Isaiah 58, verses 9-12 from the Message translation: “If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.I will always show you where to go. I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places--firm muscles, strong bones. You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again. Just a note: the “you” here is 2nd person plural: all y’all
During the pandemic, I found myself hungry for my momma’s homemade bread. Toasted. With butter. But my mother was not yet healed enough to make it. In fact, even though she has rallied—not once, but twice—from major surgeries since 2020, she probably will never make that bread again. So, my momma gave me the recipe; and I made it. And I continue to make it. That recipe is actually my grandma’s recipe; I love seeing her recipe with her handwriting. And I love that bread.
But my momma made it just a bit differently than my grandma; she changed one small step because she had different tools and utensils than my grandma so her shift to the recipe made it a bit easier. Grandma’s bread 2.0. And, after the first time I made the bread, I made one small adaptation myself. Just a bit less salt. So now it’s grandma’s bread 3.0. It’s still grandma’s bread, but it is now in its 3rd iteration. (well who knows: grandma probably got it from her momma and changed it a bit too.) But it still feeds the body and soul (not to mention it smells like heaven), but a bit of the what and how of the recipe has changed.
Church is like my grandma’s bread. It is iterative. It is always becoming.
But most of us think and treat church as if it is a done deal—all already figured out and created—and our work is to simply keep passing it forward. And we can do that, but we are finding, and will continue to find, that if we do that, the body of people we pass it forward to will be a smaller and smaller number. Because the iteration of church that worked in the past—or the one that works for us—-isn’t the iteration of church that works for the present and upcoming generations. Now, that’s some Gospel truth. Each generation isn’t meant to pass forward what’s been passed to them, exactly as it was given them. Each generation is to receive, but then adjust for the current reality and world they are living in—and to make room for what is upcoming and pass forward this thing that has space built in it for the next generation to adapt for their reality. Church is a movement, not a monument; it is always becoming. Like God, it is created and is always creating.
Take Redeemer Lutheran. We started 30 years ago with thoughts and plans about who we were as a body of people, and how we would be that people. And some of those thoughts and plans are in place, and some have had to be let go of because they no longer fit the current reality. Redeemer started in Bannach school, then this part of the building was built. We used to have a Preschool, so the gym and some classroom space and smaller gathering areas that are in the newer part of the building that was built in 2010/2011 was used for them. The Preschool is no longer here, and continuing to expand the building no longer seems like the best use of money and time. The reality we are living in is not what it was back in the 1990s. (and frankly most of my colleagues who have bigger buildings because that was a sign of a successful church, wish they didn’t.) The way forward that was dreamed of in the 1990s may not be the way forward we dream of in the 2020s. Even in 30 years there’s been a big shift. And if we hold onto the dreams of the 1990s and demand that’s the path we build, we will be building a path for a reality that no longer exists.
Or what about the Episcopal Church of the Intercession? It started 170 years ago; I bet those church dreamers would never have dreamed Intercession as it is today. They would not have dreamed of us in this space. And they certainly would not dreamed I would be standing in front of you---a woman with a collar!
So, were they wrong? Were they short-sighted? Those Redeemer and Intercession dreamers?
No. You can only dream in the time you are in. But the trick to dreaming, the trick to building a community is that as you dream—standing in the present—you have to look to the future and train your eyes and hearts to see what is coming rather than to turn and look back to what has been. Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62
Here’s the other thing about church: it isn’t mine. It isn’t yours. It is always ours.
Often we treat church as if it is the YMCA. We pay a customer fee, and then we come and take part in services, or we expect to receive services. We’re a member, and it is the staff and the workers who put the things we wish to attend together and we come and take part as it benefits us. But the church is not the YMCA; it is not a fee-for-services kind of organization, and we are not consumers here. We are disciples.
A church is a school of love. It is where we learn love, where we practice love, where we embody love. It is where we see what love looks like and come to know what love costs.
A local church is a collective. A collective with a mission. Our mission is to restore all of humanity and all of creation back into right relationship with God and one another—through the way of Love that we know as Jesus.
Collectively we fund the mission.
Collectively we provide the energy and effort to live and move forward the mission.
Collectively, we invite, welcome and connect people to build and grow the community.
Collectively we bring our talents and time to provide gatherings that will train us and equip us to live out the mission.
Collectively we dream and sow the seeds that will build the mission, that will give the mission legs and movement, carry it forward to the next generation, the next iteration.
Collectively: as a body of people whose eyes are focused on the one needful thing: Living Love Out Loud.
Listen, it would be easier if church was something that came in a box and all we had to do was read the instructions and put the pieces together and choose which stickers we put on and which stickers we throw away and then we just use the hell out of it until we die, or it dies. And we can do that. Frankly, I think we have done that in Western Christianity—acted as if we were handed a box with all the answers and if we just do it hard enough or loud enough or pretty enough….
But, at its heart, a local church is a gathering of folks who are dreaming together, listening together, so that they can be the living body of Jesus in this world today. In the present moment and reality while preparing to be able to live and move and continue the mission in the moment and reality that is coming over the hill. We are making ourselves available to learn and be equipped to meet the folx on the margins and bring them to the table–or to bring the table to them. We are committed to be vessels of healing, of connection; to be bringers of hope, joy and peace. Beloved, the why has never changed; the why is our mission. But the what and the how change with the times. Sometimes slightly, sometimes shockingly different. If we demand the how and what to remain the same, the why gets lost, like a candle that finally flutters out–overcome by the melting wax—it sputters out.
Recently I read this marvelous book, it’s a children’s book called The Orphan and the Ogress by Kelly Barnhill. I want to recommend it to you. If your child is old enough to read it themselves, get it for them. Or get it and read it together as a family. Or, if you want, we could have a short-term book club for it. It’s that good. Let me just share this bit with you; This bit that reminded me of what church can be:
“A kind of place situated in the midst of a less than kind community. And perhaps that is why someone chooses to give to us. Or perhaps it is because we ourselves are kind. Or because the benefactor is kind. Or because we desperately need that kindness. Or because the benefactor has more than they need and feel obligated to share. Or because they simply enjoy sharing. Or perhaps it is some other reason that we can’t even think of. But the reason for kindness is never as important as the fact of kindness…….
….It was remarkable….how it took only one person deciding to do good things and then convincing others to join us, to create a cascade of good deeds, each one sparking the next. Just think if everyone decided to do good. Just think if everyone decided to do so every day. Or, if not everyone, what if some did, and it still expanded?....
We have been told since we were small that the bad outnumber the good. But I do not believe that is true……One good person can inspire other people to do good things. Good is not a number. Good is more than that. With good, the more you give, the more you have. It is the best sort of magic.”
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.