Advent 1 Sermon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville, Texas:
It’s almost a given on the first Sunday in Advent, this first Sunday after Black Friday, that many congregations are hearing sermons today railing against greed and consumerism. For weeks we haven’t been able to get away from Black Friday advertising, or news stories on people fighting over big screen TVs or camped out in front of stores. I was determined not to be that priest who came in here and laid an Advent sermon on you about how this time of year we all spend too much time thinking about buying stuff, and not enough time thinking about God. Consumerism bad – God good. Sermon done.
But then I saw a story about a church branding agency trying to raise $1,000,000 to partner with any church willing to let them build a McDonald’s inside of it. It’s called – get ready for this – the McMass Project.
Honestly, when I first read about it I was a little McNauseous. For us as Episcopalians, let alone for our sister Eucharistic tradition churches, to take the name of a sacred rite like the Mass and to use in a commercial venture mixing Happy Meals and the Holy Sacrament, seems like an abomination. For a while, I mourned the loss of people’s value for the sacred.
The prophet laments in Isaiah 64 that in our perception of God’s absence we have turned to sin. We have failed to call on God and to take ahold of him. Is it God’s fault for not showing up in the way we want him to? This Advent we’re not waiting for God to show up and shake the mountains. We’re waiting for a helpless infant in a manger. That hardly seems like a reasonable answer to our world’s desperate need for a visible God. And it didn’t seem like an answer for the nation of Israel, searching for hope after their sacred Temple is destroyed and their people are scattered to the winds.
The prophet’s cry in Isaiah resonates in its desperate call to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”
That’s the kind of Old Testament presence of God you get hungry for when you’re thinking about today’s Christianity determined to act as if in into exile, melting down its gifts and trading them in for a golden calf – or in this case, the Golden Arches – while violence and suffering surround us and God seems silent and busy on his mountain.
It’s never good to get worked up about something that you haven’t bothered to read all the way through, so I kept reading the McDonald’s project’s proposal. According to them, the problem is that churches are failing at an alarming rate across the country – as many as ten thousand churches a year shut down. People are leaving churches in droves – three million people a year in the United States walk out the door after failing to find something to which they feel a connection. The solution, according to the project developers, is that churches need to innovate. The idea for what they call a “perfect partnership” is to combine churches, well-known for being community-centered organizations, with McDonalds, well-known for bringing in droves of people. A store in a good location becomes more valuable over time the more money it makes. Put the two together, this group claims, and you will create a self-sustaining, community-engaged, popular church.
As much as I hate the idea of a McChurch – I have to admit they’re not completely wrong: churches ARE dying off, and people ARE leaving. And churches are known for being community-centered organizations. Or at least, they used to be. This is where the road divides between us as the Church, established by Jesus as his Body in the world until his return, and those who would package and sell our Christian identity like so many boxes of chicken nuggets.
It is our Christian identity of the church as community-engaged that we need to reclaim for God, in every way we can. Not by selling ourselves into a profit-making business partnership for financial survival, but by partnering in the community, serving and engaging so deeply and so consistently that our identity becomes indistinguishable from this community. When that happens, no one will be able to think of Woodville without thinking of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and a community dedicated to living for God.
That is the kind of relationship the people leaving the church in droves are hungry for, not for French fries. They are hungry to learn about and experience a kind of spirituality that is molded into a deeply meaningful and deeply satisfying Christian lifestyle. As it says in Isaiah: Still God, you are our Father, you are the potter, and we are the clay. We are hungry to be molded more and more into the image of God in which he has made us. In Advent, we learn to wait not for the mountains to shake, but for the manger to be filled. Faith is trusting not in huge signs from God, but from a God who knows about the strength that is found only in being vulnerable to each other – to risk everything we are to love someone else.
Advent is the time for waiting. But I can’t hardly wait because we’ve got a new church year in front of us. We have a new year with new opportunities God will be asking us to take him up on! But first, we have four weeks to ponder, to hope, and to recommit ourselves to living our identity as Jesus followers, and as his community-centered Church. It may seem like a long wait, but in just four Sundays Christmas Eve is coming, and it won’t be Mac-This or Mac-That. It will be the Mass of Christ, when we celebrate the ultimate moment that God became engaged in our human community.