Decently Writ, XVII: A Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton
A Sermon Preached by the Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton,Bishop of Maryland,
Upon the Opening Mass of the 2014 National Conference of the Association of Anglican Musicians,
Held at St. Paul’s Parish, K Street, Washington, DC
Monday, June 16, 2014 – 10:00 am
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.
17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Core membership loss of over 8%. Uncertain leadership, with no strategic plan for growth. Loss of energy, lack of vision, with little basis for optimism in the face of a culture that appears to be increasingly hostile to the faith.
The Episcopal Church in the 21st century? No, I’m talking about the world of Jesus’ disciples at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew. In those days immediately following Jesus’ resurrection, the Christian movement was at a very precarious stage, and it was not at all clear it was going to survive. How could it? Many of its followers and adherents had fallen away due to disillusionment, and religious and social pressures. The Twelve were now The Eleven due to the betrayal and suicide of Judas – representing the loss of 8.3% of its core members. The organization, such as it was, had no undisputed leader, no secure funding scheme, no sound administrative or board structure, and no strategic plan for the future – surely giving rise, I’m sure, to calls for “restructuring.” Sound familiar?
It’s in that context of spiritual and emotional malaise that Jesus gives his most famous farewell “charge” to his successors. The gospel lesson assigned for today is one of the best known scriptural mandates for the mission of the church. It’s called “The Great Commission,” so named because it is when our Lord calls, or “commissions,” his followers to go into all the world to make disciples, baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to cling to everything that Jesus commanded them. The Church has heard that call to mission very clearly, and while it has been sometimes misunderstood and abused as a basis for cultural, racial and religious imperialism, it has also given rise to the spread of the good news of Jesus everywhere – as well as the establishment of schools, hospitals, and institutions promoting justice, reconciliation and peace. Whenever the Church forgets the Great Commission it does so at its peril, and it has served as a warning to the Church to not succumb to those inevitable self-serving tendencies to become nothing more than a religious social club for insiders.
But the call of the “Great Commission” contained in verses 18 through 20 – the ones assigned for this day after the Feast of the Trinity – tell only part of the story. There were actually two calls given by Jesus on those final days to his disciples, and both calls are absolutely necessary for the health and growth of the Christian movement. Do you want to know what that other call is? You would have to go back a few verses to read the entire account of what our Lord directed his disciples at the close of Matthew’s gospel, beginning at verse 16, which reads: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
The first call, then, of the resurrected Jesus was to go to Galilee, to go to the mountain. This call was first made to the women at the empty tomb; in verse 10 Jesus tells them to “go tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” In other words, the first obligation of the disciples of Christ was to go home, and look for Jesus there. There, on the mountaintop – as has been true throughout the Scriptures – is where God is always revealed in a significant way. It was true for Moses on Mt. Sinai where he spent 40 days and nights communing with The Lord before he was ready to receive the Law to give to the Israelites. It was true for Elijah who on the mountain had to listen to the “still small voice” of God to strengthen him for the hard journey below. It was true for Peter, James and John who could only see the full glory of the Lord on the face of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration before they could begin their mission of going into the towns and villages teaching, healing, driving out evil and proclaiming the advent of the reign of God on earth.
And it was true for the disciples in today’s lesson as well, serving as the prerequisite for hearing the Great Commission. In other words, before they could hear that Second Call to go and make disciples everywhere, they first had to hear his First Call to go to the mountain and worship.
Is not this a crucial reminder for The Episcopal Church at this present time? Are we all that dissimilar to our spiritual ancestors in their moments of personal and/or communal weakness?
You’re familiar with the figures, the numbers that seemingly tell a depressing story of a steady, deep and continuing decline of the Church. But that story can and should be challenged at every opportunity. In April of last year, Dean Ian Markham, president of Virginia Theological Seminary, gave a much noted address at the annual convention of the Diocese of Delaware in which he countered the “conventional wisdom” that the Episcopal Church has been in unbroken decline for the last fifty years, and that its future promises more of the same. He correctly points out that in the decade before 2002, the Episcopal Church actually grew in average Sunday attendance by 18,000 worshipers. I remember well those days at the dawn of the 21st century when religious social scientists and church sociologists were openly talking about why was it that The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) alone among the Mainline Protestant denominations was experiencing numerical growth – however slight – at least, not declining in worship attendance. The Diocese of Maryland was growing then, as well as the Dioceses of Washington, Virginia, Delaware and several others.
