No Other Reason to Be An Episcopalian

An important facet of building a good and healthy relationship between the bi-vocational clergy and congregation is for clergy to spend time in reflection. Not just the kind where we priests look at ourselves and think about who we are and what the heck we’re doing. The kind of reflecting I’m talking about is when we hold a mirror up to our congregation, showing them who they are. Perhaps that’s the work of any clergy, paid or non-stipendiary, but in the volunteer, bi-vocational arena where I serve, it is good for a priest to take time early in the relationship with the congregation to say, “Hey, listen to this: This is what I see.” And if all – or even most – of life in your congregation is going well, then by all means, get cracking on telling the congregation about it. They need to hear it.

When you see your congregation doing some great Kingdom work and it touches your heart, tell them. When a visitor says something really great about their experience with your people, find a way to share that feedback. Our job as clergy, and especially as bi-vocational clergy, is not only to provide the Sacraments, to make hospital visits and to preside at Bishop’s Committee meetings. Our calling is to build up the Body of Christ, through invitation and evangelism, certainly, through the rough waters of accountability and being a non-anxious presence in crisis, but also through encouragement of healthy growth behavior, and tending to the hunger in each person to know that the Church supports and believes in them.

It’s a delicate catwalk along which to trace our steps, but clergy must walk that thin line between representing a Church that is independent of the control of individual authorities, while still having the strength and confidence to inhabit the Church’s vulnerable spaces needing people’s gifts. These are God’s people, those whom God’s priests serve, and on behalf of whom we make sacrifices – before God, and from our lives and families. The people need us as much as we need them. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you see.

What follows is my sermon delivered July 13, 2014 to my small congregation of 35 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville, on the Parable of the Sower, and what a recent harvest looked like from the priest’s point of view:

“If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, then these people would be the reason to be one.”

That was one of the more memorable things I heard someone say yesterday in the Parish Hall at Bob’s 90th birthday party – besides all the Bob and Betty quotes that Woodie told, of course.

“If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, then these people would be the reason to be one.” That was an interesting thing for a visitor to say to the priest – at first, a part of me wanted to protest – Obviously, we hadn’t planted enough seed here with this person for our Episcopal awesomeness to take root and grow! I was thinking, wait a minute, there are a LOT of really fantastic reasons to be an Episcopalian, and I just can’t let this person leave until they know all about those wonderful things. But when I thought it over, I realized – What they said really does say something wonderful about our church, doesn’t it? “If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, than these people would be the reason to be one.”

Today’s Gospel parable in Matthew starts out a little unexpectedly compared to some parables. It doesn’t start, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a guy who got some seeds….” It just starts, with “Listen!” And then, we dive right into the story of the Sower. This is the story of a guy who’s seemingly haphazardly planting – throwing seeds all over: on a walking path, on some rocky ground, right in the middle of some weeds, and finally he manages to get some to land on the good ground. This is a story about a guy who’s planting seeds, but it’s also Jesus telling the story of his ministry, and how it’s been going in getting the Gospel message out there. This is also our story – the story about our work to share the Gospel with the world, and the challenges we face both in planting a good Gospel crop in ourselves, and in people out there. This is the story of the Word of the Kingdom of God. The story follows where word goes, and what happens to it in those different places, how the Word is treated, how it is received and what it looks like when it’s enacted.

We call the Bible the Word of God. It’s not just words sitting on a page. When the Gospel is read out loud into the context of the Body of Christ gathered to worship the Father, this Word becomes the living breath of God, delivered into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Through it, across 2,000 years of human history lived inside the Christian story, Jesus calls to us, “Listen! Listen with the ear of your heart. Hear my Word, and understand. Get excited, yes! But be patient and be diligent.” Jesus asks us to walk along beside him, the Sower, and with the Holy Spirit as it is planted deep into our heart, where it will take root and grow, and where it yields a harvest known and recognized in the physical presence of the Gospel, when the Word becomes flesh and walks around in us. Like the Sower and his seed, Jesus scatters his love everywhere. His Word is all about hope, and no matter our emotional or spiritual condition, he has hope that we will love and serve him, and that his Word will stay with us, and grow, and feed others.

“If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, than these people would be a reason to be one.”

Jesus is known as the Word – the Logos of God. Jesus as the Word is the Incarnation of God who enacts his mercy and is the embodiment of God’s creative force in the Universe. In John 1:1 and 14 Jesus is described as co-eternal with God. The Incarnation of the Creator. “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…all things came into being through him … and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have SEEN his glory.”

The people living contemporary to Jesus, the crowd gathered around him that day, and his Disciples, they had encountered the Word walking around with them. It was a different encounter than re-telling the stories being passed around about who Jesus was, and what he was doing; different than listening to Prophecies being heard read in the Synagogues – Jesus has moved beyond the story and the page and is God, walking among them. In Jesus, the Word, the Logos, was so powerful with the creative energy of the God that it was no longer just a story or a written word – that the Word was now an experience. The Word was something to be encountered. In Jesus, the content of the Gospel message and the visceral, physical-emotional-spiritual encounter of experiencing him had become inseparable. The Word had become flesh, and was living among them.

As followers of Jesus, as his Church of people who are inhabited by the Holy Spirit, that same story lives right here among us. We have an encounter with the living Word of God in Holy Scripture, and in Holy Communion. And each week, right here, we are refreshed and renewed and sent out again as Jesus says, “Listen! Listen to my Word, and understand, and GO and bear fruit.” As we go out from here and into the world each week, when what we allow people to encounter in us becomes inseparable, indistinguishable from the Jesus story they have heard or read about, in that same encounter, WE ARE the Word. In the encounter, they meet Jesus in us. We are their experience of Christianity, and that’s when we teach them what being an Episcopalian means. That’s when his message is our life, and our life is his message.

“If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, than these people would be a reason to be one.”

The visitor who said that to me wasn’t insulting the Episcopal Church’s theology, or our great intellectual balance of belief and reason. They weren’t knocking our beautiful liturgy or our love of old-age, time-honored traditional spiritual practices. This was a visitor who didn’t know much about what being Episcopal is, or what that’s supposed to mean as far as how we worship, or the depths of our theology. This was a visitor who came to an event at St. Paul’s and experienced an encounter with Jesus.

This is a person who spent time around you, and who had an encounter with the Word that is in YOU. This visitor stepped into the Jesus story as it is lived by this congregation. Our theology, our liturgy, our beautiful hymnody and spiritual practices – those are precious gifts from God to his Church. Believe me, I love them, dearly. But the FIRST gift we are called to share is Jesus – to be the encounter of the Word for every person we meet. And then, as members of God’s Church, I hope you will go on to say, “I’m from St. Paul’s and if you’ll come be a part of us, I would consider that the best reason to be an Episcopalian!” Amen.

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