A Church for the Third Millennium

A Church for the Third Millennium

A Sermon preached at the Institution of The Rev. Nina Stasser as Rector of St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church,
Glenwood Springs, Colorado,
and Celebration of Baptismal Ministry
Saturday, October 23, 1999
Numbers 11:16-17, 24-15a; Psalm 43; Ephesians 4:7, 11-16; John 15:9-16
    May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.
    I asked Nina on Wednesday if I had permission to preach a radical sermon today and she got really nervous.
    “This is my commandment:  that you love one another as I have loved you.”  And that’s radical.
    And how quickly and radically this world has changed in my lifetime. 
    I grew up in the fifties and sixties in Daytona Beach, Florida, a somewhat reluctant child of the Deep South even then.  We read the Bible and prayed every morning in school.  Everyone I knew was either Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Roman Catholic or Jewish.  Presbyterians were prim, Baptists were strict, Methodists were bland, Roman Catholics were mysterious, Jews were exotic, and Episcopalians were conservative and well-to-do. 
    I used to sit in my customary pew at St. Mary’s Church, fascinated and horrified by the beady little eyes and tiny claws on the little foxes hanging from the scrawny neck of the old lady in front of me, week after week.  We speculated about such fringe groups as the "holy rollers" and wondered if they were really Christians or if they just liked getting all "worked up."  But I knew no one who didn't believe in God, or at least profess to. 
    My parents were paper Episcopalians.  I was baptized as an infant, as were my four siblings, but my parents sent in their pledge by mail and went to church twice a year, at Christmas and Easter.  With the exception of little Kathy the zealot, the Merrell children's attendance at church and Sunday School was spotty.  They were dropped off or got rides with others, but we were all Episcopalians, if anyone asked.
    I had my first hospital job in 1967, and very occasionally, on the admission forms, the blank for "religious preference," would read simply "Protestant" or even rarely "No preference."  It was still rare, though. 
    By a little more than twenty years later, when my own daughters were in high school and junior high and I was director of youth ministry for a large urban church, there had been a radical change in the place of religion in the lives of young people.  The fact that my kids not only went to church but went willingly was considered exceptional and more than a little odd by the majority of their classmates.
    One commentator in a Wall Street Journal interview noted that “religious belief isn’t quite respectable nowadays with people who work in the media, and that serious religious belief is, to that culture, practically a proof of instability.” 
    Columnist William Raspberry reported that “...civil libertarians and a majority of the Supreme Court now seem to have reinterpreted the Establishment of Religion clause to mean that the proper government attitude toward religion is one of hostility.”  In Rensselaer, Indiana, a federal district court ruled to allow the Gideons to distribute Bibles to school children, noting that “to have ruled otherwise would have been to say that it is right to exclude only religious groups from access.”  However, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago overturned that decision, and Mr. Raspberry asked, “How sensible is a policy which allows for the distribution of anything from Klan literature to condoms, but gags at the distribution of Bibles?”
    Yes, my friends, as Nina is installed as your rector this afternoon, you will embark together on an interesting and challenging task.  You are being sent out into a world to which Jesus Christ has come to mean not much more than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, into a world which has lost its dream. 
    But you are in good company historically in this regard. As we approach the next millennium, you will confront once again the world the disciples faced as Jesus spoke to them in today’s gospel--a world which once again does not know Jesus, and a world which needs his love and his grace more than at any time since the time of the apostles--perhaps even more.  The good news has been forgotten as public Christianity has focused more and more on “pie in the sky when you die” and become the self-appointed judges of humankind. 
    Two millennia ago, the religion of Jesus was one which had come to demand the daily judgment of its members as to who was acceptable to associate with and who wasn’t.  Yet Jesus shocked them all by eating and drinking and making merry with the riffraff of society, those who were known sinners, outcasts, even lepers.  Now, twenty centuries later, Christianity presents the same face to non-believers, and you are those Jesus has called to change that face of harsh judgment into the face of his love. 
