Please enjoy and reflect on the sermon given October 22, 2017. Do these words speak to you? Consider visiting our community of worship on Sundays at 10:00 am, 1301 South Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21230.
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 24 – October 22, 2017
The Church of the Advent, Baltimore.
The Rev’d Fr. Timothy E. Kroh, Rector.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A few days ago, the Baltimore Sun published an article on the decline of Christianity, and the need many Baltimore churches have had to either merge, close, or sell buildings in order to survive. The byline quotation was: “We no longer live in Christendom. We really have to accept that it’s a thing of the past.” One of the many churches mentioned in this article is a congregation well known to many of us: St. John’s in the Village.
St. John’s is a unique and historic congregation for which we have a great affection. It was recently announced that St. John’s would close due to a simple lack of funds. I am pleased to let you know that the people of that congregation are working toward a sustainable path forward. There may be a season of time when they are not actively worshipping on Sundays. So we should continue to pray for their success in this endeavor, and let them know they are welcome here if and when the congregation ceases worship for a time.
Let me say something briefly about being pastorally sensitive to our sisters and brothers at St. John’s. We should express our sadness without being patronizing; in other words, let them know we’re sorry, without making them feel any worse about it, and without making it about us. And we should let them know they are welcome here, but respect their need for space and healing.
And if and when members of St. John’s join us for worship, we should be careful in our words and authentic in our welcome, and acknowledge that their presence, whether for just a season or for ever, will enrich our community.
In a community like ours, every new person changes the community, and every loss changes it too. Many of you may be unaware that as recently as a decade ago, a group of families joined the Advent from a former congregation on Washington Boulevard—the Church of St. Paul the Apostle. It might come as an even bigger surprise to you that, in addition to the precious human souls who came to this family from St. Paul’s, some of the holy objects you may think of as being part of the heritage of the Advent came to us through St. Paul the Apostle as well–including the beautiful Altar and carved reredos in the Lady Chapel, and our best chalice, used on major holy days. This is a reminder to me of the dynamic nature of community. Even if that congregation no longer has doors open, it still lives on through its members—and thus through us.
Many of you have recently asked me: Will the Church of the Advent close? The immediate answer is “No.” There is no current crisis that threatens us to an extent that we must consider closing. We are growing and are poised for more growth, provided we make every effort to reach out and welcome others. Positive signs abound among us, and, to use my catchphrase, “Good things are happening at the Church of the Advent.”
But another answer, equally valid, would be, “Not yet.” Our financial practices, like many other churches, are not sustainable. We have 19 households and individuals who pledge a total of $43,730 dollars this year. This is very generous for a congregation our size and I am grateful to you all who pledge and give to support the mission of our parish. But even with your generous giving, our expenses exceed our income each year by about thirty thousand dollars. And the shortfall is paid from our endowed funds, valued as of this week at almost exactly $350, 000. We are taking better care of this money than we ever have, and only drawing upon it when absolutely necessary’ and our expenses have been reduced considerably. So we can celebrate that. However, the cold, hard fact is that we had a million dollars fifteen years ago, and we’re down to $350,000. Given income earned on this remaining money, and given a steady rate of draw, if we continue without a major change, we have fifteen to twenty years until that money is gone. This is a sobering reality, and we need to sit with it and consider it carefully. If we do nothing, eventually this money will run out.
Ultimately, the answer to the question, “Could we close?” is: it depends on us. We are the ones to determine the future of our parish. That is why it is crucial that, in the sesquicentennial year, we recommit ourselves to reaching out and welcoming others into our family. Not merely to survive, but because God calls us to share the good news about Jesus Christ. We determine the future of the Church of the Advent, first by our commitment to welcoming others, and secondly by being good stewards of our resources.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22:15-21) ”
We believe in one God, who came into the world in the form of Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and rose again for us. This is the God we know and believe. This is the God we receive in the Most Blessed Sacrament. What belongs to him? Everything! Our selves, souls, and bodies. We have to give him what he wishes to receive from us.
Evangelism is a famously bad word in our church. We shouldn’t hear the word evangelism with the baggage we usually assign to it. Evangelism means simply to share the good news. Evangelism doesn’t mean acting like other churches or being inauthentic. Instead of being afraid of evangelism, we need to discover the particular kind of evangelism we as Episcopalians are good at—namely, to offer a welcome without pressure, to invite people into deeper faith without narrow-mindedness, to share rich traditions, to embrace a huge amount of diversity while holding to a solid center. We can’t be afraid. We just have to discover how we’re meant to do this.
We cannot wait for people to come here and join us, although thank God some have heard the call and shown up on their own. Christ calls you and me to take the message out of this place and share it with others, in our personal lives, and together as the church. We are, each and every one of us, called to be evangelists—sharers of the Good News about Jesus Christ. Why do we sometimes feel so reluctant to do this?
