Sermon: Easter IV, Sunday, May 24, 2015
Church of Our Saviour, Elmhurst
Rev. Dr. Robert Petite, Interim Rector
“The State of the Parish”
I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels--a plentiful harvest of new lives. John 12:24. New Living Translation
This Sunday is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, a time in the churches year when we celebrate Jesus as the good shepherd. It is an important image for us even today, though we do not live in a culture where sheep are commonplace. While it appears to be a simple pastoral image, it is in fact a very arresting image, because in the scripture, the shepherd is an image of powerful and faithful leadership. When the prophets complained about the leadership of Israel, and how that leadership had failed the people, they always spoke of disloyal and unfaithful shepherds. Jesus as the good shepherd is Jesus the powerful and faithful leader.
We are in the midst of exploring what a new shepherd, what new leadership might look like for Church of Our Saviour in the coming years. What kind of shepherd do we want to lead this parish into the next decade? One aspect of my role as Interim is to encourage the parish in this search, and as well to challenge the parish leadership to move beyond its current situation and look courageously into future.
I have been the Interim Rector for approximately eight months, and I thought this stage in my tenure might be a good time to reflect with you on what the challenges and the blessings are, as we continue to move forward with the new Rector search, and as we also make plans for the future, even as we await the arrival of new clergy leadership.
As a way of beginning, I want to frame my remarks within a particular theological perspective. We are a Christian Community who are called to live the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For our purposes this morning, there is one aspect of that life that is particularly relevant as we reflect on the nature of the church in general and upon our own church life in particular.
This theological perspective is best represented by a passage from the twelfth chapter of the Gospel of St. John. Jesus tells his disciples, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels--a plentiful harvest of new lives”. The significance of this passage is that the new life Jesus came to establish is grounded in an organic reality, that before new life can flourish, there has to be a dying. This truth is at the center of the life of Christ, and of the Christian life, and built into the very fabric of all life itself, into the very nature of the earth, of the cosmos, and of all life. The Christian calling is one of dying to ourselves, in order that we may rise to the new life in Christ. It is what our baptismal vows are all about. Indeed the symbolism of Baptism speaks of this organic life, of being buried in the depths of the water, dying to our old selves, and arising out of the watery grave into a new life characterized by love of God and neighbor.
Jesus is offering us an organic understanding of the church in this text from St. John. As we move forward into the future, we might begin by asking ourselves what would our congregation be like if we took this passage seriously. As we move into the future, we may need to be willing to embrace the organic nature of the Christian community– to see death, to see dying, not as the ultimate failure but as the door to a greater life. We may need to learn how to die in a way that plants the seeds of resurrection and new life. This is a very incarnational view of the church, that God is in the messiness of life, in death itself, making it the seed of his new life, and rebirth. We live the Christian life within the changes and chances of this world, things change and die, and from that change and death come new things and new life.
Change is at the center of things. Nothing ever stays the same if it is to grow and develop. We see this in our own families, as our children grow and move away from us and establish their own lives, lives that are often radically different from our own. Yet we have given them something, we hope, something of ourselves that will serve them well as they go into the future. We hope that their lives will be in continuity with ours, if not exactly like ours.
This is the challenge before us in the Church, to move forward into a new world, with new ideas, with new ways to reflect the love of God, but in ways that keep us in continuity with the faith delivered from the Apostles.
The stark reality of course is that change happens whether we like it or not, and whether we cooperate with it or not. As we age we will lose control of our own lives, and we, all of us gathered here, will lose control of the church as well, as new people take it and change it in ways that can be very difficult for us to accept. To be sure, this has already happened. Who would have imagined fifty years ago, that the church would be ordaining women, or marrying GLBT people.
The church has undergone great change over the past half century, just as the world has changed around it. The kind of losses COS has experienced over the past twenty years, the kind of death it has experienced, is the experience of all churches, liberal and conservative, they are all just in different stages of this change depending upon their communities, and the kind of financial resources they have to sustain them. Our experience is not unique; our dying is the status quo in the life of the Christian community. What can be different is if and how we will rise. There are extraordinary examples of churches rising to new life, but in every case it has always meant change and a discovering a new way of going about being church.
To speak specifically about COS, the change is self-evident. We have lost people through death, through conflict over the vision of what the church should be, and we have lost people, or have not grown, as we would like, because we live in an increasingly secular age where religion is not a priority for many people. The world has indeed changed, or at least the world in Europe and North America has.
