Generous Orthodoxy  




Monday, January 26, 2015

Another church is closed. Why?

In the southern Massachusetts Berkshires, churches are struggling. The American Baptist congregation closest  to our house shut its doors for the last time this past Sunday. The local Episcopal church that I regularly attend is much further away. For some years, when I didn't feel like driving that far, I went to the little Baptist church. I loved it. When I started going, the elderly part-time supply pastor preached simple biblical sermons full of living faith, and his wife played the well-loved 19th century hymns on the little pump organ. There were usually about 20-22 parishioners present, and not all were older people.

Then a new pastor came, in his late 50s, full of vigor and ideas. He asked for, and got, an expensive sound system and one of those electronic keyboard things for his wife to play. He put a cross on the front of the church, which offended Baptist sensibilities.  His sermons were really excellent, and his missionary background was evident in his obvious Christ-centered faith. People responded to his gospel preaching.  However, he forced the congregation to change too much too fast, and he expected them to adjust to his wife's new, unfamiliar music. People felt alienated and uncared for, and they began to stay away. Then he and his wife, feeling unappreciated, abruptly departed, with some unkind words for the congregation. It was downhill from there. Two months ago, the six remaining members voted 5-1 to close, They simply could not keep it going any longer.

I will be driving past this little church every day, several times a day. It  breaks my heart. The congregation had been meeting on that spot for 228 years, and the very simple building (its second) had been lovingly cared for. It looks pristine on the inside as well as the outside, as if the carpet had just been laid and the walls just painted. It all seems such a waste. The local newspaper, in a prominent write-up with a photo of the building, declared that people just weren't going to church any more. It sounded like a death knell.

This is happening all over New England. Church buildings everywhere have become community centers, art galleries and studios, antique shops, private residences.  The saddest part of it all is that only a tiny fraction of the members of those congregations join other churches. Most of them stop going to church altogether. The loss of the memories is too painful. "I was baptized in that church, I was married in that church, I had always expected to be buried from that church."  There is an idolatry of church buildings, no question about that. I have been reading a history of the first two centuries of Christianity and it is hard not to conclude that there was great strength in those early congregations which had no buildings to meet in but were on fire with the good news of Jesus Christ the Lord. Yet today, when there are empty church buildings all over, it is easy for observers to conclude that faith is dead, that Christian worship has become irrelevant.

All of this has led me to reflect on a factor that has been bothering me for some years now. It is a pretty well-established fact that the most important factor in getting people to come to church and stay there is social. "Someone invited me." "I was shown in to the coffee hour and introduced to people." "People were friendly to me." This is so obvious that it should be addressed with the highest priority in all congregations. I can speak with some authority on this, because I have attended Sunday worship virtually every Sunday of my adult life somewhere, from Hawaii to Washington state to Florida to Minnesota to Maine--literally--and it is very rare for anyone even to acknowledge my presence, let alone escort me to coffee hour. I can name on fewer than ten fingers the number of churches where I have received a friendly greeting. Literally. It's easy to remember them because they were so few. Only one of them was an Episcopal church. Most recently, this past spring, Dick and I were amazed by the friendliness and vitality of the American (Protestant) Church in Paris. It made me want to join immediately. In contrast, I found the American Episcopal Church in Rome (St Paul's Within the Walls) to be singularly unfriendly in spite of attending three consecutive Sundays. Its congregation at that time (eight years ago) was distinctly attenuated. Passing the peace has had no effect on this problem. I pass the peace to all my neighbors around me in the pews, and as soon as the service is over they immediately turn away from me as if to get out of the pew as fast as possible.

And that little Baptist church? No one knew that I was an ordained minister. No one knew anything about me at all. I was just an ordinary person who was visiting, a potential new member perhaps. I must have been reasonably conspicuous as a newcomer among 20 people, all of whom knew each other well. I attended services there at least 15 times. I introduced myself, spoke pleasantly to people, praised the service. Did anyone ever make an effort to get to know me? No.

One of the reasons I have always loved St. John's Episcopal Church in Salisbury, Connecticut, is that the first time I ventured there, a couple in their fifties recognized that I was a newcomer and drew me into their circle. Later I became interim pastor there. Every Sunday during the announcements, I asked newcomers to raise their hands and, jokingly, told them that if no one spoke to them they should report it to me immediately. This, amazingly enough, actually seemed to work.

The lack of a friendly greeting (with personal follow-up) is not the only reason that churches are closing, but it is a major factor just the same. Congregations and their leaders need to pay attention to this issue as a high priority. It can be done. The most important step to take is for church leaders to identify members who have real gifts for social outreach. These will be friendly, easygoing, unselfconscious people who enjoy meeting new people and are enthusiastic about their church family. These people are not common, but they do exist. It is just as important to identify them and put them to work as it is to find a church treasurer, an organist, and an investment committee. Maybe more important.

The couple who greeted me at St John's Church many years ago, the Finlays, are long since gone to be with the Lord, but they had everything to do with my being to this day a supporter of that congregation. They were gifted by the Holy Spirit with unusually outgoing personalities. In my experience it is better if such people don't wear a "greeter" badge. Being greeted by a "greeter" always seems a bit forced and artificial. The Finlays were not artificial. Such people have a special ministry, a gift which amounts to a form of evangelism. It would make a big difference if congregations put special emphasis on identifying members who are anointed in that way, and commissioning them to serve to reach out to every new person who comes in the door. This would surely be a move in the right direction to stop the attrition. As Ephesians 4:11-16 says, there are many gifts of the Spirit for building up the Body of Christ. This is a wonderful passage that every congregation should know, and it is directly relevant to the matter at hand.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A homily for the morning of Christmas Day 2014

St John’s Episcopal Church, Salisbury, Connecticut

Christmas Morning 2014


Christmas morning is Christmas for grownups. We read St Luke’s immortal story last night. This morning, however, there are no sheep, no multitude of angels, no manger with cows and donkeys. This morning we get Christian doctrine. If you think that sounds scary, how about this: someone has called Christmas “the Feast of Nicene dogma.”

