Had this crazy idea this morning: what if we created a Place where we didn’t add labels to one another but had true fellowship, where we could come together and break bread and support each other? What if in that Place we didn’t seek to point out the sins of others but looked to ourselves and identified those errors in our own lives and then sought to turn from those errors? What if this Place was where we could grow and learn and demonstrate to others that there is another Way? What if in this Place we chose to love one another instead of hating and degrading everyone we disagree with? And what if in this Place we worked for true justice and peace and respected the dignity of every person regardless of any and all differences?
Can we create such a Place?
We can, with God’s help.
I will set a Table in this Place and prepare the meal.
I identify as sinner/Son. All sinners/Daughters and Sons are invited.
Place = God’s House & God’s Rule.
God’s Rule = Love one another as I have loved you.
Each year my friend, The Rev. Sean Ekberg, gathers laity and clergy to write a daily Advent reflection. Today (December 23) was mine. You can read it below or visit The Episcopal Church the Resurrection and read there along with some of the other reflections.
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
His Name is John?
Holden Caulfield loves his sister, Phoebe, and her innocence. He desires that her innocence go unchanged, yet he knows that every experience will change her to one degree or another. Reflecting on her many trips to the museum to view the same paintings that he has enjoyed, he thinks, “I thought how she’d see the same stuff I used to see, and how she’d be different every time she saw it. It didn’t exactly depress me to think about it, but it didn’t make me feel gay as hell, either. Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.” (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger)
In many respects, the Church had come to see itself as one of those items that should be curated in a big glass case. It should occasionally be brought out to remove the fine layer of dust that had accumulated, along with any unwelcomed spider’s web, and the glass it set upon also properly dusted. But then it should be set back unhindered in its proper place in that big glass cabinet.
Close to two years ago, something came along and smashed the cabinet.
When it hit, we all lunged forward from our comfortable seats and dashed to catch the Church before it struck the ground and burst into thousands of unrecognizable shards. By the grace of God, we caught it, but then what were we to do? Build another glass museum case? Set it out of reach on some high pinnacle? Place it on the nearest flat surface and quietly walk away? No. None of the above. Besides, this is God’s Church and if we were not to care for it, then He would raise up from the stones those who would.
The Bishop, clergy and people of the Diocese of Oklahoma took their Church and began taking a much closer look at it. They peered into stained glass windows and found the wonders of God and signs of a life that they had not anticipated, but one they would embrace. This was something new. In a sense, within the Church, the events of the last few years are like Zechariah giving his newborn son a name that none of his family had ever received, and it was God saying, “Behold I make all things new.” And truthfully, we were all amazed. We were perhaps afraid in trying, but we were doing things that we had not ever imagined. We were speaking to the world in new ways, being creative in how we fulfilled the Great Commission. Sometimes those new ways worked and sometimes the internet signal was not strong enough; but we have persevered and will continue to do so, for we believe that the hand of the Lord is with us.
At the naming of John, Zechariah’s neighbors asked, “What then will this child become?” We can ask the same of the Church in this new era. What will we become? The answer: exactly the Church of which God desires for us to become. Let’s just not go and put ourselves back in another big glass cabinet. Let’s continue to seek new and innovative ways to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world that has also changed. Let’s follow John out into the wilderness and be witness to Love.
You Know You’re in a Cajun Church if the finance committee refuses to provide funds for the purchase of a chandelier because none of the members knows how to cook it.
You Know You’re in a Cajun Church if when people learn that Jesus fed the 5000, they want to know whether the two fish bass or catfish.
You Know You’re in a Cajun Church if when the pastor says, “I’d like to ask Boudreaux to help take up the offering,” four guys and one gal stand up.
You Know You’re in a Cajun Church if on the opening day of gator season the church is closed.
You Know You’re in a Cajun Church if the choir robes were donated by and embroidered with the logo for, Thibideaux’s Fine Dining and Bait Shop.
Finally, you Know You’re in a Cajun Church if instead of sanctus bells, you hear a duck call.
There’s more, but I’ll stop there.
It doesn’t matter if it is within the same denomination, every church has its own distinctive characteristics. Like the Episcopal Church, there’ll be the same basic liturgy—even protestant churches have liturgies, whether they admit it or not—but they’ll all have certain nuances one to the next. And all denominations essentially believe the same basic tenants of the faith, although they’ll argue about the details. But when it comes to the mainline denominations—Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutherans, and the likes—we also have one other thing in common, which is a bit disconcerting: decline in members and attendance. A study that came out recently surveyed 15,000 churches across all denominations. In the year 2000, the average attendance in those churches on a Sunday was 137. In the year 2020, that number had dropped by more than 50% to 65. Why would it drop so dramatically?
