Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Epiphany 2, Year C, Sunday January 17, 2010

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

Last weekend we held our annual Vestry retreat at the Kanuga Conference Center, and there we heard a series of presentations about post-modernism and the Church. What we heard was both encouraging and challenging.

We were encouraged to learn that we at Saint Augustine’s are doing quite well! We were reassured that we are on course with our search for a new rector. We learned that we could choose to look at our finances from a perspective of abundance rather than a perspective of scarcity.

The speakers suggested that when a church program isn’t doing so well, instead of trying to build a bigger and better program, we could decide to let it go. In the post-modern world, we learned that we may expect a shift from the program-centered church to the missionary church. This shift will be gradual, and the speakers directed us not to change programs and services that are working well.

I tried to think about applying this idea to the Order of Saint Helena. We are now living in South Augusta, and one of the drawbacks of our present location is that it’s not a great neighborhood. We had several break-ins about 9 years ago, so now we protect ourselves with better locks and with a security system.

As I’ve thought more about that, I began to wonder what a religious order of the future might look like. We can protect our safety, but we can also try to improve the neighborhood. We can try to get to know our immediate neighbors. We could join the local neighborhood association. We could help our local school system. We could find ways to pray for our neighbors and to volunteer.

We faced a similar challenge in my seminary community in New York City. A group of us students saw the homeless sleeping on the sidewalks outside the seminary walls, and decided open an overnight shelter. In NYC, there are intake centers where homeless people can go during the day to receive screening, health and social services. At night they go in small groups to overnight shelters in houses of worship. Our proposal was to become part of this network, and we received a very mixed reaction. Some didn’t like the idea at all, some were enthusiastic, and others wondered why we didn’t just open the doors to everyone on the street. Our dean responded that the seminary wasn’t a drug rehab center and we weren’t equipped to handle all those who might come in, but we could become part of the network.

Many meetings and discussions and fundraisers later, we opened the doors to a shelter for men, three nights a week. I stayed several times in the shelter, and one morning as the group got ready to leave, someone asked me to come over to his bed and he showed me that he had taken a little piece of paper, written his name on it and placed it on the pillow. He said that during the day he would remember that there was a pillow with his name on it.

I asked the men where they went on the nights that they didn’t come to the seminary shelter. They said that sometimes they went to other church shelters and sometimes there was no place for them to go, so they would spend the night in plastic chairs at the center. One man said, “During the day we’re just a number, just a statistic, but here you know our names.”

One evening a seminarian brought his wife and little baby to the shelter for a visit. The next evening that baby was all they wanted to talk about. The men said that no matter what had happened during that day, every time they thought about the baby’s smile, they felt better and they felt that everything was going to be ok.

A few seminarians decided to start this project; others volunteered to stay overnight and some scheduled the volunteers; some organized the fundraisers and some gave the money for renovations; some painted and decorated the shelter; some came to an opening blessing of the room; some donated the snacks; others said prayers.

Not everyone at the seminary was directly involved in the shelter, but still, this ministry affected us all. We told each other the stories and we were all blessed by this ministry. When the six-year-old son of one of my classmates learned that there were homeless men staying in the shelter, he said, “If homeless men are here, then Jesus is here too.”

We put our separate gifts to work for this ministry, all gifts from God and “activated by one and the same Spirit”. And I think this is a glimpse of the church of the future: not a building, not a hierarchy of power, but all of the people of God serving, each in their own way, taking the risk of love, and bearing the Name of Christ into the world.

The poor and needy will always be with us. There will be hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. No one has sinned to cause these disasters, and God is not punishing anyone when these things happen. Rather, I believe that love and compassion of God is most present with those who suffer and those who grieve. God is our constant, faithful refuge and strength, even in the midst of the most terrible suffering, and even today in Haiti.

At Saint Augustine’s we will continue our journey towards calling a new rector. This process I imagine will be something like a courtship, a wedding, and a honeymoon, and then, God willing, a long and happy marriage. God has a rector chosen for us, and we just need to find each other. He or she won’t be perfect, and he or she won’t be the Christ. He or she will have gifts of the Spirit as well as weaknesses, like every one of us. Our shared gifts and generosity will lead Saint Augustine’s community to becoming a church of mission and a church of the future.

A wedding is both a private and a public commitment of a couple to each other. In church we make both private and public commitments to Jesus Christ, and both are important. Our inward spiritual journey as a community of faith can support and give us sustenance for mission and witness, and the experience of mission, in turn, can feed our inner spirit and our faith.

As Christ loved us, so may we love one another, and reach out both within and beyond our community, carrying the Name of Jesus and shining with the radiance of Christ’s glory.

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