Sometime in 2005 (I haven’t been able to figure out exactly when), Bishop Jack McKelvey called me. I had been at Two Saints less than a year and I was just beginning to get my bearings. “I wonder if you might do me a favor,” he said. Beware of conversations with bishops that begin with those words.
“Have you met Mary Ann Brody?” he asked. “I don’t think I have,” was my reply. And here we are today, seven years later. And I am a happy priest. The journey we have been on together, Mary Ann, and people of St. Stephen’s and Two Saints, has been a blessing beyond the telling. I am so very grateful for you as a colleague, Mary Ann, and a friend.
And I am so very grateful for the relationship we have, my sisters and brothers of St. Stephen’s, and I know I speak for the people of Two Saints, as well. Together, led, and sometimes driven, by the Holy Spirit, we have taken risks and set out on a journey whose destination we did not know. And we still don’t know, and the risks have not gone away. Perhaps they have even increased. But we can stand in this moment with a sense of wonder and joy. God is up to something here.
OK, enough of that. Let’s get back to work. Because we do indeed still have work to do, in fact, the greatest work lies ahead of us.
The Scripture we just heard points us in a very important direction. With the rest of the church, we are somewhat bewildered about the future. Lots of things do not look very good for us right now. It is vitally important not to belabor the bad news. Anxiety will not save us. But it is also vitally important to acknowledge it. Denial is not the way into the future either. But what is the way?
“Samuel, Samuel,” comes the voice. The way begins, as it always must, in listening. We do not do enough of it, and when we do, we are often, like the boy Samuel, confused about the source of what we are hearing. This is true for us as individuals, and it is true for us as a church.
Why was Samuel confused? Because, the text says, Samuel did not yet “know” the Lord. I’ve puzzled over that statement many times. Was it simply a matter of maturity? Or teaching? Or something akin to what some Christians call being “born again?” I think the answer is in the word “know.” When this word is used as a relationship word in the Hebrew Scriptures it denotes intimacy. Frequently it is said with a wink. “Now Adam knew his wife Eve,” wink, wink. (Genesis 4:1)
“Samuel did not yet know the Lord.” We are not talking about physical intimacy, of course, but we are talking about deep and abiding relationship, whose goal is modeled by Jesus: “The Father and I are one.” (John 10:30)
Our ability to hear God, our ability to distinguish God’s voice from the cacophony of other voices ringing in our ears day by day, is measured by the depth of our knowledge of God and God’s knowledge of us. The question this ancient text asks us this afternoon is, “How are you deepening your relationship with God?” That is a question for each one of us and all of us together.
We did Every Member Visits at Two Saints back in the Fall, and it was no surprise that when the question was asked about what we need to continue to move into the future of the parish, the predominant word was growth. We need more members. We need more of this kind of people or that kind of people. We need more leaders. And, of course, we do.
But how? The answer is counter-intuitive. It is basic contemporary family systems theory that if you want to effect change in someone else, trying directly to change them is utterly futile. As my grandmother used to say, “If you try to put lipstick on a chicken the only thing you will succeed in doing is a bloody hand.” (Southern Tier wisdom, free of charge). Family systems theory says the only way to change somebody else is to change yourself. For our purposes the message is clear: We will not grow (in numbers) until we grow (in relationship with God).
This is step one, if you will, but only step one, because ever-deepening relationship with God is absolutely essential, but it is not an end in itself. The end, as it is at the end of every Eucharist, is being sent into the world. We listen ultimately for God’s call, which brings as to the letter to the Ephesians.
“I beg you,” Paul says (in my own paraphrase), “to live as if God himself has called you, because, in fact, God has. You are called to live with humility and patience. You are called to bear with one another as a sign of your love for each other. You are called to maintain your unity, the bond of peace, which is the gift of the Spirit.”
You are called. This word “call” is one of the most important words in Paul’s vocabulary for the Christian life. It is so important that it becomes the name for the Christian gathering. The New Testament word for “church,” is ekklesia. It literally means the “called together” or the “called out” (Greek prepositions are notoriously slippery). It was a word that in the Greek world of Paul’s day had no religious connotations whatsoever. It was, if anything, a political word, so that we might be more inclined to translate it “town meeting.” It was a gathering of people purposely called together in order to develop a common purpose and be called out into the world for that purpose.
When we gather together, we are the called. We are called together; we are called out. Both those calls draw us out of ourselves for the sake of the world. Christianity is not primarily a self-fulfillment movement, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the “Christian inspirational” book shelves at Barnes & Noble.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “The church is the church only when it exists for others.” He applied this to the individual Christian as well. It is impossible for you and me to call ourselves Christians and not radically devote our lives to the well-being of others. This is fundamentally what it means to be called.
And Jesus tells us who are these others whose well-being must become more important than our own. In the wonderful translation of Eugene Peterson:
Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here.
To call people “lost” and “confused” may seem presumptuous and condescending, and it would be if we did not know with conviction that we are not talking about “them.” We are talking about us. We are the lost and confused and we are called to share that reality with our sisters and brothers around us, wherever it is we call neighborhood, but certainly around this church.
Which is to say that we are called to share our real lives with people. And we are called, when it is time, after we have built a relationship, to tell the story and tell of the community that keeps us from being lost and confused and out of control.
It is another counterintuitive part of our calling. We are not primarily called to bring people in here. We are certainly not called to wait for them to come. We are not called to sell the church. We’ve been trying but it doesn’t work. If it ever did work, it doesn’t work anymore.
We are called to go out there and find God. God is up to something in the lives of the people of this neighborhood, of your neighborhood. Most people cannot see it, do not realize it. That’s our job. That’s our calling. “Tell them that the kingdom is here.”
As I said, it’s is totally counter-intuitive. The only way to bring more people in here is to go find what God is up to out there.
I am not by any means saying that this is not already happening here. But it needs to happen more. It needs to become primarily what we are about. People will not come back to our churches until we prove to them with our lives that the purpose of this place is not to judge, nor is it to play some social game of who is better than who. Our purpose is to build authentic relationships through which God can work healing and reconciliation and empowerment and well-being and flat-out dignity for every living, breathing human being.
No one is going to do this work for you or for us. There is no magic program that will come from the Episcopal Church Center in New York City. There will be no easily followed plan emanating from Diocesan House on East Ave. You must continue to seek your calling and embrace it and learn to do it yourselves. We must pray for confidence and courage and a passionate love for those God has given to us as our neighbors.
I have watched you, St. Stephen’s, care about this neighborhood. You do much in it and for it. But I have a further challenge for you. Jesus has a further challenge for you. You need to become this neighborhood.
That is, after all, our story. It is what God did in Jesus of Nazareth. “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” God became our neighbor and showed us the way of the kingdom, the way of making neighbor with friend and stranger alike.
Are we ready to do likewise? If we manage to do so there will be a future for this parish and, indeed, for the Episcopal Church.
Let us continue our celebration of what God has done and is doing in this place and in this city with us, through us, and among us. But let us leave this celebration convinced that what God is doing in here is only the type of the iceberg. It is what God is up to out there that is our calling. Let us have the courage to seek it out and join it.
 The quote is from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 382.