Welcomes You

Missouri Diocesan Convention, Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis

Mission of the Church I
Friday, November 18, 2011

 

Well, the Occupy-ers are being thrown out of one park after another.  They were evicted from Zuccotti Park near Wall Street Monday night and from Kiener Plaza here last weekend.  Oakland tired of them quite a while ago, and London still hasn’t been able to make up its mind about whether to let them stay or not.  Our city governments and even churches have been mightily conflicted about this movement.  I am profoundly struck, however, by the parallels between the Occupy movement and Jesus’ band of homeless wanderers.

“Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’”  It seems to me that most of these bands of campers have done just that.  “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid.  Do not move about from house to house.”  The Occupiers have shared food, cared for each other, and challenged the rest of us about justice in the size of paychecks.  Now those who have been evicted are struggling with how to continue their global demonstration. 

The group at Kiener Plaza has dwindled to a small fraction of its earlier strength.  One leader said that without tents they no longer have access to food, medical supplies, or the media.[1]  Their witness has been subverted, and now Occupy is going to have to find another way to make its presence known and its message heard.

We have the same challenge in the Church – both in presenting the good news we have to share, and in how best to do it.  Our old settled tradition of staying put in church and waiting for others to come to us doesn’t work so well with younger generations or with the unchurched.  Our message remains the same as it always has, but we need new ways of telling it and showing an effective response to the hungry outside our doors. 

What does Jesus tell his band of wanderers?  He sends the 70 out two by two to every city where he plans to go himself.  He SENDS them OUT.  That’s where our word “mission” comes from.  When they arrive in the mission field, they’re supposed to find some place that’s interested in hearing what they have to say, and then stay long enough to build some community and have an effective conversation.  They’re supposed to start with good news of peace, and then share food, heal the sick, and tell of the coming reign of God. 

But our fall-back habits are rather different.  For centuries we’ve depended on an established pattern of building beautiful churches and expecting that people know where to find good news.  That’s not quite the same as what Jesus told those 70 missionaries.  Nor is the news that’s proclaimed.  We’ve often heard supposed Christians start out with words of damnation rather than peace – listen up, believe right, or you’re going to hell!  And most of us still tend to think that a bit of bread and a sip of wine is the only meal that’s really needed, and that an hour on Sunday morning is enough to build the reign of God.  Well, it is – and it isn’t.

Einstein defined insanity as continuing to do the same thing but expecting different results.  The Occupy-ers aren’t going to be able to expect the same results now that they’re faced with doing things differently.  The challenge is how to communicate their urgent message without access to their former methods.

The Episcopal Church is experiencing a slow-motion version of being occupiers ousted from their camps.  You’ve heard the familiar lament about buildings being albatrosses.  At this convention you’re dealing with the challenge of affording health insurance for everyone who works in the church.  As long as we understand our primary mission as preserving buildings, maybe we ought to welcome being tossed out.  The shelters in which we gather to worship are meant to be aid stations, like the tents in Keiner Plaza.  We come together on Sunday to be fed for service in the world, to share a meal and be healed and remember the great dream of God, and then go out into the city or the countryside and do the same for others.  And all across this Church we’re beginning to learn new ways of gathering and of serving.

How many here have met somebody who’s been camping in the Plaza or talked with a young adult about his or her hopes for the future?  The society around us is hungry for good news, for healing, and for a nutritious community meal.  How is The Episcopal Church in Missouri going to renew our covenant to proclaim and be the kind of good news that responds to those hungers?  There was a lovely piece on ENS yesterday about a priest in Seattle who went down to the Occupy camp, celebrated eucharist for a handful and then sat down and welcomed a larger group who wanted to talk and reflect.[2]

There is an emerging wave of response across this Church that’s providing shelters for young adults to ask challenging questions, particularly about what it means to be a faithful human being.  There are Episcopal Service Corps groups that invite a few 20-somethings to spend a year living in intentional community and working in service agencies.  They eat, pray, and live together in a way that feeds and heals them and others, and bears witness to what it means to be a fellow traveler with Jesus.

I see other communities that take names like Theology on Tap, gathered in a pub or pizza parlor to share sustenance and reflect on life’s big questions.  I’ve seen gatherings that might be called “messy church,” where parents and small children join for an act of worship that feeds body and soul, at a level that teaches all ages.  There are dinner churches gathered first of all to eat together, from which worship is growing.  Gardens are being planted on former church lawns or new green roofs, and community supported agriculture initiatives are bringing healthy food into the midst of food deserts. 

There are a growing number of community meals that invite the poor and homeless to dine, and insist that others in the community who think of themselves as servers also join the meal.  Out of those meals begins to grow a community that breaks down some of those dividing walls Paul talks about – the same ones that Occupy is tackling. 

Most of our cities have become far more economically segregated than they were just a couple of decades ago.  The most scandalous divisions within this Church are probably economic ones.  It’s not unknown for the wealthier parts of the church to gravitate to theological positions that keep them focused inwardly on preserving beautiful buildings, rather than giving away the gift that has been given to us all.

The covenant renewal possibilities around here are mostly about breaking down dividing walls – between ourselves and God, between us and all sorts and conditions of fellow human beings, and between ourselves and the rest of creation.  When we once again live in right relationship, well fed, healed, and at peace, the reign of God will indeed be here in its fullness. 

The harvest is plentiful.  Pray that God will send laborers out into that harvest – to leave the shelter of the places we settle in, whether parks, tents, or beautiful buildings.  It’s time to break up any movement called Occupy the Pews.