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
Saturday, October 23, 1999
Numbers 11:16-17, 24-15a; Psalm 43; Ephesians 4:7, 11-16;
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our
hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
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
- Lush tropical countries which once were resort vacation sites for
affluent American tourists have become hostile and dangerous civil
- Graceful downtown southern streets lined with blooming peach trees which
not too long ago were filled on Saturday mornings with carefree children on
their way to the movies are now inhabited by literally thousands of homeless
people and drug dealers.
- Churches filled to overflowing every Sunday in my childhood are now
closing their doors because of lack of interest.
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
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
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
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
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
A God who asks: "Whom shall I
And a people who answer, "Here am I! Send
The Rev. Katherine Merrell Glenn,
The Episcopal Mission in the San Luis
Diocese of Colorado
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