Faithful Endurance – 175 Years of CECBG

As far as I can tell, there is nothing still in existence that tells us exactly when Christ Episcopal Church was organized.  What we do know, is that in the Diocesan Journal of 1843, there is no mention whatsoever of a church in Warren County.  In May of 1844, the Reverend George Beckett reported that he had served as a missionary at Bowling Green for six months.  This would set his arrival here around November of 1843, but no formal congregation had been organized.  In the Journal of 1845, the Reverend C. C. Townsend informed the convention that a building had been built, an organ was ordered, and Sunday School had 40 students and 6 teachers.  There was also an ongoing ministry to the enslaved population that was producing “encouraging results.”[1]  Still, there are no dates.  So, it was up to those of us planning the festivities for our 175th anniversary to pick a weekend to celebrate.

As we looked at the calendar, trying to decide what weekend worked best for us to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, the one thing we obviously didn’t pay attention to was the Lectionary.  There’s no way we would have purposefully picked a weekend where the Gospel begins, “When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”  Leave it to Jesus to be a bit of a buzzkill on this weekend set aside for joy and thanksgiving.  Of course, it is ultimately my fault for not remembering that late Pentecost is where the Lectionary dives deep into Holy Week.  This lesson takes place on Monday or Tuesday of the last week of Jesus’ life.  He has flipped the tables of the money changers, had his authority questioned, and taught lessons that were purposefully at odds with the religious powers-that-be.  By this point, there was no chance that things were going to end well for Jesus.  This teachable moment was an opportunity for Jesus to remind his disciples that no matter what might be happening in the world around them, the work of building up the Kingdom of God should go on.

After almost a decade of struggle to get the fledgling mission church in Warren County off the ground, the Bishop of Kentucky didn’t assign Christ Church a clergyperson for nearly all of the 1850s.  Vacant beginning in 1852, it wasn’t until 1861 that a missionary was assigned to Bowling Green.  Ordained a Deacon on March 30, 1861, the Reverend Samuel Ringgold must have received the old English blessing, “May you live in interesting times,” as he was in residence here for less than six months when on September 18, 1861, Confederate General Simon Boliver Buckner arrived in Bowling Green with 1,300 soldiers.  As the Civil War began, Kentucky’s Governor officially declared the Commonwealth to be neutral in the conflict.  Bishop Benjamin Smith did his level best to keep the eyes of his clergy and congregants on the work of the Gospel rather than the conflict raging all around.  However, the Episcopal Church’s history as the Established Church in England and in several of the American Colonies meant that church and state were never fully separated.

In the Morning Prayer service of the 1789 Book of Common Prayer, there was a prayer that was to be said for those in authority.  It read,

O Lord our heavenly Father, the high and mighty Ruler of the universe, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth; Most heartily we beseech thee with thy favor to behold and bless thy servant, THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, and all others in authority; and so replenish them with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that they may always incline to thy will, and walk in thy way: Endue them plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant them in health and prosperity long to live; and finally, after this life, to attain everlasting joy and felicity, through Jesus Christ our Lord.[2]

The recently formed Episcopal Church of the Confederate States authorized the amendment of the Prayer Book to replace “United States” with “Confederate States” wherever it appeared, but given the way in which cities like Bowling Green were handed back and forth between the two sides, this prayer proved to be quite problematic for clergy like Samuel Ringgold.  The Union General stationed in New Orleans declared that, in his jurisdiction, not saying the Prayer for the President would be regarded as treason, and at least one priest was arrested in the chancel of his church for not saying the prayer at the request of a Union Officer.[3]

For Samuel Ringgold, the situation was dire.  Bowling Green was under martial law; at times a Confederate Capital, at times a Union stronghold, at times Kentucky neutral.  Totally cutoff from his bishop in Louisville, he wrote to the Bishop of Tennessee, James Otey, for advice.  “For more than two months after the Southern Army had taken possession of this place, I continued to use the prayer [for the President of the United States], never omitting it, until the provisional government was established.  Since then I have not used it.  The question is, whether I should now use the prayer substituting the word Confederate for United.”[4]  Bishop Otey replied a week later, on Epiphany Day, 1862.  He reminded the young deacon that he was not his bishop and what he was offering was not an official position, but his thoughts were, essentially, that you should pray for the president who had troops in town that Sunday.  Whichever side it was, to Bishop Otey, they represented “The powers that were ordained by God.”[5]

