the blindness of the religious and cultural authorities of the time. The picturesque cries of the children are references to Jesus and to John the Baptist: “We played the flute for you…” refers to Jesus’ works of healing, his call to abundant life and the coming of the Reign of God. “We wailed…” refers to John’s call to repentance; to the necessary inner work of discipleship.
Jesus is saying that between himself and John, they can’t seem to catch a break. Jesus’ practice of dining with sinners has people calling him a drunkard, while John’s fasting has people saying he’s crazy. The blindness of the skeptics is such that the coming of the Kingdom meets with disapproval no matter what John and Jesus do.
But disapproval aside, this juxtaposition of Jesus and John is valuable because it shows us a two-layered model for discipleship, with each being crucial to the other. The inner work of repentance (both personal and institutional) is needed to ground us in humility and holy listening (The Benedictines call it obedience). This was the urgent call of John. The outer works that Jesus did, of mercy, compassion, and healing are vital to the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. And these two; contemplation and action, are meant to be woven together in relationship. Spiritual practice grounds acts of caring. Effective discipleship requires both. Spiritual practice alone is hollow, and the acts of charity alone are simply, as Fr. Mark puts it, “good people doing what good people do.” Without prayerful grounding our acts of charity carry the risk of seeing ourselves as being in control; as the powerful bestowing bounty upon the powerless– as being in God’s place rather than in God’s service.
It’s a seductive thing. We feel good when we do nice things for others. There’s nothing wrong with that—with knowing the joy of servanthood. But the point of servant discipleship is not to feel good about ourselves. It’s not about us. Spiritually grounded service may actually put us in a place where we encounter our own vulnerability and woundedness. But our own vulnerability brought to our actions is the very best way to truly see others as siblings in Christ who have something to offer us in mutual lifegiving relationship.
To surrender to this concept is to find ourselves being led into unfamiliar territory, and it’s natural to resist that tugging of the Spirit. But what can happen if we follow that tugging—if we let the Spirit take the lead?
There is some wonderful creative ministry happening in this Diocese. There is a trend toward making church walls more porous—toward a clearer-eyed vision of our neighbors as coworkers in realizing God’s dream of abundance, justice and mercy. The Center for Reconciliation comes quickly to mind, taking on the delicate and difficult ministry of fostering understanding around issues of race. The Church Beyond the Walls is another unique initiative—a community of faith that turns upside-down the dynamics of feeding ministry and worship. Members of the community include those who are struggling and homeless who gather to worship and to offer hospitality to visitors and each other. Church Beyond the Walls is not just another feeding program. The model where people come from outside to make and pass out sandwiches is turned on its head—rather, those who wish to serve must first be served.
A third initiative is a little younger than these first two, but it is also the result of prayerful discernment and willingness to see through God’s eyes in new ways. Rhythms of Grace at Church of the Advent in Coventry is a special weekly Eucharist geared toward people with autism. Can you imagine an offertory of playing with a parachute? Rhythms of Grace is meeting an important need of families for whom conventional worship is a challenge, and it shows them in a visceral way that God’s love is creative and all-encompassing.
The Spirit is tugging St. Martin’s too. Our new initiative of incorporating a monthly fast on the 21st of each month is intended to focus on a spiritual practice that can undergird new and renewed ministries of advocacy and service around issues of hunger. It is through fasting that we can regularly renew our understanding that God, not we ourselves, is Source of all that we have.
And our pastoral ministry is feeling tugged in a new direction as well. We are currently pondering becoming part of Communities of Hope International; a Benedictine-inspired program for training lay chaplains. This is in response to an upsurge in energy on the Pastoral Care Team—a desire to do more to reach out to those in our community and neighborhood who are in need of healing and listening presence. Our monthly Healing Eucharist, beginning in September, will be part of that effort as well.
So the Spirit is tugging away and new things are germinating. Which is why I don’t believe for a minute that the Church is dying. Transformation? Yes. Death Spiral? Nope.
But we need to be ready to heed the Spirit’s tugging; to hear the cries of the children in the marketplace who call us to joyful compassionate action, firmly undergirded by the sometimes uncomfortable inner work that comes with regular spiritual practice—prayer, meditation, fasting, Bible reading.
“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus’ most important teachings are the ones that invert our expectations. The Church’s yoke, it could be argued, has become burdensome; weighed down by changing circumstances and a fierce desire to stay a course that is becoming unsustainable. New opportunities invite us that are found down paths that are at the same time both new and yet eternal. The Spirit calls us to live into our true vulnerable selves, to follow our passions, and to loosen the yoke of “but this is how we’ve always done it.” Go ahead, let loose of the leash.