Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Growing in faith and reaching out to others

Rev. Kirsten’s Sermon May 3, 2015

My question for the day,  is how are we called by God to grow our community here at Nativity?

It’s a critical question for us. If we are going to thrive here at Nativity, we need more resources.  We must reach out beyond our existing membership and find new people who want to join us.  We want them to join us so because we are energized and enlivened for our work in God by the presence of more people.  We want them to join us so that our worship will be richer, so that our ministry can grow, so that we will have money, and time and energy for what God wants us to do in the world.

I have heard lots of people say that Marin residents don’t go to church.  Families with kids don’t go to Church.  In this age (and place) of spirituality—people are spiritual and not religious. They believe in a divine presence, they seek that divine presence in their lives, but they don’t want to join a Church community.  I’ve heard some members say,  I’ve already invited my friends to come to church with me, there is no one else I can ask.  So how are we going to grow?

I think our scriptural passages today suggest a few answers, I’m going to highlight three of them—one from each of our lessons.  First, we’ll turn to this amazing story from Acts. 

Philip is sent by an Angel of the Lord to follow the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza.  Once he’s on this remote road, he is guided by the Spirit to a chariot.  And in the chariot is the Ethiopian Eunuch reading scripture from the prophet Isaiah.  The Ethiopian is from the most remote part of the Kingdom. The Ethiopian is of a different race and he may be physically deformed.  He is not like the Jews of Jerusalem.  He is clearly different from Philip.  But this is where the holy angel and the Spirit lead him. 

When Philip encounters him he is studying scripture but he doesn’t know what it means—he wants Philip to help him understand it.  He is looking for a teacher.  And after Philip has shared the Good News with him, he sees the water and asks,  “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” And Philip baptizes him and brings him into the faith. 

I think we can hear this story as directing us to listen for the voice of the angels, look for the guidance of the Spirit.  Who is God pointing us towards?  Where are we being led?  And the people that we are called to serve might not be the ones we expect—they might not be Episcopalians.  They might not even be Christians.  But they might be people who are studying Scripture, or people who are reading other spiritual literature.  Maybe they are looking for a community.  Maybe they don’t know exactly what it is they are looking for, but they might be asking for a teacher.  There are people in our community who might want to be baptized, even though they aren’t quite sure what it means to be a Christian. 

Who knows where you will meet them—maybe they are in a social group, or maybe you meet them by chance in a doctor’s waiting room, or at a community event.  Maybe you sing with them outside of Church, or you run into them at the gym.  Maybe you notice that they are reading something that might be considered spiritual.  Maybe they would welcome a conversation with you about faith, about God.  Maybe you are the teacher that they have been waiting for.  Just because they didn’t declare themselves Christians doesn’t mean that they weren’t looking for you.

The second answer to the question we’re facing,  How do we grow our Nativity community?  I hear in the Gospel passage.  Jesus explains to his followers,  I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and I in them will bear much fruit.  So if the fruit of the vine is the growth of our community, then I hear this Gospel as instructing us to grow in faith here.  As we grow in faith, our spiritual strength will lead us grow in numbers.  I find this such a rich metaphor for our communal life.  We are growing together—abiding in Christ—when we worship together, when we sing together and share Eucharist.  We are growing together when we come together for midweek prayer—our Thursday morning worship, and this week in our Evensong.    Abiding in Christ, I think can mean really making the Church a central part of our lives.  I know that I am strengthened when I talk to all of you over the course of the week—I hear how you are caring for one another with the Pastoral Care team.  But I also hear about other ways that you are living in the Church—going out to lunch with one another, calling one another and encouraging one another.  When you come to the soup supper, or the rummage sale potluck, the Nativity Knitters or the youth group on Sunday nights, you are abiding in Christ.  When later today we meet as an outreach committee, or when the altar guild meets on Saturdays—these are acts that bring us together with Christ as our core. 

This gospel text can help us to see how as we strengthen our worship and our commitments to one another, we are becoming branches that will beget fruit.  I know that people I meet often ask where I get my energy.  They wonder how I manage to be positive most of the time.  And I say quickly,  I love the work that I’m doing, I love the people whom I’m with.  I tell them about how beautiful our services our.  I tell them about how much fun we have together.  Even other clergy are amazed when I tell them how much I enjoy our vestry meetings.  This past week, we had supper together before the meeting, and it meant that the meeting was a little longer than usual.  But when I told people about my Tuesday night,  I didn’t feel like I’d had an exhausting meeting, I felt like I’d had a really productive meeting with wonderful people who all share a sense of trying to do God’s work. 

I think as we continue to build up our life together—our worship, our pastoral care, our outreach ministry—we are doing exactly the right things to grow, we are building up the strength of the vine, tended by God, the vinegrower.

And this then brings me to the third lesson—the letter of John.  This letter is about love.  It’s about God’s love and human love.   But the key to this passage is that in love, there is no fear. “Perfect love casts out fear. . . whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” So as we begin to talk about growing our community, I hear this passage as encouraging us to face the challenge of growing and changing without fear.  In the perfection of God’s love, there is nothing to be afraid of.  We are going to be fine.  Christopher Martin, the rector at St. Paul’s and his senior warden met with a few of us the other day.  And he said, you know as we talk about what we can do together, there is sometimes a fear that we’re talking about losing our identities, or losing our Sunday morning worship or losing our church buildings.  He said, you know if people could see that we are not in danger of losing any  of those things, but are thinking about the possibility of growing stronger together, instead of losing something, we might be more open to change.  So I want to encourage us to overcome our fears—especially the fear of change. 

It is my experience that this congregation is extraordinarily open to experimentation.  When I think about all of our Holy Week experiments—all the ways that we tried new ways of worshipping, I think that we learned a lot.  And we were pretty comfortable with the experiments.  This is a congregation that is open to trying different Eucharistic prayers, to trying new types of music.  In these ways, you are not afraid that by trying something new, you’ll lose what you love.  So I want to encourage us to take this spirit of innovation and experimentation and continue to build on it.  Let us let God’s love overcome our fears and grow.

Our vestry has decided to investigate one possible experiment and that is that we might offer a worship service at Smith Ranch.  We noticed that we have a number of members, former members and friends who live there.  We noticed that John Busterud organized a bus for Anne’s funeral and the bus was full of people who wanted to be with us that day.  We don’t know whether Smith Ranch would let us come and offer worship, we don’t know if there are enough people who would want to attend.  We don’t know when, what time, what day, or how often we might do it.  We don’t know whether we’d offer a Eucharist, or a morning or evening prayer.  We can think of lots of ways in which this experiment might not work.  But we have decided to look into it, think about it together and explore the possibility without fear.  The vestry would welcome your ideas about this experiment, feel free to talk to any of them and to me as we consider the options.

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