glory of god

glory of god

Monday, February 10, 2014

On Salt, Light, and the Little Church on the Prairie: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

From time to time, over the past five and a half years, I’ve reflected in sermons on my conversion from the Lutheran church of my upbringing into the Episcopal Church, which I joined officially just about 20 years ago. It seems like a very long time ago now, about half my life, but at the time it was one of the hardest decisions I had ever come to. I know some of you who have come from other traditions have felt the same way, too—that you are somehow turning your back on all that was most important in your life for this new thing. Yet, there was something about the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition that had a special draw or lure for me, from the time that I first really learned of it while I was a college freshman.

Like most people, I already knew some of the less flattering stuff: Henry VIII, his divorces, beheading wives, naming himself the head of the Church in England, but I didn’t know any deeper details. When I finally learned more, beyond the scandalous tabloid-type history, in a college class called “Religion in America,” I was quite intrigued. In particular, I was attracted by my professor’s description of the Episcopal Church as being theologically open or even liberal, while maintaining a traditional, Catholic liturgical heritage. Before I had ever even stepped foot in an Episcopal parish I had come to the conclusion that it was the church for me. (My professor did also note, as something of an aside, that the Episcopalians never prospered out on the prairies or in the west, since they felt the need to carry so much heavy “stuff” with them—vestments, silver chalices, brass candlesticks, stained glass. Other traditions were lighter and more nimble, better suited to westward expansion, and thus ended up being bigger in the long run.)

My first visit to an Episcopal parish was to the Church of the Holy Communion in St. Peter, Minnesota, when I was a sophomore. I went with my friend Susan, who is Methodist but had attended before (plus, she had a car). I approached that visit with a sense of great anticipation, expecting there to be billowing clouds of incense and beautiful vestments, along with an erudite sermon filled with philosophical theology or something. That was what I was looking for at the age of 20. Only, it’s not quite what I found. Because, you see, the Episcopal parish in my college town is small. Smaller than Emmanuel—both in terms of the building, which probably seats about 100 people at most (we seat 150), and also in terms of the congregation.

The building, which is very nice, was constructed in 1869, 12 years before ours, of sandy-colored Kasota stone. It’s “A-framed,” with a very steep high peak, a small bell tower at the back, and the distinctive Episcopalian red front door. The first bishop of Minnesota, Henry Whipple, called it the prettiest rural or village church he had ever seen. Most were wood, so a stone church out on the frontier prairie must have seemed like a real extravagance. The town’s founder, a military captain, held the first service in his home in 1854, officiated at by the great western Missionary Bishop Jackson Kemper. The whole town attended—all 37 people. Captain Dodd eventually donated the land for the church and is buried behind it. The congregation today, 260 years later, if everyone is included, totals about 90 people, with an average attendance of 35. Of course, the city of St. Peter is only 11,000. So, as a percentage, Holy Communion’s membership and attendance are not too dissimilar from ours here in Wakefield, which is just a little more than twice as large at 24,000.

Well, instead of my dream church, with those billowing clouds of incense, what I found instead at the Church of the Holy Communion was a community of real people. A few of them were my college professors. There’s a philosophy professor I had who is very active in the parish, as well as a married couple, both Classics professors—one who taught Latin and the other Greek. The biggest surprise was that the Lutheran college chaplain’s wife was a member. I guess she didn’t feel the need to hear her husband’s sermons every week. And then there were people previously unknown to me, all kinds of people, really, from all kinds of backgrounds. They did not have a choir, but they had an organist whom I talked with a lot. What I remember especially about her is that she was first trained to play the accordion. They didn’t have Sunday bulletins either, just the readings insert. People looked up at the hymn boards for music (it was the first time I had ever seen hymn boards!) and they followed along in the Prayer Book, which was confusing to me at first, since the liturgy seemed to jump around a lot. If I remember correctly, after the service you had to walk outside and into a separate building for coffee hour.

And yet, despite its relative modesty, people kept (and keep) coming back. I did, too, off and on, until I graduated (though 9:30 service times weren’t always so attractive to this college student). There was something special, holy even, about that place, that community, which drew people in and gave sustenance and seasoning to life. The church and its people, to quote Jesus, were “the salt of the earth” and “the light to the world.” I suppose they weren’t the most “successful” by the standards of church growth, or prestige or anything like that. But, they were, and I assume still are, really wonderful. I just wish I had been less shy and more outgoing, so that I could have engaged that time and opportunity better. I wish I had let my light shine, to use Jesus’ imagery.