A month later, the Confederate Army retreated from Bowling Green, and on March 1, 1862, Ringgold wrote to Bishop Smith in Louisville that Bowling Green was devastated and Christ Church had been commandeered for a hospital.  Over the next several months the pews were burned, the windows broken, and the walls covered with graffiti.  Even as the world fell apart around them, however, Ringgold and the handful of members left at Christ Church chose not to be hopeless but rather, “to go to work…”[6] By the late summer of 1862, Ringgold shared good news of their progress with the Rector of Grace Church, Louisville, “We have now, not only a comfortable, but a pretty and clean churchlike room to worship in.  We have a most interesting Sunday School, fine choir, and much larger congregation than ever before… Notwithstanding the disorders of our times, the number of our communicants has doubled during the past year.”[7]  By January of 1863, Ringgold was, reportedly, the only clergyperson still holding services in Bowling Green, and even when the original church was torn town by soldiers to build chimneys for their tents and the Rector’s stove was stolen from his house with dinner still cooking on it, Ringgold and the people of Christ Church Bowling Green kept the faith, proclaimed the Gospel, and served the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Our Gospel lesson this morning ends with Jesus telling his disciples that “by your endurance, you will gain your souls.”  Whether the year is 33AD, 1862, or 2019, enduring the ongoing catastrophes that sin creates takes faith in a God who has a plan to bring all things into their perfection.  Endurance doesn’t mean sitting around, waiting for God to take a magic wand and fix it all.  Instead, by exhorting his disciples, and us, to endure the challenges of the present, Jesus calls us to get to work – relieving the suffering that sin creates in the world.  Salvation, it turns out, won’t come from the glorious edifices of religion, be they Herod’s Temple or a small brick church on Upper East Main Street.  The redemption of the world comes one day at a time, by way of the hard work of the people of God who seek to make this world more like the Kingdom of Heaven.  For 175 years, the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green have been faithful to the work of building up the Kingdom of God in Warren County.  Our prayer this day is that for the next 175 years, we might continue to be blessed with faithful disciples who endure whatever the changes and chance of the world might bring, giving generously of their resources of time, talent, and treasure to the honor and glory of Almighty God.  Amen.

 

[1] Journal of the 17th Convention of the Diocese of Kentucky, accessed on 11/14/19 at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89072985872&view=1up&seq=30

[2] Book of Common Prayer 1789, page 31.

[3] Paul G. Ashdown, “Samuel Ringgold: An Episcopal Clergyman in Kentucky and Tennessee During the Civil War.” published in The Filson Club History Quarterly Vol. 53, No. 3, July 1979., p. 234.

[4] Ibid., 234-5.

[5] Ibid., 235.

[6] Ibid., 236.

[7] Ibid., 236.

The Potential Energy of the Spirit

My high school physics teacher, Mr. Amidon, suffered from narcolepsy.  As a result, he would fall asleep at random times throughout the day.  Most often, he’d zonk out at his desk, but it wasn’t uncommon for him to fall asleep while writing notes on the board or even while showing us an experiment.  As high school students are wont to do, we took advantage of Mr. Amidon’s ailment and were very careful to not wake him up.  As a result, I don’t remember a whole lot of what I was supposed to learn in high school physics, which is probably why college physics was so difficult for me, which is probably part of why I’m a priest today and not an engineer like high school Steve had planned.  Anyway, one of the few memories I have of high school physics is the experiments we ran highlighting the differences and relationships between potential and kinetic energy.  The most obvious of these experiments were aided by gravity.  This higher we held a ball above the ground, the more potential energy is possessed.  As it dropped, that potential energy was converted to kinetic energy, and then it bounced upward, returning kinetic energy back into potential while losing some of its overall energy to friction and ball deformation.  This process repeats until all the potential energy gets transferred through friction and deformation and you are left with the ball at rest on the ground.

