Tuesday, November 7, 2017

How Big is Your Church?

A sermon preached on All Saints Sunday

Has anyone ever asked you, “How big is your church?” When I was rector of a church, I would get asked that question a lot. I never got asked questions like 

How faithful is your church?
How generous is your church?
Does it attend to the real problems in the surrounding community?
Does it love and support its children? It’s elderly?
Are strangers welcome?
Does your church care about the poor?
Are the people there merely nice or do they love with costly, genuine love?
How prayerful is your church?
Are the members of your church gentle with one another?
Are the members of your church free to be honest? Genuine?
Is forgiveness and reconciliation practiced at your church?
Is your church the kind of place that encourages you to believe in God?

It seems to me such questions are at least as important
as how many people are counted as members
or how big the budget is.

Today, we are celebrating the Feast of All Saints. In the collect we just prayed we acknowledged that God has knit us together with the saints in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Christ our Lord. If that is the case, one answer to the question about the size of your church is that it is as big as the multitude of the saints, that great cloud of witnesses that surround us. And that is true no matter how many people show up on a given Sunday. Take comfort in that.

But, don’t become complacent. Those same saints, that great cloud of witnesses, urge and encourage us to run with endurance the race that is set before us and follow them in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that God have prepared for those who truly love him. “Ineffable joy” – joy beyond our imagining, more joy than can bear unless we are made able to bear it, more joy than we can express. As we hear in the passage from 1 John, “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him. We will be like Jesus in his resurrection joy.

What might that look like? In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus offers the Beatitudes, which might point us in the direction of entering into some of the joy and tasting and seeing the Lord is good as we just hear in the Psalm. The beatitudes might also offer a way of measuring the church differently from adding up numbers.

There is a new translation of the New Testament by theologian, David Bentley Hart. Hart has made an interesting choice in translating the Beatitudes. Instead of the familiar “Blessed” he has “Blissful.” I’m going to use that this morning because it points to those ineffable joys that are promised to those who live in the way of Jesus. It reminds us that this is the way of the saints who have run before us in pursuit of the blissful life.

Blissful are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Is this a church that is poor in spirit?
Are we encouraged to let go of the illusion of self-sufficiency
and to recognize their own neediness?
Most especially our need of God,
but also our need of one another?
And are we committed to assisting those who are poor in the usual sense?

Blissful are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.”
Is this a place where mourning happens?
Traditionally this has been understood to mean mourning
for our own failure and sin,
our own inability and unwillingness to love as Jesus loves.
Is this church a place where we are encouraged
to mourn our sin individually and corporately?
Is repentance practiced?
But also, is this a place where people are permitted
to mourn the hurt, heartache, hardness of life?
Or do we try to slap a smiley face on everything?
Is this a place that mourns with those who mourn?
Is this a place that mourns the very real suffering in the world around it?
Does its mourning provoke action to address that suffering?

Blissful are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.”
Is this a church where meekness is encouraged? Gentleness?
Is humility, modeled on the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ, typical here?
Are members willing to set their agendas and preferences aside
for the sake of others?
And are we committed to engaging those who are inherently meek
due to their weakness

Blissful are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.”
Is this a congregation of people who hunger and thirst for righteousness?
Is holiness encouraged and pursued?
Is righteousness understood to be about right relationship with God
and right relationship with others?
Is this a community that hungers for and seeks to live
in anticipation of the kingdom of God
in which there will be perfect harmony?
Is this a community that knows what the LORD requires:
to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Blissful are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
Is this a church where mercy is practiced and received?
Are we patient with one another?
Do we bear one another’s burden?
Do we bear the burden of one another?
Do we practice the art of forgiveness?
Do we seek to understand one another?

"Blissful are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Does this church encourage and cultivate such single-hearted devotion to Jesus Christ
that our hearts are aligned with his
and that every decision is made with the intention
of being drawn deeper into his heart?
Are members encouraged to purify themselves
from all that keeps them from following Jesus
in his way of pure mercy and peace
in obedience to his Father?

Blissful are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.”
Is this a church that knows and lives the art of reconciliation?
Do its members seek peace?
Do we resist the society's indulgence in anger, resentment, and vengeance?
Its fascination with violence?
Do we know ourselves to be agents
of God’s ministry of reconciliation in the world?

Blissful are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Though we live in a time and place
where real persecution for righteousness' sake is unlikely,
are people formed in this church
such that they at least seem odd or peculiar to their neighbors
because of the way they act, talk, and live?
Are members encouraged to go against the flow?
To question the status quo?
To recognize that what passes for wisdom in this world
is often foolishness in the light of God's wisdom?
And is this a church that is engaged with members of the body of Christ
in parts of the world where believers are truly persecuted on Jesus’ account?
Does it pray for, support and encourage those sister and brothers?

There are lots of ways to assess the health of a church.
Most of them have little to do directly
with the kinds of things that can be counted, weighed, or measured
in the usual sense.

Still, a church that is growing in the ways that matter
is likely also to grow in the more conventionally measurable ways.
Increasing attendance can be nothing more than ecclesial obesity
or it can be a sign that the Holy Spirit
is moving among the members of a church,
birthing new life and drawing new people
who desire to be a part of such a community
and the resulting love, truth, and joy.

A bigger budget doesn’t necessarily indicate spiritual health,
but a growing budget can be a reflection
of a spirit of generosity, commitment, and thanksgiving.

Let me be clear that, as your bishop,
I hope and pray for growth
and want to see our numbers increase.
Any church worth its salt of the earth and light of the world
ought to be growing in tangible ways
precisely because it is growing in the ways that really matter.
Let us recommit ourselves to becoming more and more
the kind of people and kind of church
that can answer "yes" to the above questions.
That is the way of Jesus.
            It is the way of the saints.
                        May it be our way.

How big is your church?
How blissful is your church?
How blissful are you?

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