Today, I often think about the Church of the Holy Communion and how similar we are here at Emmanuel. It’s true that we’re somewhat bigger, in terms of congregation size, budget, even the building (though I do have very romantic feelings about that historic little church on the prairie, wishing it could be magically transported here, at least the outside. I’m very partial to our insides after all of the renovations we’ve done). But like them we are, by the standards that many of us have been used to from other denominations, also rather small. I hear that a lot from people—both long time parishioners and those who are new to us—that we are small.

What you may not know is that 68% of Episcopal congregations have fewer than 100 people in church on an average Sunday. 68%. In fact, the median average Sunday attendance across the Episcopal Church is 64 people, smaller than us by a fair margin when you add together our two services. We are just part of a denomination that, for a number of reasons, has favored smaller, more intimate parishes. I think it’s reflective of our English heritage, with little country churches in every town and village, rather than big mega churches that are more of a North American phenomenon. Of course, there are some big, impressive Episcopal churches, like Trinity in Copley Square, Epiphany in Winchester, or the National Cathedral in Washington. But they are not the norm. The norm, all across the country, are smaller, intimate, pastoral-sized parishes, parishes a lot like Emmanuel.

Maybe it’s because, as my college professor said, those early Episcopalians got too loaded down with “stuff” to do a good job of expanding. Or, maybe, it’s that our approach to faith and spirituality does not appeal to everyone. After all, not everyone likes smells and bells, let alone the ambiguity of unanswered questions in place of certainty. Even lots of Episcopalians don’t like those things. I suspect it also has to do with the fact that after a time there just weren’t so many immigrants to the U.S. who were Anglican. The English stopped coming very early on, replaced by Irish, Italians, Scandinavians, Germans, Poles, and now Latin Americans, Asians, and Middle Easterners, all who have brought other faith traditions.

But you know, whatever the reasons, size is not a measure of strength or effectiveness. Certainly it’s not a measure of depth of faith, as that little church on the prairie has made plain for 160 years. What matters is how we live our lives of discipleship. How we embrace our calling to be, as Jesus says, the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And that’s something that I think Episcopalians have been very good at: understanding that our numbers aren’t determinative for the impact we can have. That, too, along with the liturgy and theological openness, is part of what drew me to this church 20 years ago, joining that history, adding my voice to those in previous generations who have used their gifts and their lives to bring the kingdom of God that much closer—whether in fighting for civil rights on the streets or in court rooms, as an Episcopalian named Thurgood Marshall did for decades, or in serving dinner at Bread of Life in Malden this Thursday. In shattering the stained glass ceiling like Massachusetts’ own Bishop Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop of any tradition anywhere in the world, consecrated, as it happens, 25 years ago this week, or in striving to preserve the environment through Green Grants that are transforming our churches and helping us to leave a smaller imprint for the next generations. All are examples of adding salt and savor, light and new perspective.

What’s especially interesting, I think, is the fact that when Jesus uses the metaphors salt and light, he’s speaking of things that are small, but can have a big impact. Take salt: you don’t want to eat a dinner plate full of salt. Just a sprinkling is all you need to bring life to your food. And the same is true for light. When Jesus spoke, light was a rarer commodity than it is today. They didn’t have light bulbs or electricity and you couldn't just flip a switch. So, much more of life was spent in the dark. A single flame from a candle or oil lamp made all the difference between being able to see and utter darkness.

And that, Jesus tells us, is our calling as his disciples, as well: to add seasoning and taste, and to help others to see. We don’t need for everyone to become just like us. After all, no one wants to eat a bowl of salt. Instead, we need simply to cast enough light, and add enough savor to help others see and know God, as we have in our lives, but with their own eyes, in their own way. When we do that, we will have done our job and answered Jesus' call well. But, we have to do it. We have to add savor. We have to pierce the darkness, so that others can see. We can’t be so small, so limited, or so private that we don’t fulfill either our calling or our potential. In other words, our motivation, our drive, has to always lead us outward—to bring light and seasoning, glimpses of hope and peace, knowledge of God and the good news of God’s kingdom.

Part of that good news is that we don’t need to be especially big to do those things. After all, there were only 12 apostles at first. And we’re a lot more than 12 (often even at the 8:00 a.m. service). We just need to believe, really believe, that we are who Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.