July 29, 2018

2018 July29

Invite - Welcome - Love

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Dennis "Skip" Parks

 

When Fr. Ian M. Delinger asked me to talk about my work with the diocese and the Evangelism Matters conference I attended earlier this year, my heart jumped at the idea. At that time, I was still in post-conference excitement and motivation. Since then, however, my brain started telling me “why did you say yes – this is just crazy.” After all who am I to talk to anyone about our Lord and Savior? I have no formal training as a priest or deacon, and I don’t remember taking a single Bible class in college. And, I even went to a Methodist College. But before you boo me off the stage so to speak, I have a short story to tell. It’s about a personal journey of inviting, welcoming, loving, and a somewhat different way to think about God and our church.

 

It started like this. Three years ago this coming November, I was elected to our diocese’s Board of Trustees. To be honest, I was hoping to lose the election. I was about to retire from Cal Poly and didn’t want any long-term commitments. Especially one that required I travel to Salinas once a month for three years – and on Thursdays when I would normally be cycling with my teammates.

 

I was scared at the beginning. After a few meetings, however, I began to understand what was going on and thought I found a niche on the Board. It appeared I was being groomed for spot on the finance committee. Pretty safe I thought. Just dealing with numbers - black and white. What I didn’t realize is that our Bishop had other plans. In a very nice way, Bishop Mary “INVITED” me to become Chair of Conference Education and Resources Committee. The Chair, Rev Linda Taylor, was retiring and moving back to Texas. But Bishop Mary’s charge to me was not to simply lead the committee as it existed, but to totally rethink or as we came to call it, re-image where our church and our diocese interacts with our communities and neighborhoods. To examine who we are, what our communities look it, and the role our church will play in our future, and the future of our children’s children. To say I was scared, maybe even panicked is an understatement.

 

Over almost the next two years, a group of dedicated people was assembled, and we spent hours in prayer, study, reflection, retreats and meetings examining where we were and where we are going as a church. For me, this was incredibly difficult. As I’ve told the Bishop many times, I’m a pew Episcopalian. I’m most comfortable sitting in my pew and hopefully building a personal relationship with God. Alone, by myself, in thought…but not necessarily in words or deeds. The more our team studied and discussed, we came to fully believe that our church today, and into the future, must be reside outside these walls. If we are to survive as a church who’s primary mission is be the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement we must push ourselves outside our comfort zones.

 

The writer Alan Roxburgh in his book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, suggests that in our current time and society, we are not unlike early second or third generation Christians. These were people who did not meet Jesus. The fervor and zeal of the Apostles was waning. All they had were stories, but an amazing belief in teachings of Jesus. There they were, in the far corners of the Empire with no guidebooks, manuals, You Tube videos, or social media. They weren’t counting “likes” or “friends” or “hits.” And they weren’t sharing pictures of what they had for dinner. Blessed by the Holy Spirit, what they had was the ability to move into communities and neighborhoods and talk to people. To hear their stories and to share stories about Jesus and themselves. They weren’t thumping the Tora and the ink wasn’t even dry on the first books of the New Testament. These was no physical church, but there were homes, markets, neighborhoods, and gathering places. They were our first Evangelists. Stories tellers and true believers. What I have come to believe is that we all must follow their example and become Episcopal Evangelists for our Lord and Savior. As some of you have heard me say before, there are evangelists and then there are evangelists. There are Bible thumpers who believe it’s either their way or the wrong way. But, there are also people like us who know and love God and want to share that experience with others. As Episcopalians, most of us fall into the latter category.

 

We love God, but we’re often
uncomfortable talking about
how that love plays out in our
everyday lives. Our spiritual
journeys differ and they not
always over smooth roads. And
that’s okay.

 

From the workshops, seminars and yes, the sermon from our Presiding Bishop at the Evangelism Matters Conference I attended last March, I developed a simple way for all of us to become Episcopal Evangelists. It’s an easy three step process for sharing the love of God.

 

1) Invite.

 

We need to practice inviting people into our space and learning to live in theirs. Not necessarily the physical space of church, but the meaningful and personal space in which we believe in Jesus. I see it in this church every Sunday, I see it at Board of Trustees meetings, and yes, even with my cycling team. It’s the warmth, fellowship and love that binds us to God and each other. If we don’t invite others into this space, we’re just being selfish. It’s not about making ourselves comfortable or serving only people who think and look like us. It’s about inviting people to share in our humanity and the greater love of Jesus.

 

2) Welcome.

 

We need to welcome believes and those who don’t into relationships and partnerships where they can experience what we have. This I believe is the hardest part. The first Christians had deep feelings on who to invite. Did Jesus become human just for the Jews, or did he become human for all humanity? It’s one thing to invite someone to a party but making them feel truly welcome is quite different. Through words and deeds, we must learn to confess, yes even proclaim that we not only go to church, but it’s a part of our very being. It’s one of the things that defines who we are and how we participate in life. People want to be invited and welcomed into the human family. A recently study showed that despite all the ways we now have to communicate and interact, 40% of Americans say they’re crushingly lonely. Up from 20% in the 1980’s. Some would suggest that it’s a perfect storm of factors. People are living longer, having fewer children, moving more often, splitting up, and joining fewer organizations. And I would add, not being part of a spiritual community. I have a friend who when he posts on Facebook will easily get hundreds of “likes”. Does this mean he has hundreds of “friends.” I would suggest not. Because where is the human interaction in this equation? Its’ just pushing a button. People are despite to be invited and welcomed.

 

3) Love.

 

A friend of mine once said the coolest thing about dogs is that they give unconditional love. Unlike Coco, my cat who gives love only on her terms, dogs love us regardless of what kind of day we’ve had. Our love for others in our communities and neighborhoods must follow the same path. Dr. King was right: “we must discover love - the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world”.

 

Over and over in the Bible we are asked to be Evangelists for Jesus and love others. I often think in these post-modern times that we over use the word love. My father was right, he used to tell us boys you can only love people, not things. But how do we learn to love people we don’t know? Matthew 10 gives us some hints. Make friends, go into their homes, have supper them with, maybe drink a little wine, but most importantly love them. Not everyone is ready to accept our love, and that fine. Matthew also gives us permission to just keep going and perhaps pass over those not yet ready. Because in the end, all there is love and there are millions willing to accept it.

 

So becoming an Episcopal Evangelist isn’t as scary as we think. It’s about gaining the strength to listen and be open to hear people’s stories and telling ours. It’s about focusing on what’s important. It’s not about structure, organization, committees or finances. It’s about building an Emerging Church rooted in partnerships and relationships that focus on spreading the Good News of our Lord and Savior into the larger world.

 

In conclusion, our diocesan team on Formation for Reconciliation and Evangelism, doesn’t have the answer for what the Episcopal church will look like decades from now. But, we do know that its foundation must be based in our communities and neighborhoods. In the places we live, work and play. Not always in the physical space that now dominates what we consider church. After all, Jesus didn’t perform all his miracles on Sundays.

 

So it’s really simple. As people of God, we need to focus on three things:

 

Invite, Welcome, Love.

 

As Presiding Bishop Curry so plainly said at a recent famous wedding,

 

“My brothers and sisters, that's a
new heaven, a new earth, a new
world, a new human."

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