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While Mr. Amidon’s class sticks with me because of the narcolepsy, the power of potential energy has stuck with me over years.  It came back to me this week as I prayed for Mila Veletanlic and Thomas Stiles, whom we will baptize this morning.  As I thought about Mr. Amidon, I came to realize that, the baptismal service, especially on All Saints’ Sunday, and especially when we’re baptizing little ones, is where the potential energy of the Holy Spirit is the most obviously apparent.  This day is set aside to remember all the saints, not just those who are considered hall of famers, who carry a capital S Saint in front of their names like Saint Paul or Saint Mary Magdalene.  On All Saints’ Sunday, we remember everyone who has ever been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and give thanks to God for the work that the Holy Spirit has done through them – the way in which the potential energy of their baptism was lived out in the kinetic energy of the faith.

Toward the tail end of the baptismal liturgy, Mother Becca will say a prayer for Mila and Thomas that, while new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, restores to the baptismal liturgy a part of our ancient past, asking God to bestow upon these two children, both just infants, the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, sound judgment, endurance, knowledge, reverence, and wonder.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy
Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the
forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of
grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them
an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to
persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy
and wonder in all your works. Amen.
It will be quite a while before these two will be called upon to utilize their gifts, but today we celebrate their saintly potential to live lives of faithfulness to the honor and glory of God.

In Christ Church 101, we spend one of our class sessions talking about the Gift of the Spirit.  According to Saint Paul, the charisms given in baptism are particular gifts that each of us are given for the upbuilding of the Church.  Some are called to be apostles, some teachers, some evangelists, some intercessors, and on and on.  In baptism, the Holy Spirit bestows upon each of us unique and special gifts, but to all of us, these seven are given.

The restoration of the prayer for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit brings back to our awareness the potential energy that God imparts upon each us in baptism.  This potential energy is most apparent on All Saints’ Sunday, as the sevenfold gifts are easily tied directly to each of the Beatitudes that we hear in Matthew’.  It was Saint Augustine of Hippo, a fifth century theologian, who first found in the Beatitudes each of the seven gifts.[1]  To Augustine, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” brings to mind the gift of wonder.  It is our poverty in spirit that allows us to find amazement in the richness of God’s grace and mercy.  For Augustine, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” was a call to knowledge.  In this case, mourning wasn’t about the death of a loved one, but the result of our coming to know our own sinfulness.  We rightly grieve the role that we have played in our broken relationships with God and with our neighbors.  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” corresponds to the gift of reverence as we can only show deep respect and honor toward Almighty God when we are not puffing ourselves up or putting ourselves in the place of God by judging our neighbors.  Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” are blessed with the gift of endurance as they work tirelessly to bring about that which they desire.  By enduring in good works, they will one day find satisfaction for their hunger and thirst.  Good judgment is the gift of those who are merciful as, in deep awareness of God’s forgiveness, they choose to forgive; in knowing fully God’s love for them, they show love for their neighbors.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” infers those who have been gifted with understanding.  Even though no human eye can see God, those who have experienced God in their hearts can truly understand what it means to follow the way of God’s love.  Finally, those called to be peacemakers are living into the gift of wisdom; setting aside passion and rebellion, they seek only the peace that passes all understanding.

None of us knows how these two young children will live out their giftedness.  Even as mature adults, many of us who have been baptized into the faith might not be quite sure how we live out this kind of giftedness, but we can all rest in the knowledge that it is only with God’s help that we are able to claim the blessing that is the exercising of our baptismal gifts of wisdom, understanding, sound judgment, endurance, knowledge, reverence, and wonder.  It is only with God’s help that any of us is able to turn the potential energy of the Holy Spirit into the kinetic energy of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.  As you pray for Mila and Thomas today, pray also for your neighbor in the pew, for your clergy, and for yourselves, that none of us might fall asleep, but rather, that the potential energy of the Holy Spirit in each of us might be put to good work in order to bless the whole world.  Amen.

