Below is a sermon I was privileged to share at St. John’s Cathedral, Jacksonville, FL, on Thanksgiving Day. I share it here because it helps describe and capture the spirit of new urban ministry as we strive to “build a church without walls.” Thanks be to God for the opportunity to attempt, though limited in scope and vision, to do his will. To love God and neighbor. To welcome all.
Joel 2:21-27; Ps 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 6:25-33
May only your word be spoken here, O Lord.
May only your word be heard.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Later on today each of us will likely enjoy
some kind of wonderful meal.
We will sit down and break bread with family or friends,
and relax and enjoy the fruit of God’s abundance.
throughout holy scripture.
My mother’s first denomination – the Moravian Church –
regularly celebrates a Love Feast—
the usual order of worship is interrupted as
people enter the sanctuary with baskets of warm rolls
and trays full of mugs of coffee with cream.
Everyone partakes in this shared meal, which
in its simplicity is holy and life-giving.
Food is important.
Jesus thinks so.
When he walked among us, he frequently
invited himself to supper!
One blogger described Jesus’ earthly ministry this way:
“Jesus shared lots of dinners with bad people.”
Jesus’ practice of seeking out liars,
cheats, prostitutes, and thieves —
His practicing of loving and fellowshipping
With folks just as they are –
just where they find themselves –
flies in the face of the theology
most prevalent in our culture.
It flies in the face of the idea that those of us
who are incredibly blessed must somehow
have God’s favor in a way that others do not.
We must be living right.
We must be doing something to deserve this favor.
And, of course, what comes along with that thinking
is the idea that folks who are struggling.
who are down and out,
who are losing their jobs or are upside down
in their homes if they still have one –
these folks must somehow be doing something wrong.
This theology is so pervasive that most folks don’t
think consciously about it.
There is nothing wrong with prospering and doing well.
But we make a mistake when we draw a
direct correlation between worldly success and
the unmerited gift that is Jesus Christ.
Over and over, we get sucked back into “works righteousness,”
this idea that we earn our blessings —
we earn our salvation, even —
rather than the truth that we all sin and fall short.
The good news is the incredible mercy and generosity
of Christ who poured himself out for all.
Imagine living a life defined by chronic instability.
Imagine being a teenager, who has grown up in
a volatile environment.
Maybe dad walked out.
Or your parents struggle to find work.
Imagine going without food some days.
Sleeping at grandma’s one week,
then at an aunt’s the next and
on a friend’s couch another, and so on.
Imagine trying to do school work while
constantly worrying about wearing out
the welcome of family or friends.
And then imagine hearing today’s gospel.
Don’t worry about what to wear or what you’ll eat.
God has your back.
Wouldn’t it be easy under those circumstances –
to conclude that God had somehow abandoned you?
The text from Matthew is beautiful and poetic,
but it needs the balance of First Timothy,
which urges us to pray for everyone, but in particular
for those in high places, with power and influence.
Why single them out?
Because they are in a position to help us move
toward a more just society.
I want to tell you a little about this concept
of a “church without walls.”
It is a call for the Body of Christ to go out
into the world where the people are.
First and foremost, it is a ministry of presence.
It is something akin to Jesus inviting himself
to dinner in the most unlikely places.
Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs
model this radical hospitality well
when they describe themselves as a society of
people who ordinarily would not mix.
This “church without walls” is not just about
ministry with street folks or people in shelters.
It is attracting some, who are regular church goers but
who are looking to engage with a world of hurt,
to find a way of living out their faith that
feels urgent and real.
Others are among the fastest growing segment in our culture:
those who identify as “spiritual but not religious.”
Many struggle to see the relevance of what
we do within the parish walls.
Some of these folks are being drawn to
a “church without walls” and
some who come will eventually find their way
to our “churches with walls.”
One of the things I’ve been doing is to walk around and
talk to people: on the street, in parks,
wherever daily life happens.
Anyone who is curious has an open invitation
to come with me.
So far, all takers have been folks
who are completely unchurched.
But they are hungry for authentic connection
Next month we hope to launch regular outdoor worship.
One of our parish youth groups is among those
who have expressed an interest, not just in helping , one-off —
but in forming meaningful community.
Jesus calls us to come together with those who are like us and
with those who may seem quite different.
When we take the risk to move out of our comfort zone,
we place ourselves in a position to be transformed by God.
Let me tell you a little story about how
the Holy Spirit is creating community.
Just 6 weeks ago we started offering coffee fellowship
and Morning Prayer on Wednesdays at Clara White Mission.
We serve around 400 cups of coffee to more than
300 folks who are lined up outside.
Around 9:30, a group of us gathers in a small circle
to reflect on scripture and to pray.
We are beginning to know folks — and to be known.
Yesterday morning, as I was setting up outside,
a man called me over, by name.
“I need to talk to you, Mother Beth.
I need to tell you what’s going on with James.”
He proceeded to tell me about how one of
our regulars, had reinjured his hand but
would not go to the hospital.
This man and his friends were worried.
“I know James confides in you,” he said, “so maybe you can help.”
Later when I saw James and spoke with him about
his friends’ concern, he was blown away.
“Really, somebody came to you about this?” he asked.
“Wow, they really care about me.”
I told him he has some good friends.
Can you believe what has developed quite organically
in our little community in just 6 weeks?
The most fundamental things we all long for:
community, connection, meaning, hope –
these are springing up.
Jesus tells us:
Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Strive for a just, merciful society where
all people are valued and included.
When we shut out those who are different,
when we shun those who make us feel uncomfortable,
we are saying “no” to the kingdom of God.
We all do this.
It’s a symptom of our flawed humanity.
We need not try to force ourselves to move
from our protective “no” straight to an open and vulnerable “yes”,
If we are willing to open the door just a crack,
we make way for the Grace of God to gently bring us
from “no” toward the possibility of “maybe.”
And that, my friends, is enough to begin.
(For updates on this ministry, go to http://www.facebook.com/churchwithoutwalls.Jacksonville.FL and click the “like” button at the top of the page.)