And yet you have been singing Christian doctrine in the hymns and carols, perhaps without fully realizing it. The second verse of “O come, all ye faithful” is pure Nicene doctrine. The council of Nicaea in the year 325 determined that Jesus Christ was “God of God, Light of light, begotten not created” (those are the words I memorized as a child; the “new” hymnal isn’t quite as clear as the “old” one was). The Council of Nicaea taught us that Jesus was not just “like” God; he was God. He was “begotten, not created.” That is the one and only way that Jesus is not like us. He became one of us, and he was like us in every respect but this one: He was not “created” like us. He was “begotten” of the Father “before all worlds” and therefore “of one substance with the Father.” We’ll try to say something about why this is so important.

The hymns and carols are beloved, but some of the more modern ones are pretty sentimental. We can learn so much more about our faith by paying attention to the words of the older and better ones. Here is hymn # 82, written in Latin not long after the Council of Nicaea—that should give us goosebumps. It begins, “Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be…”

We read the famous prologue of John’s gospel just now: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This isn’t the time to go into detail about the profound Old Testament concept of the Word of God, except to note that it’s indispensable. God went out from himself in his Word to Moses and the prophets, and then in New Testament times God went out from himself in his Son Jesus Christ: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” Then in the second reading, from Hebrews, we hear the exact same thing that John says: “Through him [that is, the Son] God made the universe.” You sometimes hear people say that we are co-creators with God. That’s not biblical. The only "co-creators" are God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The great choreographer George Balanchine knew this. He insisted that he was not a “creator.” “God has already created everything. I only arrange.” Jesus is uniquely of one substance with the Father in being the unique Creator.

A great deal is said, and said rightly, at Christmastime about the humility of God the Son in becoming a helpless infant. This can’t be said too often or too emphatically. The readings for Christmas Eve emphasize the vulnerability of God coming into the world as the child of a poor family of lowly status in the world. That's a very important part of the gospel message. But this morning, the readings emphasize something else. They emphasize the identity of the baby Jesus as the only-begotten Son of God, the Word of God made flesh.

We’re going to sing “Hark, the herald angels sing” in a few minutes. I’d like to try to show you how superbly the words of Charles Wesley illuminate the gospel and celebrate the identity of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God.

First, here are a few verses from the prophet Malachi, which are strategically placed on the last page of the Old Testament. These are the last bits of Scripture before the birth of Christ as told in the first chapter of Matthew. This is a different arrangement from the Jewish Bible. In the Christian Bible, we have the same books, but they are arranged differently for a very significant reason: to make the end of Old Testament dovetail with the beginning of the New.

In chapter 3 of Malachi, we read verses made famous by Handel in his Messiah:
Behold…, the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant whom you delight in…But who can abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire…
Then at the very end, Malachi prophesies this:
For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts...But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings...on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.
Now listen to the words of “Hark! the herald angels sing,” one of Charles Wesley’s most inspired biblical hymns. In the first two verses he identifies “the newborn” infant as a King, but more, a King who is “pleased” to dwell with us even though he is the “incarnate Deity,” “veiled in flesh.” Then the last verse begins this way: “Mild he lays his glory by” [that’s from Philippians 2, but we won’t pause there today]. Let’s go on to see what Wesley does with Malachi. He makes a pun on the word “sun,” meaning sun as celestial body—as in Malachi’s “sun of righteousness”—and “Son” as in “Son of God.” He weaves Malachi’s prophecy into his hymn in this way:

Risen with healing in his wings,
Light and life to all he brings,
Hail, the sun [Son] of righteousness,
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!

Now what difference does all this make? Is this just innocuous words sung to a favorite tune?

On this day, the grownups know that Christmas is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. Not everything is merry and bright. The secular Christmas songs tell us things like this:  “from now on your troubles will be out of sight,” but “Blue Christmas” is more like it for many people. Year after year, this is the reality of our lives. We live with loss, disappointment, mortality. But the “feast of Nicene dogma” tells us something entirely different, something that comes to us as a Word from another realm altogether.  The daily news has been as bad, this year, as any news I remember in my entire adult life. This is the power of Sin and Death, as St Paul calls it, and we have no ability in ourselves to overcome that power. But the incarnate Son of God has entered the world from another sphere of power. Sin and Death have no dominion over him. The Sun of righteousness has "healing in his wings." He is our sun, the light of our life; he is also the Son of God, the Word made flesh. If he is not, if the doctrine of the incarnation were not true, then the world would continue on a downward spiral until we destroy ourselves, and we would be in our sins for all eternity. The news of Christmas is that God himself has entered our history with the power to reverse this course. This is the promise. This is the hope. This is the meaning of “the day when God acts.” The Son of righteousness will arise, and the shadows will flee away, and it will be bright morning for ever.

Hail, thou ever-blessed morn!
Hail, redemption's happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.

--"See amid the winter's snow," by Edward Caswall (1814-1878)  

Amen.