So COS finds itself a remnant, a score of people who have continued to support it and to make it a priority in their lives. And as a remnant, it is a seed, a seed with extraordinary potential, but unless that seed dies, unless it continues to incorporate itself into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, unless it changes, it is not altogether clear whether it will rise to new life. It must change, because the world has changed, and requires something different from it, then it required in the past.
I want to be clear here, that I am not advocating change for change sake, I am rather advocating focused change, change grounded in the core of the Gospel and in continuity with the Christian faith as we have known it, and as it is being revealed to us thought the Holy Spirit, change that will enable COS to meet the challenges of the future. Without this core vision and a willingness to make changes that will enable us to confront the challenges before us, we will be a caretaker congregation, until finally our financial resources dwindle and disappear.
What are these challenges? Well, there was a time when folks came to the church in their neighborhood, to their local parish, and they came to that parish because the church was of their denomination, the denomination of their family down through the distant past. They came because society either supported their attendance, or perhaps even required it. All of that has changed. Elmhurst is a much more religiously diverse community then it was even ten to fifteen years ago. One characteristic of this religious diversity is that denominational loyalty and locality is often not a priority in choosing a church. Folks tend to join churches today because the church is able to meet very specific spiritual, communal, and relational needs, and also to provide opportunities for service, rather than because the church is a particular religious denomination or in a particular location.
Another aspect of the church’s life that has changed is the character of clergy leadership itself. There was a time when the clergy did what clergy had done for hundreds of years, visiting the sick, administering the sacraments, church administration etc. What was required in these things was dedication and faithfulness. All that has changed as well. These things are indeed still required, but they are required with the addition of particular talents and skills in ways that they were not required in the past. Today the role of the clergy is one that will involve the creative and skillful administration of the Sunday Liturgy, challenging and relevant preaching so as to feed the spiritual life of the faithful. The clergy will also spend a great deal of time developing and supporting church leadership, and help to provide a vision for the parish that engages a changing world while at the same time supporting the spiritual life of people who are bombarded by rapid change in that same complex world.
Ken Howard, an Episcopal priest andauthor ofParadoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them; has this to say: “The context in which our congregations exists is shifting so dramatically that mere tweaking of method and message can no longer return us to health, let alone vitality. We are facing radical change – radical as in going to the root – requiring of us both radical recognition and radical response.”
It is very evident that the old ways of being the Church are fading away, and that a new and unfamiliar pattern of being the Church in the world is emerging. And because that new pattern is not yet fully present, we may need to find ways of moving into the future with vision, hope, and vitality. We will have to ask ourselves particular questions. What kind of community do we want to be? What do we want, and most importantly need in new clergy leadership? How will we reach out and invite new comers, and how will be welcome them in our midst? What will be the character of our worship life? How do we want to renovate our worship space so that it is truly welcoming, and truly reflective of the Eucharistic community we want to be? No doubt there are countless other questions.
These are the challenges before us. We can begin to address them in the faith and knowledge that we have many gifts by which we can make progress. There is a core leadership here at COS that feels deeply about the congregations future. We are located in a vibrant and thriving community outside our doors. We are reasonably financially secure. We have a beautiful modern building that is especially adaptable to a contemporary liturgy that is at the same time rooted in the ancient church. We possess a beautiful and outstanding organ. We are a part of the Anglican family of churches, a family that holds scripture, tradition and reason, as it’s three pillars, and thus we belong to a religious and spiritual tradition that is particularly suited to engage the modern world.
But having said all this about our strengths, what will be of ultimate importance will be our commitment to the Gospel, and the charge to find ways to proclaim it anew in a new time. For those of us who are here present, we will need to nurture one another, and find ways to arrive at decisions that will move us into a new day. We will need to incorporate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ so completely into our lives, that we will see and know that his risen life is essential to living a truly human life. And we will also need to known and feel that it is here, particularly at COS, that we are called to follow him, and it is here that we can truly know and feel his presence in our lives. We will need to conclude that COS is essential to our spiritual identity and growth.
One thing I am certain of: confronting the challenges of the future by embracing considered and thoughtful change, can both make Church of Our Saviour more vital in the present, and enable us to face the “changes and chances” of the future with adaptability and resilience. And it will make our ministry as leaders in this parish more exciting and creative, and perhaps even more fun. In our small congregation, can we take seriously that “when two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them”, or that other passage, “I am with you always even to the end of the ages” and move forward in hope as we face the challenges before us. Amen.