Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Imitate. Assimiliate. Innovate.

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on July 29, 2012, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost with Proper 12B:  Ephesians 3:14-21

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.[1]

            Several times in the past few months I have said something like, “It is not our job to sell the church. It is our job to tell the story of what God is up to in the world.”  Now, believe it or not, sometimes I say things that trouble even me, and this has been one of them. I am absolutely convinced it is true but it leaves me with many questions to answer.

            It is true. It is not our job to sell the church. It is our job to tell the story of what God is up to in the world including in my life.  But for me, and I suspect for many of you, it is difficult for me to talk about God in my life without talking about the church.  And why should that not be?  Part of what God is up to in the world is the church.  The church is part of the good news we have to tell.  Except, of course, when it is not.

            OK, having tied myself (and you) in knots, let’s cut to the chase.  The simple question here is, “What is the Church for?”

            We can immediately answer that with all kinds of theological language, some of which will be very meaningful to those of us who hang around the church a lot, but will be almost useless, and even off-putting to people who are not (an increasing number of our friends and neighbors).  So, in simple language, what is the church for?

            Donald Schell, an Episcopal priest from San Francisco, who was for many years the rector of the fairly well known Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa there, quotes a jazz musician to answer this question.  Clark Terry says that the way to make jazz happen is three simple steps:  “imitate, assimilate, innovate.”

            This is what church is for:  In community we practice patterns that have been given us—the greatest being the breaking of bread.  We make those practices our own.  This enables us in courage and freedom to live with dignity, with justice and in peace.

            It is that simple.  But, of course, it does not always work that way.  Schell writes,

Some churches seem determined to equip people for action by offering a detailed guide for facing every situation.  People I know well, whether inside church practice or outside church practice, agree that real-life guidelines that clear and simple aren’t much use.  Clark Terry isn’t just telling us how to make jazz (and St. Paul [in Ephesians] isn’t just telling us how to worship).  They’re telling us how to make the music or say the prayers so we learn to take a pattern, a melody, a gesture from someone else and make it so completely our own that we can fit it to the unexpected.  An imitation-based learning process takes us to freedom. 

So, St. Paul and Clark Terry see creative freedom is born from discovering a common, acting together until what’s ours in common becomes mine and then finding in what’s mine, possibilities none of us have ever seen before and trusting them when we need to act.  Contemporary culture doesn’t expect Christian faith to make people creative because church hasn’t been jazz.  … it’s been more … preaching conformity to suppress freedom.  

Freedom.  What do we need for freedom [to happen]?  We need to know that we have personal authority (resourcefulness and ability to act) and courage (being willing to act when we can’t guarantee an outcome).   If I say that this is what church is for, I think I can make good sense to anyone. 

We’re doing church well when we make a place of actual discovery of holy courage and blessed creativity.  Church community is doing its work when people risk generously and compassionately in what they do together in church, and then continue acting generously and compassionately in the unexpected moments and situations they live outside church.   [This may produce great things, but more likely results] in the simplest acts of kindness and simplest words of truth spoken courageously and creatively in the some ordinary moment of life.  What church is for is, I suppose, to please God, but not to please God’s vanity or appease God’s wrath, rather to engage one another in our holiest place so the habits, patterns, and hope we learn and practice there will en-courage us to act in any place.[2]

            Can you hear that is exactly what St. Paul is saying at the end of this morning’s reading from Ephesians?

Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations for ever and ever.

            Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.

[1] Ephesians 3:20-21, in the translation from The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 102, 126.  It is one of the sentences of Scripture with which Morning or Evening Prayer may be ended.

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