Saturday, December 10, 2011

Advent 3B

If you think you’re having a deja vu experience, don’t worry, you are. For some reason, the lectionary gives us John the Baptist two Sundays in a row during Advent. Why they think we need two doses of the wilderness preacher is a mystery to me.

But here we are with John’s version of, umm, John. “John” must have been a popular name back then because it takes an accountant to keep track of them all in the bible. So John, the writing evangelist, tells us about John the Baptist as someone who plays a specific role in the salvation story. The Baptist howls in the wilderness, preparing people to receive God’s anointed one.

The Baptist wasn’t like anyone else they’d ever heard. Which is why John had to make sure that people didn’t mistake the Baptist for “The Light.” John emphasized that the Baptist was simply “...a voice crying out in the wilderness...”

“A voice crying out in the wilderness...”

I don’t know what your experience has been with this expression, but, for me, there’s always been a kind of romance to this saying. The romance of adventure, the romance of passion, of fighting the good fight, of challenging the status quo, of siding with the oppressed, of battling injustice, of speaking uncomfortable truths to power.

But to many unbelieving ears, saying that we are “ a voice crying out in the wilderness...” is akin to Don Quixote “tilting at windmills...” but proud of it.

And as churches are declining in the west, and we face our own challenges at St. Paul’s, we may be tempted to see ourselves simply as “a voice crying out in the wilderness” because it gives us comfort when we don’t see our church bearing the kind of fruit that it once did. We get used to being marginalized, justifying our diminished state.

We are a voice crying out in the wilderness, although we are in the city centre, we are spiritually hours away from the power centres, far from the rushing crowds, hidden amongst the trees, and miles off the main road. To find us you have to look for us. In fact, people walk by us not even realizing we are here.

So, some Christians are tempted to take heart in withdrawing from the mainstream and opting out of society. We celebrate how different we are, as if “different” somehow means “better.”

If you want to hear what we say, you really have to listen, you really have to want to hear it. We are a voice crying out in the wilderness, you have to stop what you’re doing and unplug your iPod to make out our words.

To prepare for my ministry with and among you I read a series of books on small churches, and how they’re different from large churches. Many of the authors noted that many small churches function like they’re large churches. Especially if they’re part of a denomination that requires them to have certain core programming. They rightly note that when small churches mimic the programming, staffing, and worship of larger churches, resources are stressed to the snapping point. Members burn out. Bank accounts get emptied. And morale plummets.

And that’s true.

So, one guy - a small church pastor - in an effort to combat this phenomenon used a baseball analogy to help small churches getter a better perspective on their place in the world.

He said to think of the large church like Major League Baseball. The large church is the New York Yankees, with their inflated budgets and high batting averages, and enough resources to try to snap up Japanese players. These are the big boys.

Small churches, by contrast, are like little league, where everyone gets together on weekends and has fun. There are few home runs, but no one makes the hall of fame. Friendships are built and everyone goes home smiling.

I almost threw the book across the room when I read that. Unless I totally missed his point, he seemed to be saying that large churches are the experts, the ones REALLY good at what they do. These are the pros from which the rest of us learn, to whom we can aspire, and for whom we can cheer.

And WE - the small churches - are the amateurs, the children, who are still learning how to be church, and perhaps, someday make it to the big leagues. But really - let’s not kid ourselves - the best we can do is play beer ball on Saturday evenings.

Although I’ve only been here just over a month, I can say with absolute certainty, that while St. Paul’s is a small church, you are NOT amateurs. You are NOT spiritual children. This church is NOT little league. Your hard work, dedication, and faithfulness are NOT worth less than a large downtown church. You are a people with unique strengths and talents that can make a powerful impact where you are.

I’m guessing that the guy who used that baseball analogy didn’t thoroughly think through the consequences of that comparison. Other than it being untrue and insulting, it also lets small churches off the missional hook. It allows small churches to think, “We’re small, we’re not as a good as the big church down the street, so what can we do?”

Spiritual and missional inadequacy is a disease that plagues small churches. And it’s often nurtured by leaders, who, worn out after years of fighting uphill battles to make the church grow, convince themselves that their losses are victories.

Some theologians have taken this a step further saying that large churches sell out to consumer culture while small churches remain true to God’s mustard seed vision of the church. That they are the voice crying out in the wilderness, away from the world’s power centres, and siding with the world’s forgotten.

I would agree with this, except that many theologians and small church pastors who proudly proclaim the purity of the small church’s faithfulness against the ecclesiastical Wal-Marts, are often the first ones to run to their Facebook pages to announce the “full church [they] had to today.” Everyone craves significance. And in our consumer culture, size presumes impact.

And those who who blithely say that “size doesn’t matter” are often the large church pastors for whom resources are not a problem. Or they’re small church leaders who are intentionally blind to their church’s financial reality.

So, instead of baseball to compare the size and importance of churches, I prefer to use a musical analogy. I like to think of the big church as a symphony. It requires massive resources to keep it functioning. Some music is specifically written for them, simply because of its make up. And when it’s performed well, the results can be stunningly transcendent. The symphony is its own unique form.

A small church is like a chamber ensemble. Much fewer resources are needed to keep them playing. The players need lots of eye contact and body signals to keep them in sync. There’s an intimacy that’s lost on the symphony, both among they musicians and the listener. And composers write music specifically for this small group. And, again, the chamber ensemble is its own unique form.

So, is a chamber ensemble “little league” and the symphony “big league”? The Tokyo String Quartet would certainly have an answer to that question.

And like a chamber ensemble, every part is needed to make the music come alive. In a symphony, if a violist scratches her nose, the music isn’t affected because there are other violists playing the same part.

But in a brass trio, if the trombone player sneezes, he blows a hole in the music, and people notice.

That’s like us here at St. Paul’s. When your part isn’t being played, people notice. Here, at St. Paul’s, we need YOU to make our little chamber ensemble play the music that God has put in front of us. St. Paul’s needs YOU to play the music of our mission, our mission to live and proclaim God’s love and mercy in the world. The mission of God’s Kingdom come to earth in Jesus. The mission of sharing God’s justice, grace, peace, and joy to everyone who walks through or past our doors.

St. Paul’s needs YOU and the powerful gifts that YOU have. YOU have an important and unique part to play in the chamber ensemble that is St. Paul’s. St. Paul’s can’t function without YOU. When YOU aren’t here, there’s a hole in our music. When you ARE here, we come together in joyful harmony. And together, we make music to the praise of God.

St. Paul’s may be a voice crying out in the wilderness. But you are a MIGHTY voice, preparing the world to receive its saviour, making a path for Jesus to enter peoples’ lives, shining God’s light in the dark corners of the world.

As we move forward in mission, as we discern together the future that God has for us, please know that YOU are a part of that future. God has put you HERE to do great and wonderful things for God. YOU have a part to play in God’s salvation song.

May this be so among us. Amen!

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Blogger Norman Gunness said...

that is a great sermon Pastor

6:49 AM  

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