[Sermon preached on Sunday, September 10, 2017 (Proper 18, Year A) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN]
This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.
Eight years ago I was a religious pilgrim searching for a new faith community that would honor my identity and help me live out the vocation to which God was calling me. For reasons I am not quite sure about, I found myself tuning into the livestream of the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church meeting in Anaheim, California. I had never seen anything like it: a global church wrestling with what it meant to live in mission, not in the sense of conquering people or converting souls, but in the sense of serving and blessing people, of bearing witness to the compassionate heart of God that beats for all of Creation. I was drawn into the often contentious and confusing yet exhilarating conversations about a bold church going beyond well-worn paths of comfort and safety, carrying their sacred stories and blessed traditions into the wide unknown of God.
I was particularly drawn to a sermon preached by the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, then-Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Riffing on Ezekiel 36, Bishop Schori diagnosed the church as needing a “new heart” to embrace the current religious realities of our world with boldness. She warned, “The heart of this church will turn to stone if we think that our primary mission work is to those already in the pews inside our beautiful churches or to those at other altars. We are in a state of cardiac crisis if we think we can close our doors and swing our incense and sing our hymns and all will be right with the world.”
Bishop Schori touches on a reality that is being faced by more and more churches in the United States. Declining wealth, privilege, attendance, and power have resulted in a church that is often unsure how to engage the world around us. We are used to the “Field of Dreams” model of doing church: build it and they will come. If only we had more programs for families, or a bigger choir, or a more contemporary service then people will come to our church. That model is broken and we are being challenged to recover the heart of mission that is at the center of our faith – a willingness to enter the vocation of compassionate servanthood for the world around us.
The mission of the Church of God is to perpetually be on the move, going from place to place, traveling lightly, never fully resting or putting down roots until all God’s children have found their way home. Mission is movement and movement is mission. We see this in our lesson from the book of Exodus where Moses goes to the people of Israel to tell them to prepare to be on the move. Liberation from Pharaoh and slavery in Egypt was a movement from their current reality to the blessed hope of freedom in God. It required the people to prepare their minds for the journey, to leave behind things and ways of being that were unnecessary, to carry forth in their stories and in their bones the faith of their people. They were called to be a prayerful people on the move living out the Abrahamic blessing: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
137 years ago, a faithful group of Episcopalians founded a church in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. They quickly built a chapel on Hennepin Avenue between 12th and 13th streets, and within a year the new church was already too small for the burgeoning congregation. By 1892, twelve years after its founding, Saint Paul’s parish had over 450 active members and they faced a decision. With the city expanding south taking many of its members with it, they decided to follow the growth, cutting the building into 5 pieces and moving it south to the southeast corner of Franklin and Bryant just up the road. You can imagine what a feat it must’ve been to do this around the turn of the century, but they did it. An article written in the Minneapolis Journal states that “with the removal, the parish limits have been extended embracing a very desirable part of the city in which there are at present very few churches.” You see, woven deep into the DNA of the place is a heart of mission – a heart that desires to seek and serve the neighborhood and city.
They also had challenges. They faced crushing debt and deficits that threatened to drown the new church time and again, but each time they found a way to work through it. People gave and served and built and led and stepped up to meet the challenges of the moment. Idleness and consumerism wasn’t an option. If the heart of the church is mission, then the blood is the effort of the people it gathers – people who have heard the call to serve, people so filled with gratitude for the love of God that they feel in their hearts that they cannot help but to pay it forward. You and I are the fuel that drives the mission of God forth in this neighborhood.
Truth be told, we are a long way from the dream of compassion, and justice, and peace that God has for this world, even locally in this neighborhood. But the work that we do en route to the fullness of God’s reign must be shared by each of us. Each and every one of us is called to set about doing the work that God has given us to do. That is true in both a global and a local sense.
Joan Chittister, a sister of the Order of St. Benedict, has written at length about the wisdom the modern world can learn from the centuries-old tradition of Benedictine spirituality. St. Benedict faced a world not unlike our own. Geopolitical turmoil. Stagnant and declining economy. A Church struggling for identity. Into the messy atmosphere, Benedict innovated upon an old model to create a new way of being Christian in the world. His monasteries were communities centered around the sanctifying rhythm of prayer and work. One could not exist without the other. Joan Chittister writes that “Work and prayer are opposite sides of the great coin of life that is both holy and useful, immersed in God and dedicated to the transcendent in the human. It is labor’s transfiguration of the commonplace, the transformation of the ordinary that makes cocreators of us all.”
For Joan Chittster, for St. Benedict, for the blessed souls who founded this community faith over 137 years ago and courageously moved it to meet the challenges of the 20th century, for the early Christians living their faith in the absence of power and prestige, for the Israelites leaving the old life of slavery and entering a new life of promise, work and prayer go together like peanut butter & jelly, red beans & rice, peas & carrots, cheese curds & and ice-cold pop.
You want to change the world? How about starting close to home? How about joining me, the wardens, the Vestry, the commissions, the committees, the guilds, the groups and serve this neighborhood and this city? How about joining with our Outreach group to serve those experiencing homelessness or food insecurity and advocate for a more just and fair world in which homelessness and hunger are no longer a reality? How about serving with our Altar Guild to care for this sacred space as an oasis of divine beauty in a world filled with far too much ugliness? How about joining our Inquirer’s Class to learn more about this faith that we proclaim and what difference Jesus makes in our world today?
The work of this prayerful community on the move need you. We need you to volunteer, to support, to give, to share, and to dare to create or else the mission of God might not penetrate as deeply or God’s love shines as brightly throughout this neighborhood and city from our humble corner. Your hands, your voice, your wisdom, your presence combined with those of everyone else and those who have come before and the grace of God is enough to meet the challenges this missional moment presents.
We have come to prayer and God is calling us to get to work.
The time has come for us to recover our missional heart.
Beloved, it is time to get down to business.
 Genesis 12:3b (NRSV)
 Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crossroads, 2010), p. 211.