Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Sunday, April 22, 2018 (3 Easter Year B)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
At the Southeast Region Convocation yesterday, our Bishops, Ian and Laura led us through a discussion about "What is a Parish?" It was a great event and the discussion was lively. The topic is a good one for many of us who have been thinking God’s Mission in Connecticut. Much of the focus in the last couple of years has been about seeking what God is up to out there in the world… in our neighborhoods… and joining in. We’ve moved our gaze "out there" where God seems to be at work. Some though, have been left with the sense that Parishes no longer seem to matter in God’s work. No one has said that exactly, but with all the discussion about Ministry Networks, and Regions, and Missionaries, and God’s Mission, it is not hard to see why there might be a concern about Parishes. I think the Bishops’ teaching and the practices we talked about were aimed at helping us think more deeply about our Parish and its role in God’s Mission.
The Bishops said that Parishes have four characteristics. First they are "communities of theological imagination". And I’ll say more about that noun-pileup in a moment. Second Parish members are fed by the word and sacraments. I’m don’t need to say much more about that, because that’s what we’re here doing today. Except that there is some power in proclaiming the word and experiencing the sacraments… there is more going on there than listening to a story and eating a cracker. Third, Parishes are places that form Disciples and Apostles in God’s Mission. I’ll say more about this, and of course you knew there would have to be a connection with God’s Mission! And, finally Parishes are connected to the wider Body of Christ. Methodists, Catholics, and many others are joining God’s Mission too, and our links with them and other Episcopalians, other denominations, other faiths, and even with people who have no belief but who are instruments of the Holy Spirit. All of that and more is the connection that we’re talking about. It’s not just about us.
A "community of theological imagination" seems like a phrase designed to frustrate those who like to have a lot of precision in their lives. Theology is about the study of God though, and I’m thinking we can agree that it is not an easy or precise thing to know what God is exactly and even less, what God is up to. It took over 400 years to find the words to describe the Trinity, and I’m not sure we’re really any closer to understanding just what that is. The imagination part invites us to open the aperture a bit… maybe a lot… to color outside the lines… to pick some crayons that we might not use very often. It suggests that we might try to listen for what God would have us to do, and then perhaps, to do a little experimenting… to try something on, knowing that it might not be completely right and might even fail. Our work to come together with Grace Church Yantic is an excellent example of theological imagination. It’s a bit experimental, and it has required some novel work by our leaders, and it is requiring some patience from all of us. It might fail… we might not be able to come together. And… it’s alright for us to fail. After all, we are not alone in this work… God is with us and within us. And importantly, I get the sense that theological imagination has a lot more to do with the journey than it does the destination. Outcomes achieved might not be as important as relationships formed. And as far as THAT goes, I think we’re hitting it out of the ballpark. So words like "success", "failure", and "achievement" seem to lose their meaning when we’re talking about theological imagination.
That third characteristic, that Parishes are places that form Disciples and Apostles in God’s Mission, is an important one. Whenever you became a Christian, whether as a child or as an adult, you were not instantly invested with Disciple Superpowers. Discipleship is about learning to follow Jesus and that is the work of a lifetime. The Holy Spirit helps that along by pouring the gifts that we need for discipleship into our hearts. As I’ve said before, sometimes those are NOT the gifts we THINK we need! One of us may want to be The Great Leader… what the Spirit gives to that one instead is great listening skills! It is the job of discipleship to discover the gifts we are being given and to put them to work. The miracle in all this is that, although none of us as individuals is a completely formed disciple of Jesus, this Parish as a whole has everything it needs… all the gifts that are needed for us to be a faithful community of Jesus. It’s like the total package of gifts we each have individually, do not get fully actuated until we come together with one another. And the Apostleship piece is where things get really interesting. This is where we are sent, as Apostles… as proclaimers of the Good News… out into the world, carrying the gifts we have been given, to do God’s Mission, wherever we might find it. Now here’s something strange… this Parish has ALMOST everything it needs to do God’s Mission in the world, but NOT EVERYTHING. That only comes when we join others, who bring their own gifts. It is as though the gifts of this Parish are not fully actualized until we come together with other churches, other organizations, other neighbors, other people who fill in the gaps that we might have. It is NOT just about us… it is not up to US ALONE to solve the world’s problems. The Holy Spirit wires us so that we have to come together for it to work, IF it’s going to work. That’s the way that gifts, and discipleship, and apostleship seem to work. This is why I love theological imagination… we are forced as a Parish to use our imagination… to imagine what might happen if we work with St David’s or Grace Church, or St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or Start Fresh, or the United Way. What might happen if we were to join with others?
