Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Easter at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY: Acts 2:42-47; John 10:1-10
There seems to be much bad news for what is often referred to as “mainline Christianity.” That’s folk like us. We seem to be somewhat of an endangered species, particularly those of us in the city. By and large we are aging and shrinking congregations left with enormous monuments of past grandeur. What can we possibly do to survive much less thrive?
We just heard Jesus promise us abundant life. Are our days of abundant life over?
The reality is sobering even for those of us who seem to be holding on, attracting a few people here and there, generally feeling good about ourselves, trying to be open to a new future.
So what’s the answer?
One of the impulses is to look at those churches that are being successful these days and ask what we can do to emulate them. New research shows that would be the wrong impulse for us because those churches live in a different universe from us and we can no more make ourselves like them than the sun can make itself the moon.
So that’s the bad news of this “new research.” Is there any good news?
There is, and it resonates with the readings this morning, particularly the reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
The good news is that there are actually a significant number of old mainline, progressive churches out there who are making a comeback and beginning to thrive again. Generally speaking, they are doing so by becoming more of who they are than what someone else is. The path to thriving is something like rediscovering our roots and claiming and practicing those things that we do well, things that are largely gifts of our tradition.
Tradition had a bad name in our churches for a generation or so. It was something from which we needed to get unstuck. “Contemporary” was the word of the day, and it seems to have worked for some, but for almost all of them it has meant casting off or radically downplaying their denominational history. I remember well going to a church growth conference for Episcopalians in the early 1990’s and being told that the one thing we absolutely had to do was downplay that we were Episcopalians. Denominational affiliation just doesn’t play anymore, we were told.
Something felt wrong about that to me back then and now I’m glad I’ve got actual, solid research done by some very capable people that says my instinct was right. We don’t need to cast off who we are, we need to claim it.
Not in a “better than everybody else” kind of way. Snobbery—something we Episcopalians were especially good at in the past—will not serve us. But being unafraid to be who we are will serve us well.
A woman named Diana Butler Bass (Christianity for the Rest of Us) is the principal researcher to whom I am referring. She happens herself to be an Episcopalian, but her research crossed denominational boundaries. What she found was that old mainline progressive churches that were thriving had certain practices in common.
They are for the most part not new-fangled tricks, but old Christian practices, revived for a new day. Three of the main ones are so old that they are present in this oldest description of a Christian community that we have: the first reading this morning.
The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…all who believed were together and had all things in common...they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts…and day by day the Lord added to their number…
The three ancient Christian practices are hospitality that is a radical openness, generosity that is a radical act of thanksgiving, and a spirituality that is radically communal.
Just that this early community was open and growing is a sign of its hospitality, as well as its strong sense of the common good. In fact, the evidence elsewhere in Acts was that this openness was so culturally unique, so total across all the boundaries of the day that this community became known as “those people who turn the world upside down.”
I would submit that to be a true community of diversity, radical diversity, is still as unique culturally as it once was. Much can be said about the diversity of our culture which would be true, but within that culture we tend to live in sub-cultures with very clearly defined boundaries—back/white, gay/straight, Latino/Anglo, rich/poor, politically conservative/liberal. People’s natural impulse is to be with those who are like them.
Interestingly enough that same Church Growth conference that I mentioned earlier advocated giving in to this impulse. Create like-minded community was its advice. Find a niche population and be what that population needs.
That’s not what we do. Our vision is different. We want to bring disparate people together. That’s our appeal, it is something we highly value, that in order for human community to thrive it needs to be diverse. We are better off together than we are separated.
Not everyone is attracted to this way of living. It can be hard work, and it requires some sacrifice of our own agendas to build a larger one. But this is one thing we have to make clear to the world around us, confidently, boldly: we believe God calls us into community that crosses all boundaries.
And that community is above all things generous in its outlook on life. For the community described in the Acts of the Apostles, that generosity was radical: “they…had all things in common.” That sounds suspiciously like a cult to us or politically and economically something like communism. We’re probably not going to go all the way there.
But what about being a community that is known for its generosity, whose members have a deep sense of gratitude for life and give not as little to the common good as they can get away with, but as much as they can bear and then a little bit more. Stinginess is unknown in such a community. Individuals share their resources for the common life of the community. For us that sometimes means giving to very attractive things that obviously benefit either ourselves or others in need. Most of the time, however, it means giving just as generously to the mundane parts of our common life: the steam heat bill, the sexton’s salary, supplies for the Sunday School. We give generously to these things because we are convinced that we are mutually responsible for them: they are part of our “common good.”
Moreover in a community such as this one, generosity is proclaimed as a way to practice life itself, with radical gratitude for life itself, which is a deliberate turning away from the dominant cultural practices that emphasize the acquiring of more and more things, success measured by wealth, and just good old-fashioned greed. We need to proclaim confidently and boldly that these things are not our way of life. Our way of life is gratitude and generosity.
And lastly there is radical, communal spirituality, centered in the breaking of the bread. The vision is of individuals who gather together week by week because their very lives depend on it. Without the bread they are not whole people. That is why we do it. We do not do it to entertain ourselves or as some spiritual gimmick or fad. We do it because Jesus taught us to and our ancestors have been doing it for two thousand years and it is our experience that it keeps us whole and alive.
“The breaking of bread and the prayers,” the description says. That refers to the community’s commitment to daily prayer, the wisdom of at least a little time in the morning and a little time in the evening to say to God “I love you,” and to hear from God, “I love you too,” to remember those in need, including ourselves, and to feed our imaginations with the stories of our ancestors.
Our spirituality is unabashedly, unashamedly communal. And in that communalism it is both very different from the rampant individualism of the world around us and the spirituality of personal salvation practiced by many of our fellow Christians. We believe that none of us is saved as individuals; we are saved as a community. Our individual relationship with God and our participation in community are so intertwined that we cannot imagine one without the other.
I am describing a community like that first one described in Acts, which wants to know God and the love that is at the heart of God together.
Radical hospitality, gratitude-driven generosity, and communal spirituality are our primary values. Those were the practices of the community that emerged following the death and resurrection of Jesus. They are our practices as well and we need to be committed to strengthening them, being able to articulate them to a world that doesn’t really know who we are and what we stand for. In two simple words this can all be summed up using a word Jesus’ uses in the Gospel reading this morning: we are about “abundant community.”
Why do I go to Church? Or the better question, why am I part of a Christian community and this kind of Christian community in particular?
I think there are three simple answers we can give:
Because my life is abundant when I am surrounded both by people who are like me and by people who are different from me.
Because my life is abundant when I am grateful for life and give of myself generously.
Because my life is abundant when I pray in community as people have prayed for thousands of years.
Radical hospitality, gratitude-driven generosity, communal spirituality. Abundant community. Let it be, church, let it be. It’s the only way to throw off the bad news and embrace who we are and who we are called to be.