As our parish garners nominations for parish council, I have been doing some thinking about who we are, who we are called to be, and how we express that reality to the people we all sense are “out there somewhere”, searching for a church that can respect their intelligence and allow them to feel fully at home. One of the questions in last week’s study group was, “Does your parish have a mission statement?”, and that prompted me to do some serious Googling to see what other churches have come up with as statements of their mission. Here is one of my favorites:
“This congregation is a light in the darkness for those who are non-churched, once-churched and badly churched. We offer culturally relevant worship services to engage the heart, soul and mind. If you feel that God has given up on you, or you have given up on God, just give us 1 hour of your life on Sunday morning. We will help you reconnect and get back on the right path. We make disciples through connecting people to God and neighbor.”
I love this! The same congregation had an informal statement of faith:
“It’s not about me, it’s about God.
It’s not about us, it’s about them.
It’s not about here, it’s about there.
It’s not about my needs, it’s about their needs.
It’s not about now, it’s about eternity.”
When I read this, I liked this little congregation even more, until I later found some feedback from a man who actually visited this church. He was struck by inconsistency of the online mission statement when compared with his actual experience at the church. Here is part of what he wrote:
“As a visitor, it felt like it was about their little circle of people and not about newcomers. Not a soul spoke to us. The pastor shook our hands and said he was glad we came, but no one asked us our names. No one asked us if we were new in the area. No one asked us if we were “non-churched, once-churched, or badly churched.”
So, here we have another example of a church that claims their mission is to connect people to God and neighbor, but they’re not always walking their talk. Each of us here tonight can probably relate her or his own story of not feeling welcome in a particular church and that is unfortunate because Christianity is increasingly being discarded by young adults, and when we don’t walk our talk, we simply provide more evidence for their already cynical view of us.
I should also tell you that I regularly receive emails from visitors who come here and I am always happy to hear how welcome they felt when they came here to Holy Redeemer. I am grateful for that and I want you to know that whatever you’re doing to welcome visitors, it’s working. It’s good and right and we should keep doing it.
My point in telling you the story is simply to remind us all that we need to remember our purpose. It’s easy to forget why we are here – especially when we don’t have such a clear mission statement that everyone can recite. It’s easy to forget, for instance, that we gather here for two reasons: to worship God and to meet and nurture people as we walk this path together. We can’t do it on our own, not without God, not without a caring group of people to support us. During Mass, our focus is on the God of Love, the One who has called us and saved us and sent us. When we get too comfortable with the status quo, too settled into our routine, too attached to our own limited view of reality, we can lose our way.
This is precisely what Paul says to the congregation in Galatia. They are the first century equivalent of a mega-church. They’ve got state of the art sound and projection systems, they’ve got twin giant screens, and the money is pouring into their church like crazy. The problem is they’ve gotten rather cocky and self-assured. They’re becoming a little too pleased with themselves, as if their efforts alone had brought them to this level of success. Paul implies that they have become so settled in their faith that they’ve forgotten that worship and fellowship were the central reasons for their gathering, and that Eucharist was supposed to energize them for service, not just make them feel comfortable. He reminds them that the cross is the central mystery of our faith, that triumph comes through transcending suffering, so none of us has anything to boast about. For Paul, it’s all about taking Jesus at his word when he says we need to take up our cross and follow him.
How many of you have ever played golf? I tried it in college, but I despised it. I couldn’t for the life of me understand grown men walking the same turf for hours in the heat, chasing a little ball into a series of even smaller holes. I did learn that serious golfers have caddies, who are important to have at your side, because if you have to drag your own clubs around, it’s even more exhausting. A tired golfer doesn’t have the energy to play all 18 holes with any kind of skill or control. Caddies are the ones who carry the burden of the clubs for the players so they can focus on their game. This is why every famous golfer has a trusted caddie who will carry the weight of the clubs for him or her and, on occasion, even offer advice on what club to use.
Caddies don’t actually play the game, they simply do some of the work for those who do play. The successful caddies on the pro circuit learn quickly that their whole life is about doing whatever necessary to make their star player successful. They do that by assuming every unnecessary burden and by paying close attention to what their player needs and wants.
As much as I loathe sports analogies, here comes one: this is exactly the sort of relationship I have with God. God is not going to play my game for me, all of that is 100 percent my responsibility. The choices and decisions the actions and consequences—all of that is completely mine to deal with. Although it is completely my game, it’s God who’s willing to be my caddie, to support me, to advise me, to stand by me no matter how I great or how poorly I play the game.
It is, as Paul says, all about the cross: the challenges and pain, the triumph and victory. It’s not about me and the innumerable times I’ve screwed up. It’s not about me and the occasional good deeds and solid choices I’ve made. It’s about that cross, the cross where Jesus bore the brunt of violence on my behalf, and now invites me to share in his ministry by becoming a caddie for others.
In Eastern churches, from ancient times down to the present, most church buildings are designed in the shape of a cross, so that whenever anyone enters the church, they are reminded in a physical way that they are somehow incorporated into the mystery of the cross. Even here, we keep a cross displayed in a central place in our church, but we have to admit, in all humility, that we have often placed other things in that place of honor in our personal lives. Too, the cross is easily relegated to mere jewelry, something with which we adorn ourselves on the exterior, while leaving our interior safely shielded from its challenge.
For too many Christians, our faith is just another consumer product, something we acknowledge when it’s convenient, but lay aside if it’s not. We’re stuck on ourselves, on our own limited understandings, rather than fully engage in the community that gathers in his name. As a result, our insights are stunted and we cannot grow because our real faith isn’t in God, it’s in ourselves. Our ego controls everything, and then we wonder when our lives get complicated or unhappy.
We are called to live our faith in community precisely so we don’t fall victim to these kinds of false faith. It’s not about what we say we are, rather, it’s what we do behind the scenes—the private actions that let others know they are loved, the little secret ways we help someone who is struggling, the quiet ways we let them know they are respected and treasured, and that God loves them exactly as they are. That’s what living the mystery of the cross if all about. Putting the cross of Jesus at the heart of a church’s mission statement is Paul’s admonition to the church in Galatia – and his advice to us today. Ironically, it’s the cross that brings us together in this place, and it’s the cross that leads us out of here.