Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Invitation Will Not Change

Sermon preached on the 7th Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2013 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Revelation 22:12-21

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”  And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”  And let everyone who is thirsty come.

          Many of you know that I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church at St. Thomas’ Church in Bath in Steuben County.  But many of you do not know that I really did not become an Episcopalian there.  I cut my Episcopal teeth while at college in Plattsburgh, in the North Country, in the Diocese of Albany.

          One of the things I loved about the Episcopal Church was the deep rootedness of its traditions.  And I loved its predictability.  What was called then the “new” Prayer Book was in use, but in my parish it was Rite I (Traditional language) all the time and that was perfectly fine with me.

          Change was in the wind, however, a wind that would become a gale.  I was taught in my parish to resist change, and among the changes I was to resist most strongly was the ordination of women.  I had no reason to question that belief, so I adopted it as my own.

          That was the Fall of 1979.  In the summer of 1983, I was back in Steuben County and as I had every summer, I went to church at St. Thomas’, Bath.  Well, there was a morning that summer when I was late; as I approached St. Thomas’ it was going for 10:45 am and the Service had started at 10:30 am.  I had never been late to church before and I wasn’t quite sure what would happen.

          Then I had an inspirational flash.  St. James’ Church in Hammondsport had a Service at 11 am and I just had time to make it.  Why not? I had not been there before although I had seen it from the outside and the time of their Service had stuck in my mind.  I got there in the nick of time and swooshed into the back pew.  The introduction to the first hymn began to play.  When we started singing, I glanced behind me and—horror!—the priest was a she.

          I debated. I could easily sneak out, but there was nowhere else to go, so I decided to stay and just not receive communion.  It was one of the most fateful decisions I have ever made.

          The priest that morning was The Rev. Barbara Humphrey.  She was the supply priest.  I don’t much remember the first part of the Service, but I do remember her at the Altar.  She said, as we do, “The Lord be with you.” My lips made no response.  Then “Lift up your hearts,” at which point my heart broke open.  By the time for receiving communion I walked up.  Despite everything I had been taught, Jesus had shown up and had said, as he always does, “Come.”

          I learned that morning that the church could change, that the deep rootedness I so loved nourished a living tree with branches stretching ever toward the light.  The church was not about tradition or change. It was about both.  But the impact of that experience was not only about my relationship with the church. Ultimately it was about my relationship with God, with the world, and with myself.  And eventually it not only changed my life, but it saved it, but that is another story.

          I think one of the great gifts of the merger of the two congregations to form the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, is that it has opened you up to the reality that change, although sometimes painful—even very painful—is both possible and necessary.  Not change for the sake of change.  Not change simply because it pleases some or even most of our senses and sensibilities, but change that is a response to Jesus’ invitation, “Come,” change that enables Jesus’ invitation to be heard in fresh ways and, therefore, by more people.

          If I have been preaching one major theme more than any other for eight and half years, I think it has been hospitality, welcome, inclusion.  And you have not only been receptive to that theme, but you have taught me a great deal about it.

          To maintain hospitality is to be in a constant state of change.  Every new person who walks through the doors of this church changes us, particularly if they stick around.  If we do not let them change us, they tend to go away.  I believe that the vast majority of mainline churches, almost all of whom in all sincerity call themselves “a friendly church,” continue to shrink because they spend most of their time and energy trying not to change, and if you are actively trying not to change, hospitality is dead in the water no matter how friendly you are.

          We are about to embark together on significant change.  By Labor Day, I pray, you will walk in here and the front half of this church will be open.  There will be chairs which can be configured to meet the needs of the moment.  It will be shocking to some. You will look at it, as some of you have looked at the pictures, with the facial expression I bore when I saw that first priest who was a woman.

          I pray that most if not all of you will have the kind of experience I had in Hammondsport 32 years ago.  You will first have to make a choice, as I did then, to stay put, risk the experience.  I do not want to tell you what your experience will then be, but of one thing I am absolutely sure.  Jesus will show up and he will say, “Come.”  The invitation will be the same. It never changes.

          We just have to keep in my mind a couple basic principles.  First, we love this building but we do not worship it.  It is not our God, even if it helps us to find God.  Second, we love our history but our mission is not historic preservation.  Our mission is welcome.  Our mission is to help Jesus make the invitation into his life-giving life, “Come.”  Anything that makes that easier needs to be done.

          The Book of Revelation is a very tricky piece of writing.

Jesus said, “I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.”

          What is this “work” that we are required to do?  We immediately assume it has something to do with being holy, doing the right thing, behaving yourself, shunning sin.  If that is the case, heaven will be empty.

          No. What is the work?  it is simply responding to the invitation, “Come.”  “Let everyone who is thirsty come.”  The work Jesus requires of me is to know that I am thirsty and believe he can do something about it.

          Change is inevitable. People change. Buildings change. Institutions change.  And all of that is OK because one thing never changes:  the invitation.

          I absolutely guarantee that you will get the same invitation if you walk in here one day soon and sit in a chair.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”  And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”  And let everyone who is thirsty come.

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