It is still mostly true in towns like ours, but no longer in the cities: the steeple of the church used to be the tallest structure in any community. It was a sign to the faithful and a beacon to the lost. But as things progressed and the buildings got taller, the church—literally—became less visible, until eventually it was completely dwarfed and even hidden in the mass of ever growing commerce and skyscrapers. The only trouble, not only did this happen with the church building, but it happened with the people as well. As more and more opportunities were presented, more and more people were drawn away. Some blame the people for this. “They need to get their priorities straight!” “Jesus is the reason for the season!”, and so on, but the truth is, the circumstances are far more complex than platitudes and the pandemic only accelerated and exacerbated the situation.
As for us at St. Matthew’s, prior to the pandemic, we were bucking the trends and growing, but the pandemic did a bit more than knock the wind out of that. When we were once again able to open our doors, I thought that everyone would be back. That has not been the case. This has been very upsetting to me. At first I was even a bit angry, but then I just became more and more anxious. What had happened to our church? When I got past the initial panic, I started looking for an answer. In my opinion, knowledge is power and over the last couple of months, I have been talking to our bishop and my colleagues and reading and I’ve come to understand that we are not alone in this at St. Matthew’s. As a matter of fact, it is basically across the board in almost every church and every denomination. What I’ve also realized is that if I was feeling anxious about it, then so are you.
Most of you have been here a lot longer than I have and this is your church. So today, I thought I would share with you some of the things that I’ve learned and hope to show a vision of a path forward that I’ve been working on with the Bishop, the diocese, Dora (our Sr. Warden) and the vestry. And I’ll start by saying, I am very excited about the future of St. Matthew’s. So, what did I learn?
One of the hardest hitting and honest articles I came across and shared with colleagues summarized what we know about the low attendance that we’re all experiencing. It was simply titled: They’re Not Coming Back. My initial reaction was like being punched in the gut, but after a bit, it cleared the fog of my anxiousness and allowed me to understand what is taking place.
Three main takeaways from the article and confirmed in many conversations and observations here: 1) people who were eager to volunteer in the past and showed up for everything are being more selective and only choosing a few things to participate in, 2) individuals and families who were once regular attenders are becoming semi-regular, and 3) individuals and families that were on the periphery are fading away all together. If we ask ourselves, “Do I fall into one of those categories?” I think we would probably say, yes. The “why” behind it is a bit more difficult to understand, but the way forward is to understand and acknowledge that the last two years have presented every human being on the planet with a shared trauma. We did not simply ease into the pandemic. There was a day when we were all hearing about a new variety of flu and the very next day we collectively slammed into a brick wall. Everything stopped and closed. If you’ve ever been in a bad accident or known someone that has, you don’t just walk away from it without feeling some effects. Whether you were injured or not—and with the pandemic we all were in one way or another—whether you were injured or not, the world and each individual has been traumatized to one degree or another and at the moment, we’re all just trying to figure out if it’s safe to get back in a car.
That’s the first bit. Understanding and acknowledging the trauma we’ve been through, so that we can see through the fog of our anxiousness, which then allows us to recognize the one thing we truly need: the healing that comes from God that will restore us to health.
The second piece is this (and to continue using the analogy of a car hitting a brick wall): when you’ve walked away from that accident, my guess is your number one priority will be safety. In other words, you’re going to probably make some changes in what you drive and how you drive. Following the crash of the pandemic, the Church is going to have to make some changes as well. Don’t worry, I won’t be adding big screens and rock bands in the sanctuary or wearing skinny jeans (Lord, help us all!) It does however mean that we need to truly define who we are and then, with that in mind, actively engage in the mission of the church. What is the mission of the Church? From the Book of Common Prayer: “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” How do we pursue this mission? “The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.” And who in the Church carries out this mission? “The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.” That is our mission, how we accomplish it, and who takes part in it. It is truly the fulfillment of the Great Commission as given to us by Christ Jesus. This is the goal of the second part, of going forward and so, everything we do—from the music we select to sing on a Sunday morning, to the annual budget, to the programs we offer, to who we are in the community as disciples of Jesus, and everything else—should reflect the mission.
At times like this, it can seem the right thing to do would be to circle the wagons, hold what we’ve, got and wait for things to settle out, but that is not who we are as a Christian people. The Lord said to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” That’s who we are.