The indications, of course, are that we grew then because we were known as the Church that worshiped well….emphasizing ancient prayers and rites, beautiful liturgies and music that lifts the soul out of the everyday into the glorified presence of a resurrected Lord. If the Episcopal Church was known for anything in those years, it was that.
But then something happened around 2002 and 2003 that changed the public’s perception of the Episcopal Church. Do you remember? That was the period when the conflicts flared up in full force around the full inclusion in the church of all God’s people, and in particular celebrating the gifts that gay and lesbian Christians bring to our common life. In 2003, my friend Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire, which caused a firestorm in the church here and in the Anglican Communion. We began fighting, and many members – including substantial parts of four dioceses – left the Episcopal Church. Of course, we continued to gain new members, but that did not make up for the loss of those who left.
The point I’m making is that the Episcopal Church in the public’s mind became more identified with conflicts, property disputes, fighting, and sex than it became know for its distinctive embodiment of worship. In short, in an era of sound bites, quick opinions, and superficial allegiances, the Episcopal Church lost its brand.
But there is good news here. Unlike many of our brothers and sisters in other Christian denominations, we Episcopalians are coming to the end of those troubles. Those members who are still unhappy with our churchwide stances on inclusion have already made the calculation that this is not the issue that is going to drive them away, and more importantly, their children are not at all likely to leave the Episcopal Church because of our openness to the presence and gifts of all people.
My brothers and sisters, I submit to you that repeated calls to “just focus on mission” is seriously missing the boat on what has been behind our institutional losses of membership and attendance. The “Go, therefore…” of the Great Commission is a very important call to the whole church – but it is the second call. The first call at the end of Matthew’s Gospel is to go to the mountain, meet Jesus there, and worship Him. Sadly, in the Episcopal Church at this present time, we hear very little about that first call. This issue of the “first call” is very personal for me…it goes to the heart of the matter as to why I am an Episcopalian. I was born in this city of Washington, and my faith was nurtured at a large, black and vibrant congregation in the center of the black community. What this means is that I sang, clapped, swayed, stomped and shouted my way into the Christian faith – for which, of course, I am eternally grateful!
By my high school years, however, this way of worshiping no longer worked for me. Already by then, I was wary and weary of the constant demands for a highly charged emotional response on my part as the evidence that the Holy Spirit was present. I was tired of the anti-intellectualism, the easy answers to complex issues, the focus on individual gifts of performance rather than on the majesty of God, and the lack of a worshipful connection with the ancient past and the lives of our spiritual forbears in faith.
After a brief period of “atheism” – to the extent that a 17 year old struggling with his faith could be an atheist – I came back to the faith. But where to worship? I literally went to dozens of churches, from storefronts to large sanctuaries, Protestant and Catholic Churches, black and white, rich and poor. It wasn’t, however, until I stepped into the Church of the Ascension & St. Agnes – that venerable downtown Anglo-catholic parish – that I found my “home.” I didn’t understand much about what was going on liturgically at that morning’s mass; it was a whole new world for me. But I did know that what was happening there helped me to connect with the Holy in a way that I had never experienced before – without having to check my mind at the door! Who said that an African American urban kid of 17 years old couldn’t be attracted to the tradition of liturgy that has stood the test of time for 2000 years?
My brothers and sisters, this bishop believes that our parishes need to focus more on their community’s worship as the vehicle for the kind of evangelism that works for us. The problem for the Episcopal Church is not that we are neurotically and unhelpfully fixated on music and liturgy. Rather, the problem for us from an evangelical and church growth stance is that we are not focussed enough on our worship.
Good worship consists of its own “three legged stool”: music, liturgy and preaching. Each leg of that stool is important, and if one of them is weak than the other two will not be able to stand for long. The truth is no matter how earnestly a church may pour itself into serving its community (which, as I said earlier, is a good thing), if the preaching is uninspiring, the liturgy is sloppy, or the music is barely listenable, then that church will shrink and eventually may have to close its doors as a worshiping community.
This means that growing churches are going to have to spend more of their time, money and other resources on having a good music program – not less. They are going to have to spend more time developing good liturgical practices for their services, not less. And they are going to have to insist that their clergy spend more time, effort and training on becoming good preachers, not settling for mediocre preaching. Ultimately, the reason for this turn, or “return,” to worship isn’t to maintain market share. It’s not to make us “feel” good, or to achieve some vague spiritual high. The reason the Episcopal Church must focus on worship is to prepare itself to make disciples of all nations. It is to take seriously the first call of Jesus before the great commission to “go to the mountain, see Jesus there, and worship him.”
To God be all honor, glory and praise forever. Amen.