We have an opportunity now to put all of this into practice as a Parish. We have an opportunity for each of you to use a little Theological Imagination today… an opportunity as disciples and as apostles to examine the gifts that we have been given… even if we think they are not the ones we need. Our Annual Meeting is coming up in June, when we will select new officers and a new class of Vestry people to lead our Parish. At last week’s Vestry meeting, we asked a small team of people to ask some of you to serve in that way. Somewhere out in those pews, many of you are already getting a call to serve as leaders of this Parish, and some, even as wardens. You might not know it yet… my job may be to help you hear that call!
Friends, I know what call feels like. I know what it is to respond with "Who, me? You’ve got to be kidding". I know the anxiety of thinking of all the ways I’m not prepared, don’t have the right gifts, don’t have the right purity, don’t have the right energy, don’t have the time. I ALSO know the "aha" moments that come when I’ve discovered that I really didn’t need all those things… that I had been given gifts that I didn’t realize I had…that someone else had what I lacked and that when their gifts and my gifts came together and overlapped, amazing things happened. AND, I have learned the hard way (so you don’t have to!) what happens when I try to do things by myself… it doesn’t go well. And it doesn’t because I am not superhuman… and my gifts alone are not enough for me to do it alone. I have to bring others alongside, and together, we get it done. I know what it feels like to be afraid of leadership, and I know what the angels are constantly telling us… "don’t be afraid". So I’m asking each of you, as one who knows what this feels like, to look into your heart and see if you are getting a call to serve as a Parish leader. Some of you are already feeling a knot in your gut right now. It’s OK. If you are asked to serve, please sit with the question for a while before you respond. Consider that there might be a prompting-of-the-Spirit and not just the delusion of the asker, as the reason that you are being asked… there is something about you that someone else is seeing that you might not be able to see without their help. Ask questions. Make them tell you what it is! This is how gifts get actualized. Sometimes it takes someone else to tell you. And, I want you to know THIS. Write it down. This Parish already has EVERY GIFT IT NEEDS, given by the Holy Spirit, and that includes leadership, to be good and faithful disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ in this place. We lack nothing because the Spirit has already poured out Her gifts, and no there is one else we have to wait for because everyone we need is already gathered to Her here.
And not only do we have to opportunity to imagine who might serve on our Vestry, we also have a chance to imagine what the Vestry might look like in the future. As Episcopalians, we’ve inherited this structure of Vestry leadership from the nineteenth century… it doesn’t have to be this way. Is this structure really FEEDING us? Is it FEEDING those who serve on it? Are they better disciples of Jesus as a result of their service? The answer might be "yes", but maybe not. Can we imagine a different way, or at least a way that is more aligned with what the Spirit is nudging us to do here? What if the defining characteristic of a Warden was one who was a quiet listener? One who is willing to try and fail? Could we, as Parishioners, ALLOW and encourage our Vestry to try and fail? Would that be OK? What if the Vestry’s job involved more listening, discerning, trying on, reflecting, deciding, and then circling around again? Do we have to meet once a month on Wednesday nights, or could we do it more or less often at a time and place so others can participate? All of this is possible if we bring our theological imaginations to bear.
Pray for our leaders and especially for those whose terms are ending in June. Every one of them has done a fantastic job, and we are hardly able to imagine (there’s that word again) the overlapping and expanding circles of grace that the Spirit has worked through them for all of us and for all who we serve. Pray especially for those who are getting a call to serve. Pray that they will hear that call and respond to it. Ease their anxieties with your prayer… shoot prayer arrows of love into their hearts. Pray that they will not be afraid because God is with us. Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.