Are we ashamed of our faith in a time when faith and belief is often ridiculed? Or are we embarrassed? We should feel not embarrassed but excited to share the message; to tell others we know and love of all the grace and love that has come into our lives through this family, this Church of the Advent—and we should say to them, come and see! Maybe the real reason we are reluctant to share the message is because we don’t feel prepared, or doubt that God could really use us, frail creatures, for his purpose?
I am really proud of us for beginning several new attempts to share the message. Over the past two years we have taken risks to keep the doors open for the community as special events. We have taken ourselves out into the community to invite others to the church. This must continue, and we need to expand this activity, and involve more of us in it.
According to all the literature, and all the research, more people come to church because a friend invited them than for any other reason. This is the most important point of contact. It’s not the priest, although if the sermons and worship are good they are far more likely to stay. A personal invitation from a friend is the most common and most effective way churches gain new members. Most of us are nervous about making the invitation. It doesn’t have to be too scary. There is no magic formula to say to someone. We should keep it simple, and relate it to our experience.
It’s as easy as saying, “You should come to church with me sometime, it’s really important in my life, and I think you’d really like it.” Or, to quote scripture, “Come and see.”
I have been privileged to serve you as priest-in-charge, and now rector, for the last three years. Now that I have learned about Advent, and come to know you, and come to know our parish culture, gifts and challenge, and come to know the neighborhood, I have decided to dedicate the rest of my time here to focusing on three main objectives. These three objectives are the areas I have identified as the most important things I could possibly do with my time to build up the body of Christ in this place.
First is evangelism. Second is stewardship. Third is spiritual formation. These are my three priorities for as long as I am your rector. Evangelism. Stewardship. Spiritual formation. This is what I will be about from now on. You’ll probably get really sick of me talking about these things. Fortunately, these three categories are very broad, and describe the vast majority of things I already do. Evangelism, stewardship, and spiritual formation are not only the most important things I can imagine doing with my time, but also what I believe will best grow the health and life of the congregation. If something can’t be described as either evangelism, stewardship, or spiritual formation… I may not do it anymore, or may not say yes if you ask me to do it. From now on, my most important task is to empower and equip you for ministry through the lenses of evangelism, stewardship, and spiritual formation.
A few months I went with another parishioner to the Book Fair in the Inner Harbor. We were nervous at first about approaching people and inviting them to the Advent, but once we got through our discomfort, we found it got easier and easier. Although not everyone is going to accept the invitation, many will. Whether they come here or not is between them and God: our call is to invite them. It doesn’t require a theological education, it doesn’t require a script, it just requires a little bit of courage and the Holy Spirit, and our opening of our mouths to say, “You’re welcome here.”
There are a lot of ways you can help. Some of you are called to go out and actually invite strangers to join us. Some of you are called to open the doors of this place to new people, to welcome them in not just on Sundays but other times. Some of you are called to offer hospitality—many of you are excellent at this, and our many wonderful meals are an example of this gift for hospitality. Some of you are called to tend to provide our online presence, because this is the first impression we offer to people. Some of us are called to evangelism as simple as sharing this sermon on Facebook when it’s uploaded.
We have so much to offer our neighbors. Our worship life is transcendent, and proclaims the holy and the presence of God to all of our senses. There are so many people who would love the beautiful music produced by our organist and choir, if they knew about it. I would have a hard time imagining someone we wouldn’t welcome into our community, and I know that we are much better at respecting the dignity of disadvantaged people than many other churches. We have a lot to offer—and most importantly, we can offer people the living God.
We say we welcome everyone. And I believe we try to do so. This is an excellent goal. But we aren’t really there yet. For instance, we can’t welcome everybody when our building excludes those who cannot climb stairs.
The point it, we can keep working on our welcome. It’s essential that we deepen our welcome, and make our community accessible to everyone, to every population we can imagine. What about the restaurant workers in our neighborhood? What about the children? What about people who live with addictions, or those who think Christianity something into which they would not be welcome? We have to figure out how to welcome all these populations, and more.
We can’t do this work with the motivation that we don’t want our church to close. People will smell our desperation.
We have to do this work because God wants us to, because we want to share the message about God in Christ. We have to do this because God is love, and God’s love must spread, through us.
St. Paul reminds the Thessalonians, “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you. (1 Thessalonians 1:4)”
Today I am challenging all of you to make the effort to share the message, because God has chosen you to do this. And even if the idea of personally inviting others is still too scary, you can share in this evangelical ministry in many other ways. You can come to the Haunted House this weekend, and be here to keep the buildings open and welcome others. You can distribute fliers for it. You can come to our future group efforts and find safety in numbers. You can keep a few of our welcome cards in your purse of bag, and give one to someone.
There is still time for the Church of the Advent to buck the trends, and to choose a new path forward, the path of life.
The choice is ours—God will not force us: we can stay in our comfort zones, and carefully manage our decline. Or, we can accept the call of God to share the message. This is a decision of life or death.