Fr. Joseph Britton
24 May 2015
I grew up as a Southern Baptist, but about the time the Southern Baptist Church took a sharp turn toward the right, my brother and I decided we were going to have a look around to see what else was out there. On a whim, we decided to go to the local Episcopal church for the midnight mass of Christmas, and all I can say is that I was hooked. The following Advent I was baptized and confirmed, and have lived my life in this church ever since.
Thinking back to my home parish (St. Luke’s Church in Fort Collins, Colorado), it’s not too hard for me to name why it so captured my imagination as a high school kid. It was moderately catholic in churchmanship, and I loved the drama of the liturgy and the clear sense that it was part of something ancient and much larger than itself. Yet the worship was also thoroughly modern—even the church building itself had only recently been built—and it seemed like we were always at the cutting edge of the church’s worship.
The parish had its own art gallery, where as the rector said “We’re going to hang the work of local artists and see what we can learn from it.” It had an active music and concert series that culminated each spring in a Bach festival; yet St. Luke’s also looked forward to the annual Mariachi mass when musicians from the Hispanic community led us in a worship fiesta.
Somewhat to the scandal of my Baptist roots, the parish had an annual party at the Safari, which was a rather shady nightclub “on the other side of town” (as they say) that the church took over and turned into a vaudevillian music hall. One of the most famous acts was the town’s chief of police (who was a rather large man) dancing in a tutu the troika from Tschykovsky’s Nutcracker ballet.
When hard issues came up, like women’s ordination or prayer book reform, the parish’s response was to invite experts from across the spectrum of perspective and opinion to speak, and then parishioners would gradually make up their own mind what they thought. In the end, they decided to support both, though that’s not where they started.
Each Advent, St. Mary’s Guild sponsored a fair known as the Kaffee Klatch, which was a highlight of the season for the whole town. A group of senior citizens, not to be outdone, decided to form their own guild which became known as the “Keenagers,” and they sponsored lively luncheons for anyone over a certain age on the third Thursday of each month.
Concerned about the segregation of Fort Collins into Anglo and Hispanic communities, the parish partnered with Holy Family Catholic Church (the Spanish language parish) to build bridges and support social services to migrant farm workers. It also supported fair housing practices among local lenders, even underwriting loans for several families.
For young people, the parish had two options: a youth group and an active acolyte corps of kids who not only served on Sunday mornings and at the daily services (the Thursday mornings 6:30am mass was the one at which I served), but we also regularly went on such outings as a weekend away at a rustic cabin up in the nearby Rocky Mountains. In short, St. Luke’s was a bit of a Camelot: it was spiritually alive, theologically grounded, socially active, and creatively inclined.
Now, since those days when I was growing up in St. Luke’s Church, I have seen a lot of Episcopal churches. In fact, as a seminary dean it was part of my job to travel around the country to represent the seminary in all sorts of congregations—and I have seen both moribund churches but also dynamic congregations that reminded me a lot of my home parish.
And as I have visited these churches, it has been my observation that in congregations that are healthy, vital, and alive, there are four characteristics that they typically have in common.
First, there is a culture of curiosity. Parishioners are interested to know what’s going on in both their neighborhood and the world, and how their Christian faith can inform their understanding and encourage their involvement.
Second, there is an enthusiasm for creativity. The church aspires to do things thoughtfully and well, and to find new and interesting ways of experiencing and expressing the reality of God.
Third (and this is a product of the other two), the members of the congregation feel bound together in a sense of community that gives them a place where they feel they belong, are known, and to which they can contribute.
And finally, all of these characteristics are held together by a strong commitment to personal spiritual growth and renewal. In other words, the people take to heart the pursuit of holiness that is the hallmark of Anglican spirituality, and they seek to apply it in their own professional, familial, and communal lives. [Now that’s where my list ended until early this morning, when I read in the paper about the beatification yesterday by Pope Francis of Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador. And then I realized that I had missed a fifth characteristic that is absolutely crucial: compassion. Vital churches care for the poor, for those in need. So I want to add that to my list.] Those five common threads then (not four), have in my observation run through every truly prospering church I have encountered: curiosity, creativity, community, commitment, and compassion.
Now I hold these traits up for you today because Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Spirit, has everything to do with them. Think of the description of the day of Pentecost given in the Book of Acts: the Spirit comes upon the disciples, who were gathered together but apparently a bit uncertain what to do next, and suddenly it inspires their enthusiastic proclamation of the gospel so that people of every tongue and nationality are able to hear and understand. The Spirit motivates their enthusiasm, inspires their commitment, and binds them together into a community of proclamation.
If God’s love is like gravity, holding the whole cosmos together (as we heard here a couple of weeks ago), then the Spirit is like the sunshine: it is the animating source of energy from which all living things draw their sustenance. It is the light by which we see. It is the brightness which pushes back the dark and leads to clarity of vision and focused recognition. It is the warmth that draws us from behind closed doors into new adventure and delight.
So it has been my observation that when this same Spirit—this animating, clarifying, warming, invigorating force—is welcomed into a community of Christian people, well, that’s when you start to see the patterns emerge which I have been describing as curiosity, creativity, community, commitment, and compassion.
For what is it that evokes our curiosity, if not the Spirit that leads us into all truth? And what is it that inspires our creativity, if not the Spirit which hovered over the waters in the beginning of creation? And what is it that creates a since of community, if not the Spirit that makes us one in the Lord? And what is it that grounds us in commitment to building the kingdom, if not the Spirit that causes us to hope for things unseen, as our Epistle reminds us today. And what is it that motivates our concern for the poor, if not the Spirit that binds all things into one?
This, I think, is the meaning of Jesus’ words to his disciples, when he promises to send to them the Advocate, the Comforter, who will lead them into all truth. God is not yet done with creation, nor with us as individuals: we groan inwardly, as Paul says, awaiting our full redemption. We have yet many new ways to grow, and many new things to discover and conceive. So God sends the Holy Spirit to us, to be the driving force behind this continued evolution as individuals, as a species, and as a church.
At the end of this mass, we will ask in the final blessing that the Spirit enlighten us, make us to shine with God’s presence, strengthen our faith, and then send us out to bear witness to Jesus in word and deed. As I leave Christ Church after what I hope has been a productive and fruitful year with you to move on to a new call in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it is my heartfelt prayer that the Lord will send his Holy Spirit upon this community to nourish and increase in new ways those gifts of curiosity, creativity, community, and commitment that are already tangible among you.
Embrace them, and let the Spirit do its work: let it inspire you, strengthen you, even change you—and then go confidently into the future that lies open before you.
Now Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory to him from generation to generation in the church; and in Christ Jesus for ever. Amen.