It’s possible this question is redundant; unnecessary even. After all, in some respects the answer is unchanging. In today’s Collect we actually see some of that unchanging answer outlined:
“Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name…”
In other words, we are united by the Holy Spirit as a body of Christ, called to proclaim in thought, word, and deed the transformative power of God’s Love. To proclaim to the world the ability of our Creator to change this world for the better when humanity works in concert with God and one another. This particular calling of the Church belonged as much to the early Church as it does to us today. What does change are the particular contexts that each generation finds itself.
Over the last several decades, America’s religious landscape has changed drastically. While the decline of those who identify as having no religious affiliation, often called the Nones, has slowed down, they still represent roughly 25% of the population. (1). Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, they represent 50% of the population. (2) I share this information not to discourage our work as the Church, but rather to invite our curiosity. Our neighbors in the United Kingdom have been experiencing a high percentage of Nones for quite a bit longer than we have. I wonder, what can we learn from them about what it means to be the Church today?
Our family recently returned from visiting some close friends who moved to England during the pandemic. We explored different corners of the country, and forced our kids to visit what must have felt like an endless number of churches, abbeys, minsters, and cathedrals. They were pretty tolerant about it all, and it helped that many of these cathedrals have their own cafes offering tea and cakes. Admittedly, we are not beneath bribery.
What stood out to me the most was not the remarkable architecture, the dazzling stained glass, beautifully kept gardens and grounds, or the incredible history. Though those were all very impressive. What impressed me the most were the churches that seemed to understand deeply that their church did not actually belong to them. Rather, they were caretakers of a sacred space that belonged to God and was meant for everyone. They use it for their parish life and worship services, but have cultivated an environment in their hospitality ministry that welcomes people of all faiths and none to find rest, refreshment, and renewed strength throughout the week.
We live with a 24 hours news cycle that is dominated by fear and scarcity. Even when we manage how much news we choose to take in, we often can end up feeling overwhelmed by all the desperate, enraging, and heart wrenching news. We may wish we could do something to address the state of our nation, or the climate crisis, or systemic racism, poverty and injustice, but find ourselves feeling too powerless and helpless to do so. It is easy to get sucked into a sense of hopelessness. Honestly, that’s how those holding all the power want us to feel.
Except, we are the Church.
We know a power that is greater than anything else in this world.
We know the Good News.
We know that change is possible.
We know there is always hope.
We know that Love is the only Way.
And as our Collect reminds us today, when we work in concert with God and one another, we can help our world to experience the transformative power of God’s Love.
So, what does it mean to be the Church today?
I think it means bringing hope to the hopeless. And there are quite a lot of ways we can do that, but for the sake of time, I’m going to focus on the one I’ve carried with me the most this summer.
One way that we can bring hope to the hopeless in our community is by welcoming people of all faiths and none into our sacred space. To recognize that this church does not belong to us, but belongs to God and is meant for everyone in the greater community.
Our society desperately needs sacred spaces like ours so people can find the rest and renewed strength they need in order to address the issues facing our world today. We are in the privileged position to share a sacred space that embodies the beauty and mystery of the transformative, powerful, Love of God.
Those cathedrals in England were flooded with people seeking solace and peace. On a smaller scale, here at James and Andrew, we also welcome an increasing number of people as part of our own hospitality ministry. It started with our outreach ministries and then we began sharing our buildings with others to use. Then we began enhancing our gardens and benches; next we started opening the church for folks to pray, rest, and be during the week; then we welcomed the labyrinth onto our grounds; and most recently we added picnic tables. Soon, there will even be bike stands.
Each addition has brought an increased number of people who come here seeking rest and a renewed sense of hope.
We are in our tenth year of living in the rectory, and on any given day we notice dozens of people utilizing our sacred space. Whether they go inside the church to light a candle, say a prayer, experience silence or listen to the organ being played; eat their lunch at a picnic table; play with their children or grandchildren on the lawn; walk the labyrinth; or take a rest on a bench. Our hospitality ministry started as a small thing, and it has grown more and more each year. As members of James and Andrew, we have the great privilege of caretaking for this sacred space that is truly a physical manifestation of God’s Love and peace.
Some of you may know that for a long, long time I used to think church buildings didn’t really matter. So much so, I wrote an article for an Episcopal church practice website on why our buildings just don’t matter. Somehow you called me to be your Rector anyways. Yet witnessing the evolution of this hospitality ministry has affirmed for me what is possible with church buildings when we see them as sacred spaces that belong not just to us, but to God and are meant for everyone.
Sacred spaces come in many forms, and are not necessarily even buildings. Yet whatever their shape or size, they have the power to renew people’s sense of hope and possibility. Now more than ever, we need these sacred spaces and centers of hospitality to renew our sense of shared hope for what is possible in God’s world.
As we live into our daily life and ministry at James and Andrew, may we increasingly embrace God’s invitation for us to be a sacred space that facilitates people finding a returned sense of hope. One small way we can all do this is by finding small ways to make our sacred space increasingly hospitable.
Another small way we can do this is by praying for those in need of hope. We are a people of prayer, and we know that prayer can make a difference. Prayer is one of the many ways we work in concert with God and one another - by directing our collective hearts, minds, and energies towards God’s dream for this world. Add those experiencing hopelessness to your daily prayers - by name or simply by praying for all those seeking sacred spaces and a renewed sense of hope. We also need to help one another maintain our own sense of hope, to remember that we are the Church, and we know of the transformative power of God’s Love that can turn this world upside down, and right side up again, as our Presiding Bishop likes to say.
As we prepare to head back into the world today, I wonder if we all might do a little reflecting…
What do you think it means to be the Church today?
What do you think it means to bring hope to the hopeless?
How do you maintain your own sense of hope?
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