The Church at Work

~Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…and [by] distributing the proceeds [of sold goods] to all, as any had need. ~Acts 2:42

From the very beginning, Christ’s Church has been involved in teaching, community, worship, prayer, and care for others.[1] It’s easy to feel nostalgic while looking back on this early Christian community from The Acts of the Apostles. It also may be a bit disturbing to our libertarian notions that (at least in theory) these early Christians deemed it important to hold “all things in common.” If we compare our small parish to such devotions, there may be a sense of both admonishment and envy – Who do they think they are behaving in such utopian sensibilities? Whether one perceives nostalgia or disturbances, it is important to remember God’s Spirit of grace working through the early church. It is also important to remember that that same Holy Spirit continues to breath new life into the Church today.

As Episcopalians we could easily puff ourselves up and use the characteristics of the early [Jerusalem] church to pat ourselves on the back; after all, Anglicans claim apostolic succession through our bishops; our liturgies make room for teaching and for the breaking of the bread every Sunday; and although we do not hold all things in common like our monastic brothers and sisters, we do pool our time, talent, and treasure together for the mission of the church. So what are we to do with this reading from the Book of Acts this morning?

Bishop Wright, in his For Faith Friday message wrote these words when contemplating Christian worship and prayer; he wrote, “Fellowship without the meal lacks sustenance; the meal without the work is superficial.”[2] The bishop’s statement, I believe, may be a nice place to start. First, fellowship without the meal lacks sustenance.

I would consider myself a son of the South. What I mean by this is that I take my cues on all things regarding manners from both of my southern grandmothers – from my Memom and from my (soon-to-be-100-year-old) MawMaw. Both sets of grandmothers taught me to take my hat off when I’m inside. Once indoors, to participate in polite conversation, and to eat or drink whatever is placed in front of me out of respect for the hostess. To this day I try to uphold these various behaviors along with other unspoken modesties as a tribute to these two southern ladies. But what would happen if all these pleasantries were suddenly turned upside down? Could we still find fellowship in it all? Is there something sacred in the mundaneness of a meal? To help explore these questions, I’d like to reference a line or two from Lewis Carroll’s, Alice in Wonderland, specifically, Chapter 7 – A Mad Tea-Party.[3]

`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.

`It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.

`I didn’t know it was your table,’ said Alice; `it’s laid for a great many more than three.’

`Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

`You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; `it’s very rude.’

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

This back and forth goes on and on until at last, Carroll concludes with Alice saying,

`At any rate I’ll never go there again!’ said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. `It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!’

For the record, Alice was offered tea and breads throughout the conversational nonsense, but she never had any thing of substance. Also, it may be a stretch to say that this is a good example of fellowship. Although philosophy and clever rhetoric are used throughout, and these two devises usually carry us into deep conversation, at this tea-party contemplation remained surface level. I wonder what would have happened to the conversation if the table were set for 3 instead of for a banquet? I wonder what would have happened to the fellowship if tea and bread were actually consumed? Literary critics point out that this scene could quite possibly be an interpretation of what a child experiences when invited to such adult functions that cater only to grown-ups.[4] All the ways in which adults pose and posture with one another must seem silly to our little ones. Here, in lies the wisdom from the early church. It is childlike not to posture. It is childlike to want to play and eat. It is childlike to accept others as they are. And are we not asked to accept Our Lord and Savior as a child? God doesn’t want us posturing in our pretentiousness. He wants a playful faith filled with wonder for all God’s creation. I believe the early church had it right. Fellowship and the sharing of a meal must go together. But let’s not stop here.

Bishop Wright’s second point is this, the meal without the work is superficial. While it can be argued that the word “work” here has to do with the work of the people (lived out sacramentally in the liturgy), I am reminded by The Reverend Julia Gatta that the work found in our sacred meal begins and ends in Christ. In other words, both the work of Christ and the supper of Christ is His “gift and action among us.”[5] This propels us into the realm of grace; and out of this grace, and out of the work that Christ has already done for us compels the church to baptize, to teach, to fellowship, to worship, to pray, and to care for others.

