St. Simon’s on the Sound - July 2, 2017
How did I not see this before, I said to myself as I sat in the Atlanta airport waiting for a flight that we all prayed would be on time? How did I miss something so obvious? How did I not fully understand the intent of Jesus’ words when he proclaimed, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation?” (MK 16:15) How did I not fully grasp the intent of our baptismal vow to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Sitting there in the Atlanta airport, attempting to block out the commotion of noisy travelers and confusing PA announcements, and praying continually that my flight would arrive on time, and then take off without delay, I had what I believe we would call an epiphany. Or, perhaps since I really have no words to describe the experience, only a burning in my mind and in my heart, I had what might better be described and a “mystic moment.”
I experienced in a fleeting moment an insight into the meaning of being in the world that touched my heart, my mind and my soul. In this fleeting moment, I experienced so clearly the significance of “giving a cup of cold water to these little ones”. I understood what being in the world, our mission – the charge given us by Jesus – I understood what our being in the world means through very, very, new lenses. Lenses that have affected my way of seeing and being ever since.
The event that precipitated this “mystic moment” was a conference on Global Mission that I attended a couple of weeks ago in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. The conference agenda was focused on the concept of the church’s identity being formed in the world, as opposed to the church’s identity being established within the four walls of any given building.
The Rt. Rev. Rob Wright, bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta, was the main presenter. In his words, “If we continue doing church in the way we have been doing it, we will remain perfectly prepared for the 1950s. We must bring an end to doing church inside out four walls and begin being church – being church in the world.”
“Being in the world” is, of course, our mission. The mission given us by Jesus when he said, “… “Go into the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Luke 10:15)
Of course, intellectually, I was very familiar with this concept of being church in the world. We, in various clergy groups and congregational training programs, have been discussing emerging from the isolation of our four walls and moving into our community and beyond to spread the good news for more than several years. But, it was the Atlanta conference that provided me with the spiritual awakening to precisely what it is that we promise when we vow in our baptismal covenant to go into the World as disciples of Jesus - to go and proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
How did I miss grasping the reality that being in the world is not about going forth out of the pews and through the church doors with the goal of “doing good,” and then returning to the church parish hall with its various meetings and coffee hours to report on our efforts?
How did I miss grasping the reality that ultimately being in the world – domestic or global –is, ultimately, not about individual trips abroad, or various ministry efforts here at home?
How did I miss the fact that being in the world has little to do with our identity as members of this or that congregation, or carrying out tasks associated with this or that outreach initiative?
How did I not previously grasp the obvious – that being in the world is a going out into the world with no agenda except that of looking and listening. Looking and listening for those in darkness. Looking and listening and then discovering - discovering and being with the wounded.
Being in the world is the work of discovering, being with and working together to heal those who are in some way wounded. Being in the world is traveling our life’s journey with the specific goal of fulfilling our baptismal vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
This new way of understanding being in the world points, at least for me, to the obvious - our church is not a building – these four walls. Rather, our church is the world. And, our congregational life is not a permanent home; rather, it is simply our spiritual oasis, a stopping place along the way to rest and to be refreshed.
The four walls that we enter each week are no more than a place to gather and to renew ourselves through prayer and the breaking of bread. A place where we have our “cup of cold water.”
Our congregational life is an oasis, a sanctuary in which we come together with Christ each week. A place where we can feast on the bread of life that will sustain us as we leave and go on our way back into the world. It is a place where we fulfill our baptismal vow of continuing in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship and the breaking of the bread.
Looking, listening, discovering, being with and healing – all ways in which we as followers and disciples of Jesus are far more likely to meet our incredibly challenging baptismal charge of striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the human dignity of every human being.
The week following the conference my emotions were running high. I was struggling with what to do with my new way of seeing our life as God’s missionaries in the world. Disturbing questions filled my thoughts. Questions such as, “Is my work in the church really fulfilling my baptismal covenant, or am I just another cog in a wheel that goes around and around within the church’s four walls, never actually rolling out into the world?”
In other words, I had an uncomfortable coming face to face with God and my tendency – just like all of us – to see my attempts to “do good” through my own rose-colored lenses. I remembered a quote by Thomas Merton, “Humility sets us free to do what is really good, by showing us our illusions and withdrawing our will from what was only an apparent good.” And, I prayed fiercely.
And then, miraculously, last weekend a stunning example of being in the world occurred right before our eyes – and it was powerful, so very powerful.
The hard work, courage and persistence of St. Simon’s congregation members in collaboration with a planning team of over 25 individuals from all walks of life, all religions, and all ethnicities came to fruition in the Feed the Need event last Saturday morning. Approximately 800 volunteers worked joyfully and in unity to pack food for those who are experiencing food insecurity.
In other words, they were giving “a cup of old water to these little ones.” Through their work at the food packing, they were bringing God into the world of those who are suffering.
Jesus’ message to us over the past few weeks has been so very clear. As he went about proclaiming the good news and healing the sick, he saw that the “harvest was plentiful, but the laborers were few;” so, he summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority to cast out demons and to cure every disease and every sickness. He advised them that they would be like sheep among wolves. He warned them that they would experience hardship and persecution. He commanded them to persevere. Their goal was to remain clear – bring God into the world of those who are living in darkness.
In today’s gospel Jesus continues his sending message to the disciples. He reminds them that whoever welcomes them will be welcoming Jesus, and in welcoming Jesus they will be welcoming the one who sent him – they will be welcoming God. In welcoming the disciples and accepting their offered cup of cold water, they accept God into their lives.
The recent gospel readings from Matthew are so very relevant to our congregational journey as we emerge from habitual ways of doing church to new and exciting ways of being church. In this post-food packing week, I have heard comments from so many people that reflect their excitement in being church in the community.
Excitement in experiencing the spiritual fulfillment of bringing a cup of water to those in need, and through the power of the offered cup – in this instance the food packing - sensing God’s presence among us in a new and thrilling way.
We are a people sent by Jesus, and at times it does feel as if we are sheep among wolves – emissaries of God in great peril. But, we have vowed to proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Christ. And each week after our Eucharistic meal we pray, “…Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart…” We pray for the strength and the courage to proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Christ. And then, we go forth, out of the church, into the world – being church in the world.