[1] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/16011.htm (Chapter 4, Section 11).  Accessed 11/2/19

The Inspiration Problem

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ALERT! ALERT! ALERT! HAPAX and HOT TAKES ahead!

It is a well-worn verse in the modernist fascination with a literal Biblical interpretation.  Written by someone claiming the name of Paul to a young leader in the Jesus Movement named Timothy, the author encourages the young man to keep true to what he has been taught since he was a child.  In the midst of that exhortation, the author affirms the role of Holy Scripture, what was likely only the Hebrew Bible and maybe, MAYBE, an early version of the Synoptic Gospels, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

This idea that all scripture is “inspired by God” has been used for about a century and a half to prop up the Bible to carry a weight that it was never intended to to bear.  This verse has created Ark Encounters and Creation Museums in Kentucky as well as several generations of folks who would be willingly ignorant to God’s ongoing revelation through scientific discovery.  All because of one word, and a hapax legomonon at that.  The word translated as “inspired” occurs only once in the New Testament.  Theopneustost is a compound word that combines the Greek word for God, theos, with the verb to breathe, pneo.  Often translated as “inspired,” according to several sources I consulted, this phrase’s more basic rendering as “God-breathed” or inspired’s more spiritual reading of “in the Spirit (pneuma or breath)” was an idea common to Jews, Greeks, and Romans. What the author seems to be saying isn’t that every jot and tittle of what will become Holy Writ is handed over by God, but that the fullness of the text carries within it the very Spirit of God that continues to breathe in and through it.

Another “Paul” wrote in the letter to the Hebrews that “the word of God is living and active,” which is how I would read these words from “Paul” to Timothy.  My translation would be something like, “All Scripture is alive with the breath of God, making it useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness across many generations so that no matter how the world changes around us, those who belong to God’s Way will be equipped for every good work.”

See, Seek, Love

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” That’s the penultimate question in the Baptismal Covenant, and the one that I think tends to get short shrift.  We like the Acts 2 feel of the first question.  We’re grateful to have an ongoing chance for repentance in the second.  For the third, we’ll happily proclaim by example, if maybe not by word, the Good News of God in Christ.  And don’t get me started on how many platitude-filled sermons I’ve heard (and occasionally preached) on respecting the dignity of every human being.  Tucked in there, next to last, is this question that really gets to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus in everyday life.  “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  It is, most obviously, the second of Christ’s Great Commandments, but more than that, it requires us to actively seek out Christ in the other.  In order to seek Christ in my neighbor, I first have to see my neighbor, and if we’re honest with ourselves, there are probably lots of neighbors we wish we didn’t have to see.  Worse yet, there are lots of neighbors that we might actively choose to forget, but in our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells the Pharisees the perfect story to illustrate that fully living into the Dream of God means choosing to see what we would prefer to ignore.

It all starts with a rich man.  A super rich man.  A one percent of the one percent rich man.  Jesus says that this rich man was dressed in purple linen every day.  That might not mean much to us today, since we can buy purple linen at Fabrics by the Pound, but in Jesus’ day, dressing in purple linen was an extravagant ordeal.  Prior to industrialization, linen was extremely difficult to produce.  To dye it purple, the right snail had to be found and harvested for its goop.  Purple dye cost about as much as pure silver to procure.  Just by his clothes, we know that this dude was rich beyond our wildest imaginations, but Jesus didn’t stop there.  Not only did he dress in the finest fabrics dyed the most expensive color, but Jesus tells us that he “feasted sumptuously” every day as well.  The Greek here suggests that he “made merry brilliantly.”  Every time that word is used in the New Testament, it is in reference to a massive celebration.  This guy made KISS’s “rock and roll all night and party every day” his actual lifestyle.