Four days after Easter Sunday on April 20th, 2017 death-row inmate Ledell Lee was executed via lethal injection by the state of Arkansas. As has been customary sense at least the middle ages, those sentenced to death by the state are given a last meal. Ledell refused his last meal, and instead opted to receive Holy Communion. Although what Mr. Lee was convicted of was a heinous crime and is inexcusable, I cannot help but be reminded of the thief on the cross next to Christ. St. Luke captured him in this way. The thief cries out to both the other convicted criminal and to Jesus saying, “And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It can be assumed that Ledell Lee was baptized, and that he was familiar with the breaking of the bread. We can also assume that at some point in his reconciliation he discovered the teachings of Jesus and the prayers of the Church. Like the thief on the cross, I like to imagine Ledell Lee experiencing the grace of God in his last moments, choosing to turn to Jesus in a gesture of faith. I do not tell you this story to make a political statement on whether or not the death penalty is just. I tell it to you as a reminder of God’s grace in fellowshipping one with another while also finding sustenance from Christ’s Body and Blood. I tell it to you because the work of Christ is to be honored among his followers through tangible acts of forgiveness, mercy, and love.

In a moment, we will do what the Church has always done. We will receive, experience, and know Christ in the breaking of the bread. At the end of this ritual, we will pray these words, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” And what is this work? “To love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ of Lord” (BCP, 366). The work is already there just as the meal is always here, and each points us to Christ our Lord. Together, let us devote ourselves to these things, and by doing so finding the grace in it all.

[1]                 The Jewish Annotated New Testament, NRSV, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Ed., Oxford University Press: New York, 2011, note 2.42-47, p. 203.

[2]                 Bishop Robert C. Wright’s For Faith Message (5/5/17): https://connecting.episcopalatlanta.org/for-faith/?utm_source=Connecting+e-newsweekly+and+For+Faith+blog-updated&utm_campaign=56712adf63-For_Faith_preview__0624166_23_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_065ea5cbcb-56712adf63-108305893

[3]           Taken from: https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rgs/alice-VII.html

[4]                 http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/alice/section7.rhtml

[5]                 Julia Gatta, The Nearness of God: Parish Ministry as Spiritual Practice, Morehouse Publishing: New York, 2010, p. 43.

Christian Leadership

Sermon from 5th Sunday after the Epiphany focusing on Matt. 5:13-20 & Isa. 58:1-12

When I was in high school my Dad got a promotion that required us to move. Even though the place where we settled was only about 40 minutes away, the culture of moving from suburbia to rural was shocking. At my old middle and high schools, I was only involved in a few extra-curricular activities (band and soccer). At the new rural school and with a class size of less than 50, I could do pretty much whatever I wanted. Through my three years at Harmony HS, I was involved in band, drama, choir, basketball, track, and Beta Club. I seemed to be friends with just about everybody, and was at least respected by those who didn’t necessarily want to hang out with me. My wife, Ann, always jokes that she so would not have dated me in HS because of my Brady-Bunch-like interests but I say, “To each his own.”

Maybe it was because of all the activities I was involved in, maybe it was because my Dad was now a training manager for the company he worked for, or maybe it was a little of both; nevertheless, he got me interested in thinking about leadership. Dad had about a 35-minute commute to work, and on many of those driving days he would listen to leadership books on tape. At the time, Steven Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was popular, as well as anything by Tony Robbins, and the old-time Texas transplant, Zig Ziglar. Dad got me hooked on these leaders’ thought processes, and challenged me not to ever be a follower in life, but to instead, lead.

Nowadays I am still drawn to leadership books and seminars, but have narrowed down the pile somewhat. Out of seminary, I took at two-year leadership course the diocese offers for new priests that focused on what’s called, adaptive leadership. While in seminary, I studied family-systems theory through the lens of Edwin Friedman, and here lately I’ve been interested in thinking about Jesus Christ as a leader with the help of Henri Nouwen. It’s this latter author I want to speak on today because Nouwen has helped me to totally flip my idea and ideas about Christian leadership – something all baptized Christians are called to live into.

In his book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Henri Nouwen makes this argument, “[Jesus] asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry, and from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people.”

Let’s look at the first point, “[Jesus] asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer…” Before my family made that move from suburbia to rural Texas, the Baptist Church, the Church where I was raised and that introduced me to Jesus Christ, was concerned with relevance and being relevant. In the 90’s I heard my youth ministers tell me not to listen to certain types of music because similar styles of rock or heavy metal or rap music could be found with a Christian message. For many years, I heeded their advice, went to Christian concerts, bought Christian CDs, and did what I was told because I respected my leaders. This was also the time in the church where suits were ditched for skinny jeans and t-shirts, and a minister wasn’t cool if he didn’t have a goat-tee, tattoo, and crazy stories of redemption. All things considered, and for me, the church was relevant. It made sense to my teenager mind, and I trusted those who were trying to lead me. In hindsight; however, I don’t know if my youth director or even my senior pastor ever taught how to pray. Prayer, and how to pray stays with you, but certain types of music, fashionable clothing, and even a cool story fades with time. While in college, I would ditch all these fads still not knowing how to pray, and take up other things to fill the time – mainly girls, alcohol and parties.

