Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene (Annual Meeting of the parish): Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
“The Episcopal Church is dying.”
I have been an active member of the Episcopal Church since 1979 and for almost all that time I have heard this Jonah-like doomsday prediction. It is like Paul delivering the hard message to the Corinthians: “The present form of this world is passing away.” Prepare yourself, because it is all coming to an end. Is that all we can do as a church, is prepare to die?
I blame no one for making this prediction because the numbers are grim. When I was born in 1961, the Episcopal Church had 3.6 million members. I joined a 2.8 million member Church in 1979. Today, we are members of a 1.9 million member church. Not good. Not good at all.
We are not alone, of course. Mainline Protestant Christianity from us to the Southern Baptists is in this same decline, as is the Roman Catholic Church in some parts of the country, including this one.
The circumstances that brought us to this place are legion. Some of them are our fault. Many of them are not. Any one answer is too easy, including that those mega-churches are the ones being successful these days. The only thing they have succeeded in doing is soaking up our people. The fastest growing religious segment of the United States is actually “none of the above,” which means not practicing at all. The percentage is approaching 40% of the adult population, up from something like 15% in the 1970’s.
It is important that we know these numbers so that we do not bury our heads in the sand. We should not pretend that everything is going to be all right. No one could possibly say that about the mainline church with any honesty.
Having said that, though, I do not believe the Episcopal Church is dying. To believe that, I would have to believe that either God has abandoned us or we have abandoned God, and I do not believe either of those things.
There may be another way of looking at all this, and, therefore, of reacting to it. Take Paul’s pronouncement that “the present form of this world is passing away.” That sounds like nothing but bad news. It sounds like we should hunker down, protect ourselves, and wait for the worst.
But what if Paul is telling good news, not bad? What if it is good news that the present form of the world is passing away? After all, who among us is satisfied with the present form of the world? Who among us does not wish for the kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven, for which we pray almost every time we pray?
So what if the decline of the Episcopal Church is good news? I don’t mean that it is not painful or threatening. But what if it is also good news?
I said a moment ago that I could believe neither that God had abandoned us nor that we have abandoned God. So if God is still with us, what is God up to? That’s the positive question we should be asking.
I did not come up with this thought on my own. I came to it in conversation with an Anglican Church of Canada priest named Alan Roxburgh. It is his belief that churches like ours are not dying, but the way we have practiced being the church is. He says
We keep looking for ways to turn it around. What program will work? What resource? What needs in the community do we need to meet in order to get people to come into our church? The underlying assumption to all these anxious attempts to turn it around is that all we need to do is find a way for people to know how wonderful we are and they will start coming to church again and they will put money in the plate and we will be whole again.
It’s never going to happen.
This decline, Roxburgh says, is a gift from God. It is forcing us to stop clinging to an old way of being church in which we could assume that most people agreed with us and that they needed to be part of us to be good Americans, if not simply good people. We either let go of thinking like that or we do die.
It’s never going to happen. But God never gives up. The Holy Spirit is messing with us, unraveling the church because the Spirit is not done with us yet. What is happening to us is an invitation by God to become a very different church. We have [for instance] created clergy whose focus is the church, and who only know how to make the church run reasonably well, talk church talk, and ask church questions. There’s a point in the Book of Ezekiel where God says to Ezekiel the prophet/priest, “Stop looking for me in the Temple. I’m not stuck there anymore and you need to join me where I am.”
God is out there in the world ahead of us. This is a gift from God. How will we learn to live in this new reality that we do not have control of God in our churches, but God is loose in the world and our job is to follow? And in order to follow, the most important thing we have to give up is our control of who we call “the stranger,” or “the strange,” or “the other.” In fact, we need to take up the mantle of the stranger and go out into the world and dare to be different.
“The time is fulfilled,” Jesus says, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”
In our time this is not the message of the church to the world. It is the message of the world to the church, a message and an invitation from God.
I am wildly hopeful because of these thoughts. God is doing something with us. But, of course, we are free, so we must decide to cooperate. What does that mean? Many, many things. I suspect the change we are called to is deep. It does not mean, I think, that we are called to give up everything, although I may be wrong about that. I am an Episcopalian, so I believe the tradition is a gift to us as well. But what are we to do, for instance, with buildings built to say to the world, “God is in here, you must come in here to meet him,” when we are really trying to say exactly the opposite thing?
There is no simple, easy answer, no single program that we can run that will fix us, no person who is smart enough or charismatic enough to turn it around. There is only us, together. And I think these things are true:
· We need to stop wringing our hands and being anxiously reactive to what is happening to us, and claim what is still true: God is with us and has a purpose for us. God is not finished with us yet.
· The Episcopal Church has a lot of baggage and changing it is like turning an aircraft carrier. But at our heart is a faithfulness and a way of engaging the world that is holy and it is a very fine way of delivering the good news. I love this tradition and believe with all my heart it is worth passing on.
· We are perfectly capable of repentance, of change, of re-thinking, we just have to be willing to take risks. That does not mean throwing common sense to the wind, but it does mean opening ourselves to Gabriel’s message that all things are possible with God. A for instance—it is a common notion here that there is not much we can do to change this 19th century building for the betterment of our mission in the 21st century. And yet, at least three times in the history of this congregation, we have done precisely that.
In short, Jesus is still saying, “Follow me.” We are still being called. There is life in us yet. We are being changed for the glory of God. God is not finished with us yet.
 This takes place in chapters 9, 10 and 11 of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a priest before he was called to be a prophet, and was one of the first taken into exile in Babylon in 597 b.c.e.