    “Keep my commandments, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments,” he says.  “Here is my commandment:  Love one another,” he tells us, his disciples.  “Love one another, abide in my love.  Abide in my love and you will have my joy--complete joy!”
    Let us remember that it was this same hostile world, embarrassed by Jesus and yet yearning namelessly for a God they had lost, that provided such fertile soil for the seeds of the early church that we are still here today.  The soil has lain largely uncultivated for nearly a generation, since my youth, and people are hungry.  The crops sown by a secular society, apathy, materialism, the "Me Generation" and capital gains have yielded a harvest of weeds, of hopelessless and harrassment, of spiritual poverty and empty hearts.  The fields have lain fallow and are ready to be plowed under, rich once again for planting.  And you, my friends, hold the seeds.
    So.  What might the church look like if we resolved today to keep this commandment?  God knows.  God does know.  Isaiah showed us in his vision of the “peaceable kingdom.”  Jesus showed us when he spoke in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats.  Let’s see if we can move his vision into the 21st century.  Let’s picture what the Church can be.
    The Church gathers to hear the word of the living God, to worship and praise together, and to support one another in our lives, lived after the model of Christ.
    The core of this life is love, mutual care, compassion, and growth.  Radical interdependence and other-centeredness characterize the life of the Christian.
    The Church is the instrument of the Creator in the created world, redeeming conflict with reconciliation, redeeming poverty and hunger with sharing and generosity, redeeming pain, loneliness, and ostracism with compassion and active love.
    The cultural gods (money and power) are rejected in favor of a greater good and a deeper joy.  Joy, in fact, is the distinguishing characteristic of the individual Christian and of the Church as a body.  Each new member is an occasion for great rejoicing, as the Body is strengthened for the work of the Kingdom of God.
    Violence is met with passive resistance, and perpetrators of violence are forgiven, with lessons learned.  Personal safety is not of primary importance to a Christian; love is of primary importance.  Muggers are fed at the same table with small children.  Gang leaders eat with with gentle grandmothers.  Murders are nursed to health in the midst of Christian families.  Every human being is treated as Christ himself, God-with-us, Immanuel.
    Joy is found in service to others.  Joy abounds.
    The function of the Church as an institution is to provide the opportunity for those who serve to experience the presence of God, the reality of God’s love.  The total and unconditional nature of God’s love is the agent of change in the heart of the believer.  It is the love that casts out fear.  Fear is the primary barrier between human beings, and its only antidote is love. 
    Opportunities to experience God’s love in the sacraments, in glorious worship of all styles, in communities that embody Christ, and in the scriptures are the primary function of the Church.  Support and encouragement, plus practical training, of the members are the business of the Church.  The Church is an agent of the love of God.  Nothing else.  Her members are the messengers of redemption for the world.
    This vision for the Church may seem like a pipe dream in this time of politics and division, but it isn’t.  It is beginning to be lived out today in areas where the ministry of the baptized is honored and empowered. 
    Nina, will you please stand. 
    Nina, as you set out to lead these people on the path they have chosen--a path which identifies them not as people who go to church, but as people who are the Church--be aware that the world around you could be radically redeemed by God in a very short period of time if you keep this vision held clearly before their hearts and minds.
    You, my friend, stand, as do we all here this afternoon, on the threshhold of a new dream, God's dream of a new world.  You are sent out as a herald of this new world, a new world founded on the sure and certain promise of God's love and care for a starving people.  You will hold up to the world a vision for a different society, a society "joined and knit together by every joint," in communion with one another and in love once again with a winsome and caring God, a God who calls you daily and sends you out empowered by the Holy Spirit to lead these precious children in God’s will.
    A God who asks:  "Whom shall I send?"
    And a people who answer, "Here am I!  Send me."
                     The Rev. Katherine Merrell Glenn, Vicar
                     The Episcopal Mission in the San Luis Valley
                     Diocese of Colorado


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