Nouwen makes a compelling argument that the present and future church doesn’t have to be relevant to survive; instead, its leaders must always have a solid life of prayer, and be able to teach that to Christians of all ages. My friend and colleague, Fr. Greg Tallant, has often said that there is something to be said about boring old church. There’s something to say about people still gathering together, praying for one another, and creating fellowship through the person of Jesus Christ. I tend to agree. The Church and her rituals have been around for millennia, and through them we are taught to pray and to remember one another in thought, word, and deed. The question, “How do I pray?” can always be on the minds of Christians, and living into its answer is a journey out of relevance into that of relationship.

Let’s turn to Nouwen’s second point, “[Jesus] asks us to move from…worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry…” Here, he is specifically calling out ministers whose ministry revolves only around them and their celebrity. Through other leadership resources I have learned that good leaders make people believe in them, but great leaders make others believe in themselves. Put in Christian terms – instead of top down ministry, why not operate from the bottom up? What are the gifts and talents of everyone? If you could choose one gift or talent you possess and could teach it to someone else, what would it be? Well, whatever it is could be your ministry, or at the very least, plugging into a group or organization that is already living similar gifts out.

Churches grow, and ministries expand not out of a great priest or bishop. Instead, they grow and expand when resources are pulled together based on need – yes – but also based on gifts and talents. Again, what is it you can do that is also teachable? Great! That is your ministry. The future of the church will not revolve around its paid clergy so much so as it will revolve around all the baptized living out their mission and ministries in the world.

Nouwen’s final point, “[Jesus] asks us to move…from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people.” My Dad was half-way correct when he gave me the advice not to be a follower in life, but instead, lead. A Christian leader, I would now counter, is perfectly comfortable being led because they are being led closer to God through a life of prayer and community, which in turn, allows them to not only lead people, but to have the humbleness to be led by Christ and others. Nouwen writes, “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life…The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints.”

These three attributes of a Christian leader: not worrying about relevance, not worrying about popularity, and learning how to be led by God (I believe) can best be lived out in a small parish like ours through its ministries, through its liturgies, and through its fellowship. In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. When we forget this, we loose our taste and get lost in the dark. The Prophet Isaiah gave specifics around this. He said God wasn’t interested in your piety. Stop being relevant to your religion, and reveal your relationship with God to your neighbor (Isa. 58). How do you do this? “Share your bread with the hungry, bring the poor into your house, and to cover the naked.” Just last week, the prophet Micah preached, “act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Being just doesn’t seem to be relevant these days, loving mercy is certainly not popular, and walking humbly with God isn’t mainstream leadership material. So what are Christian leaders supposed to do? I like what Isaiah said, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! We are most prophetic, we are light and salt, we are leaders when we pray, when we form relationships, when we fellowship, when we are led by God. I believe the Church is best when it’s boring…when it’s doing exactly what its mission is. When we worship joyfully, when we serve compassionately, when we grow spiritually, the church is simply doing what the church does. It may not be relevant to the world, but it is relevant to God. It may not be popular, but that’s okay…Jesus said The Son of Man has no place to lay his head. It may not raise up leaders the way the world defines leadership. That’s okay, Jesus taught us to pray saying God, Lead us not into temptation: The temptation to be relevant, to be popular, to be powerful. Instead, let us empty ourselves, let us serve others, and let us focus on Christ.

Search your heart today. Are you trying to be relevant or popular? Are you trying to lead, win an argument, or be on the right side of history? Instead, check yourself. What does your prayer life look like? What is a gift or talent you have but haven’t shared? Is God trying to lead you somewhere? If so, have you discerned where? The Collect from this morning says this, “Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.” We are free when we love. We let go when we know someone is there to catch us, and we experience abundant life when we are led. May we live into this with a discerning heart this week, and find peace within us so that we can offer the peace of Christ to a merciless world. AMEN.