As he went back and forth from his palatial mansion, the rich man passed through a large gateway that protected his lavishness from the general unpleasantness of the outside world.  Plopped down at the mouth of that large gate was a man who was as exceedingly poor and the rich man was ridiculously rich.  While we don’t know the name of the rich man, Jesus tells us that this poor man’s name was Lazarus.  Lazarus is the only person to get a name in any of Jesus’ parables.  It means, ironically, “God has helped,” but it’s obvious that God hadn’t helped Lazarus much at all.  While the rich man wore purple linen, Lazarus was covered only in sores.  While the rich man feasted sumptuously, Lazarus coveted the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.  While the rich man’s life was full of relationships with friends, business partners, servants, and dinner party guests, Lazarus’ only companions were the dogs who licked his sores.  It wasn’t that the rich man didn’t know Lazarus was there, but that he actively chose to ignore him.  Back and forth the rich man would go.  At the very least, he would have noticed the stench of Lazarus.  Occasionally, he’d have to shoo the dogs away.  On particularly frustrating days, the rich man might even have to lift up his topcoat to make sure it didn’t brush against Lazarus’ unclean wounds as he stepped right over the poor man.

The rich man spent his whole life building as large a chasm as possible between himself and the wretched Lazarus, until one day they both died, and the chasm was suddenly fixed.  The rich man was stuck in Hades while Lazarus was carried to heaven to rest at the bosom of Abraham.  Immediately, with flames licking his heels, the rich man calls out to Abraham and asks him to send Lazarus with a drop of cool water to soothe his suffering.  I wonder how Lazarus heard that request.  Could it have been the first time that the rich man ever uttered his name?  The first time that Lazarus ever felt seen.  The first time that the rich man had ever treated Lazarus as anything other than smelly, disgusting, nuisance?  Note that the only reason the man utters Lazarus’ name now is because Lazarus could do something for him.  Even in death, the rich man didn’t see Lazarus as neighbor worthy of love, but rather as a less than, at most, a servant who should do the bidding of upstanding men like himself and Abraham.

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  Jesus challenges the Pharisees, his disciples, and us to really see the world around us.  He invites us to see our neighbors, to know their names, to understand their needs, not in order that we might fix them, or to exploit them to help us feel better about ourselves, but to enter into relationship with them so that together we all might take part in the renewing of the world.  That’s what the law of Moses and the call of the Prophets has all been about, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  It’s a theme we just can’t escape from these days.  Whether it is our Neighborhood Prayer Walks or Reimagine Charity or Racial Reconciliation or our Cloister Community, God seems to be calling Christ Episcopal Church to see the world around us in fresh ways; embracing what it means to be a downtown church in order to seek and serve Christ in all people, and love our neighbors – all of them – as ourselves.

Over the next six weeks, we will celebrate three baptisms.  Bennett Moore, Henry Gilbert, and Mila Velentanlic are three young children to whom we will promise to do all in our power to support in their lives in Christ.  In making that promise, we commit to living our lives following the example of Jesus who saw people, who knew them deeply, and who cared about their needs.  He didn’t do it to make himself feel good, he didn’t take their agency away, he didn’t swoop in and try to fix problems.  Jesus was a savior without a savior complex. Rather, Jesus invited others into relationship and through that relationship both he and they were made whole.  As we live our lives as examples for these three young people, for one another, and for the wider community, we too are called to see our neighbors, to hear their stories, to love them, and to work alongside them toward the restoration of the whole world.  It isn’t easy work.  It won’t bring swift results.  It’ll be probably be painful, refilling chasms built over generations always is, but that’s the gift and the power and the risk of building relationships.  It means admitting faults, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, and fostering cooperation toward a hope-filled future.  And, as I am often swift to remind us during sermons like these, it isn’t all up to us.  As with every one of the baptismal promises we make, this one, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” gets answered with five, very important and powerful words, “I will, with God’s help.”  With God’s help, alongside our neighbors, and serving as an example for Bennett, Henry, and Mila, we have the chance to build the Kingdom of God here in Bowling Green, Kentucky by seeing, loving, and seeking Christ in our neighbors, especially the ones we would rather ignore.  Amen.

