First full day of “Deep Calls to Deep” preaching conference at Virginia Theological Seminary
I arrived at VTS ready to get my preaching on. Part of the fun comes from meeting fellow clergy both from Texas and Yankee land. I know my Texas crew well, but I am meeting great new clergy from above the Mason Dixon line. I got to know one who works for a small rural Episcopalian congregation. She serves sixty all-American, hard working, mostly Trump boosting, Episcopalians that show up on Sunday to be led by someone who couldn't be more different - a divorced, out, urban dwelling lesbian in AA recovery. The church is kind of “high” (chanty) with an extremely “low” architecture (clapboard and stick-on altar windows).
This priest was telling me how hard it has been for her to lead a congregation with such a different baseline experience from her. She loves them and they love her, but it requires an enormous amount of energy. Maybe priests are supposed to feel this? You know, the difference. Pastors are supposed to be a little different – not the holier-than-thou kind of different- but different in that a pastor is always sniffing the air for how God is opening the church up. That kind of hound dog tracking takes emotional reserves. I wonder if part of a priest's calling is to root around in the Gospel to find new pathways to help people find the Kingdom of God. That opening does not happen without clergy expending emotional capital.
She was wondering if maybe she should have been in a funky, urban, completely LGBTQ friendly congregation. But at the same time it seemed to her that she was really called to be in her bright red farming church. A church naturally wants to feels like one big happy family, where everyone basically agrees, and then a search team messes everything by calling a priest, any priest, to lead a church. Her job, my job, is not to create a mutual admiration society, but to help create a community that admires and worships Christ. Because, as John 14 tells us, Jesus has built a big house for his people so we should consider making room for people who might not have been coming to the same church for last 137 years.
As I think about clergy life (you may think I am wrong), I am finding that it is not my job to check your Christian bona fides at the narthex door or at the Altar rail (I know this is how some churches organize themselves). I think it is my job to point my finger toward Jesus and let you and him work it out. If Jesus is the starting point, he is also our end point. It may be overly obvious, but great fellowship is not the point of Christianity. Perfectly executed worship does not get you there. Blissful agreement, not gonna happen. Standing up for the poor and marginalized, super important - but still not the starting block. Romancing wealthy donors, easy to do - but nope. Just start with Jesus and let him be your captain. We show up and love each other while Jesus works out the rest.
We ain’t neva going to get it completely right, but I know that my ministry is to people for the sake of Christ. My ministry is not for God’s people. Not for rebellious people. Not for fallen people. Not for righteous people. It is for all people. If I am doing the pointing to Jesus thing, God will do the heavy lifting by making all things new at Ascension and everywhere else.
When I think about Ascension, I know that we're a happy family. We love each other. Really – we do. I have been here long enough that if you hate me, you have probably left. Now, you at least tolerate me and love the people you worship with. I wonder, however, what God’s vision for our church is? In case you haven't heard or more likely are sick to death of hearing it - we have been doing great, intentional vision work over the last school year. There is good work for the leaders and people of Ascension still ahead. We are getting really good at becoming the community God wants us to be. In the midst of all this, I have been thinking about my role in supporting you.
Thanksgiving Dinner Church
Maybe I can help our church look a little more like Thanksgiving dinner and less like Sunday brunch. Maybe I can help us move from a mutual admiration society to a community that looks to Jesus, who is an expert when it comes to making strangers part of the family. Wait.... but am I supposed to be your Sunday brunch leader right? You know, take care of those already here. Absolutely. I love the people and enjoy hanging with my peeps, AND the expansive vision for the church is summed up well by William Temple. He says, "The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members."
Making room for others is not papering over the real difference of perspectives. It is also not finding the lowest common denominator. Thanksgiving dinner church is an alternative vision. It is a choosing to be together in the face of difference. Thanksgiving dinner church might have some hurt feelings because we don't always agree, but it is a conscious choice to create a community you can't find anywhere else. Social media is an echo chamber of either yelling or "me too" agreement. The workplace is not a place that allows for highest values of human community. The church is the best social lab we've got, because the mad scientist in charge of it is God. God gives us work. Good work to know and be known. To express love and receive love. It does not happen by accident. I think the Thanksgiving dinner model and all the edgy tension that it implies is also found throughout the Bible; it’s sort of natural and oddly good.
The early church in Acts of the Apostles makes your Thanksgiving dinner shouting match (or stoic silence) look tame by comparison. It was an experiment in radical fellowship. You can see it in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. The leaders decided to break the lock on the door to the cultural barriers that were part of that early Church and larger society. They agreed, “Circumcision, yeah you can shuck that if it gets in the way of you calling yourself a Christian” (BTW Acts 11 – was first time they used the term Christian). The council basically said if you love Jesus and act with integrity, you’re good. They set the grand vision. Despite the good feelings that followed, they quickly went back to squabbling with each over other stuff. But the squabbling never overwhelmed the laboratory for knowing Christ.
Common worship is probably what the Episcopal church does best. We are perfectly situated to be a Thanksgiving dinner church. We practice together, even if we don’t exactly believe the same thing. This might be true even in the same pew. As long as Jesus is the center, then everything else, Pollyanne Todd says, will shake out. We don’t do the Presbyterian Book of Confession thing – not necessarily bad, just not our jam. We don’t expect people to hold to the cultural Episcopalianism of expensive scotch and wingtip oxfords of decades past. We don’t spend our energy checking the “right thinking” of the worshippers.
What we do is common prayer. We pray together. We enjoy each other. And we serve together. Jesus is in charge of the rest.
SNL Adele Thanksgiving
Saturday Night Live did a spoof of Adele’s song “Hello” set at a thanksgiving meal a year before the last presidential election. To me, it is spot on for the tension the church and families have been feeling for a while By the way if you really want to irritate my daughter. Just sing the “Hello..it’s me” in an Adele voice and she will truly hate you. Here is the SNL video if you don’t remember https://youtu.be/e2zyjbH9zzA.
We need more Adele. Worshiping together will help us see each other as fellow pilgrims with prejudices and problems. We won’t demonize or dismiss people because we will actually know them and worship with them side-by-side. I want a church where Jesus is in charge of the spiritual life of his people. In the final analysis, we are just butlers for him anyway. Jesus is in charge of transforming his people. I want to create a place where Jesus can be adored by the whole motley mess of people whatever their starting point.
This profoundly dates me but I love, still love, Ferris Buller’s Day Off. It's amovie about a misbehaving kid, Ferris, who just wants to have a great day without school. He predictably enrages the Principal by evading capture throughout this day off. Grace, the school secretary, when responding to Principal Ed's frustration about Ferris Buller’s shenanigans says, "He's very popular Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, d…heads--they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude.”
I think Jesus is a righteous dude. Anything I can do to bring more people to him….that’s my job. If the church feels a little less like old home week and little more like the Thanksgiving dinner table, that’s OK with me. We are one big, and (most of the time) happy family.