We—the world—has been knocked around pretty good the last couple of years, but through our faith and courage, in the process of asking for and realizing our own healing, we as a congregation are going to seek to bring that same healing to others. I said I was excited about the future of St. Matthew’s and that is why, because as I’ve told you, I firmly believe that the Lord is about to do some amazing work through you and I’m delighted to be a part of it and to be able to watch and participate as it unfolds.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, look upon our community of faith which is the Church of your Son, Jesus Christ. Help us to witness to his love by loving all our fellow creatures without exception. Under the leadership of our Bishop keep us faithful to Christ’s mission of calling all men and women to your service so that there may be “one fold and one shepherd.” We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
In nature there are some epic battles that take place every day. One such battle goes on between the Japanese honeybee and the Giant Japanese Hornet. The Japanese Hornet is five times larger than the bee and is the world’s strongest predatory hornet.
When a Giant Japanese Hornet finds a honeybee nest it will kill a few honeybees and take them back to its nest to feed on it’s larvae. But then it returns, this time marking the honeybee hive with a scent. The scent attracts other hornets, and when two or three have arrived they begin to slaughter the honeybees at an extraordinary rate. One such event records that 30,000 honeybees were killed by just 30 hornets in about three hours.
But the honeybees have developed a defense, and a defense that puzzled scientists for quite some time. You see, the honeybees can kill the hornets, but not in the way you might think – they don’t sting them to death. Instead, they do the opposite of what might be expected. They begin by doing all they can to annoy the hornet trying to mark its scent on their nest. Over 100 worker honeybees gather near the entrance to the nest, and then, when the hornet comes near, they lift and shake their abdomens in a peculiar dance. And the hornet finds this really aggravating. The bees then dive into their nest, and the steamed up hornet follows, intent to do some damage!
Unbeknown to the hornet 1000 worker bees are waiting for him just inside the entrance. When he gets close enough, around 500 of the honeybees jump on him, enclosing him in a ball of honeybees about the size of a clenched fist. They gather as close as they can to the hornet and start vibrating their muscles. What happens? The vibrations cause the temperature to rise and rise and rise. In ten minutes or so the temperature’s up to 117 degrees. Guess what temperature is too hot for a hornet to survive – 113 degrees; whereas the honeybees can function up to 120 degrees. When the temperature of the ball of vibrating honeybees goes above 113 degrees the hornet dies and the honeybees survive.
That is a rather remarkable act of God’s creation, and it is a rather profound lesson for the church. We as individual members of a church can go it alone, doing things our own way and in all likelihood, not only will we fail as individuals, but we may also fail corporately. St. Josemaria Escriva put it a bit more bluntly, “Convince yourself, my child, that lack of unity within the Church is death.” (The Forge, #631) However, if we choose to work as a body – recognizing that we are in fact “in this thing together” – then, although there may be difficult times, we will manage to overcome. Please note, I’m not eluding to a Giant Japanese Hornet buzzing around at our front door. I’m not referring to some observed problem existing within the church, but it is good for us all to remember that we are called to stand together in the mission of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
Consider the words of the Psalmist today:
For one day in your courts
is better than a thousand in my own room,
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.
“… to stand at the threshold of the house” – that passage can take several meanings: it can mean to be the doorman, or one of the masses just hoping to get a peek inside, or even a beggar, but each implies the same message, “I would rather be a nobody in the house of God, than a somebody outside of it.” For us: “I would rather be a small and insignificant part of the Body of Christ, than not to be a part at all.” And not only are we all a part of the Body of Christ, we need one another.
Paul teaches us in his first letter to the Corinthians, “just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.” He goes on to say, “If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” We are the Body and we need one another. To say, “I have no need of you,” to separate yourself from the body, from the church, is in a very real way excommunication, not as in an action that has been imposed on you, but as an action you have imposed on yourself. In the end, not only does the individual suffer, but the body suffers as well. We are the body of Christ, the church, and he is the head of the body. “Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior,” says Paul to the Ephesians; and the loss of any of its members brings harm to the church.
I’ll remind you again of those wonderful words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, “The Church is not the society of those labeled virtuous. It is the mixed community of sinners called to be saints.” The church is anything but perfect; but it is far better within its embrace than it is outside. Outside, the hornets can take us one by one, but together, within the spiritual walls of this place, we can defend one another and conquer our greatest enemies.
Today, following the Confession of Sin we will offer the Sacrament of Unction – of healing. If you need healing in body, mind or soul, then I invite you to come forward to receive an anointing and the laying on of hands. I also invite you to come forward to receive the same for the healing of any infirmity within the church, so that we might not only bring healing to our individual bodies, but to this Body of Christ as well.