Deja vu

I try not to complain about preaching for couple of reasons.  One, because I love it.  The process of prayer, study, writing, editing, and delivering a sermon is one of the best parts of my vocation.  Two, because I’m spoiled.  With the exception of a couple of 2 to 3 month stints due to sabbaticals or health issues, in twelve years of ordained ministry, I’ve never worked as a solo priest.  There has always been someone (or sometwo) with whom I share the preaching load.  That being said, this morning as I opened the lessons for Sunday knowing that I’m not the one preaching, I had one of those, “are we here again already” moments.  It seems like I just preached on Luke 15:1-10.

The reality of the Lectionary cycle is that this lesson hasn’t been read on a Sunday in three years, so if I have dealt with this lesson recently, it was probably at a Wednesday service, but there is something about the Lost Parables that is so familiar, it really can cause deja vu.  It doesn’t take but a few words past the grumbling Pharisees to realize where we are and to elicit a quick and somewhat emotional response.  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them…”  I know where this is going… “does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost?”  None Jesus.  Not a single person in their right mind would do this.  The one dumb lost sheep is not worth the potential cost of losing 99 others that you have to leave alone in the wilderness, subjected to the elements, to wolves, and to thieves, to find it.  Same goes for the old lady who spends more on the party she throws on finding one coin than the value of that coin.

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It just isn’t something that people do.  That’s why these stories have such stickiness.  And it’s exactly Jesus’ intent.  Nobody does such extravagant things over finding that which has been lost, but God does.  All of heaven rejoices when one sinner repents, even more than the joy that is experienced when 99 righteous do their righteous things because Jesus came to seek and save the lost.  Here’s the rub.  All of us are lost.  There is no herd of 99 good sheep hanging around dutifully waiting on their shepherd.  All of us are, as the old hymn goes, “prone to wander.”  So it is that we should all rejoice at how foolish God is to leave the safety of heaven, come to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, seeking to find every last dumbass, self-serving, wandering sheep.  Even you and even me.

Cost/Benefit Analysis

Last weekend, the Episcopal Church published its annual compilation of Parochial Report statistics. I used to pour over these numbers with great interest, but time doesn’t allow for that any more.  Thankfully God still makes seminarians like Ben Crosby from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale who has both time and energy to dig into such things.[1]  As expected, the decline continues.  The median Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) in an Episcopal congregation is 53 people, which is lower than the median ASA of our 8 am service.  There are now more congregations with an ASA under 10 than there are parishes with an ASA over 300.  My friend Tom Ferguson also noted that given that the Episcopal Church is 87% Anglo in a nation that is only 62% white and that our average age is 57, compared to an average age of about 37 in the US, the Episcopal Church is becoming less and less able to make the necessary changes to turn the tide around.[2]  As you might imagine, there is not a little bit of hand-wringing and anxiety among leaders in the Episcopal Church over numbers like this.  We might find some solace in the reality that almost every Christian denomination from the Southern Baptists to the Roman Catholics is experiencing statistically significant decline, but if our mission is, as our Prayer Book says, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” then we are clearly failing.[3]

Our Gospel lesson this morning begins by telling us that large crowds of people were travelling with Jesus.  Given the current rate of decline in the Episcopal Church, it would make sense to look to Jesus to see what he can teach us about church growth.  “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  OK, well, let’s look some more.  “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  Surely, there’s something we can use. “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Huh.  Well.  I’m not quite sure Jesus is the church growth guru for us.  It’s no wonder that by the time he arrives at the cross no one but his mom, his closest friend, and a few faithful women were left hanging around.

How do we reconcile these two conflicting forces?  If we learn from Jesus that it is about depth of commitment and not necessarily bigger numbers, but are also pretty certain that our mission calls us to reach out to all people, what are we supposed to do?  Where is the sweet spot between the church with a rock band and fog machine that is designed to appeal to everyone and the old Celtic tradition of wading neck deep into the freezing cold waters of the North Sea and reciting all 150 Psalms from memory?  I think the key to unlocking this puzzle comes in the example Jesus gives about building a tower.  “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether there is enough to complete it? Otherwise, when the foundation has been laid and there isn’t enough to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule the builder.”

Following Jesus comes at a cost.  The Church is not called to be everything for everyone.  We are not here to make following Jesus easy, comfortable, or entertaining, but rather to offer an honest assessment of what life is like in the Kingdom of God.  As a Church, we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  As disciples of Jesus, we are called to make sacrifices of our time to attend worship; to offer our gifts and talents to the ongoing mission and ministry of God in the world; and to give of our financial resources for the building up of the Kingdom of God.  As a congregation of disciples, the Episcopal arm of the Body of Christ in Bowling Green, we are called to love our neighbors and our enemies; to visit the sick and the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to welcome the stranger.  None of this is easy.  All of it is risky.  Being the Church in the example of Jesus Christ comes at a real cost to us both personally and corporately.

Jesus wants us to know the costs before we start the journey so that we might not lose heart when the going gets tough.  All those who are willing to walk this path, the way of the cross, are invited to come along.  Thankfully, we know that this is not a journey we walk alone.  With the Holy Spirit as our guide, we walk with a community of disciples, arm-in-arm with the communion of saints who have gone before, eking ever closer to the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  The cost may be high, the model may not be a popular one, but the rewards for us and for the world God created are well worth it.  May God bless us with the resources and the stamina to walk with Jesus on the path to eternal life.  Amen.

[1] https://twitter.com/benjamindcrosby/status/1168317805894279173 accessed 9/5/2019.

[2] http://crustyoldean.blogspot.com/2019/09/the-collapse-is-here.html accessed 9/5/2019.

[3] BCP, p. 855.

Possibility

Yesterday’s post was a bit of a downer.  Using the example of the failed Born2Run sports complex in my wife’s hometown, I argued that failing to count the cost of true discipleship can have lasting effects and lots of collateral damage.  Today, I’d like to suggest that there is hope.  You see, the story of Born2Run didn’t end with a vacant building and unpaid debts, and while the Microtel that was built adjacent to the property now stands condemned due to years of neglect, the way over built property has found new life thanks to some imaginative leaders in the community.

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After years of lawsuits and tax sales, the abandoned property was ultimately purchased at pennies on the dollar by Hovis Auto and Truck Supply, a local Federated Auto Parts dealer for use as a distribution center.  With some minor tweaks to the building, the cavernous space that was once full of big dreams has finally been put back to use making a positive impact in the community.  It has created jobs, brought in tax revenue, and taken an eyesore of a property and put it to good use.

It seems to me that there is a lesson in this for the Church.  One that comes on the backside of the rather stark teaching of Jesus in Luke 14.  One that we Christians might call resurrection.  Things die.  We all know that, even if we sometimes like to pretend it isn’t true.  But things die.  Programs run their course.  Churches built in a community to meet a certain need might need to die when that community changes and the need goes away.  And as the Crusty Old Dean points out with wisdom and a whole lot of words, maybe denominationalism needs to die as well in order to make room for what God is fixin’ to do next.

Even if you don’t want to go that far, it is clear that this time in American Christianity is, to slightly alter a phrase first suggested by the late Rt. Rev. Mark Dyer, in a time of sheriff sales.  What was is no more, and we have an opportunity to, with some imagination and trust in the Spirit, make wholesale changes to take the abandoned sports complexes of yesteryear and turn them into something that will change the world through the Good News of Jesus Christ.

In my doctoral thesis, I argued that the Episcopal Church has the potential to engage in resurrection and find new ways of being the Church if we are willing to:

  1. Come to know who we are and what we are about
  2. Raise up disciples
  3. Boldly go and tell our story
  4. Not be afraid to fail

It is that fourth piece that seems more crucial to me now than ever before.  Having counted the cost of maintaining the status quo, we must be willing to name the truth that much of what our congregations have to offer programmatically is dead on the vine.  Rather than continuing to throw good money after bad, let’s take that money and invest it in possibility, in a hope-filled future.  If we fail, we’ve not lost much more than we’d lose by simply draining our endowments paying for life-support when hospice was the smarter option.  If we succeed, and as Christians who believe that a) the Church belongs to Christ and b) in the power of resurrection, we can’t help but trust that success is possible, our communities of faith and the neighborhoods in which they live and move and have their being, will be beacons of hope in a world that desperately needs it.