Homily for Epiphany 2- January 16, 2011

Have you ever wondered: What motivated the disciples to drop everything and follow Christ?  Do you ever wish you had that kind of enthusiasm for something – for anything?

Many if not most people in Palestine of that era were living pretty close to the edge of poverty.  The Romans were occupying the country and treating it as a source of revenue, so people were being taxed very heavily. 

We have just been through an economic downturn in which many have lost jobs, and have had to scramble to find something different in order to stay in their homes and keep food on the table.  In the midst of such an economic crisis, to suggest that people should drop their steady income, or close up their business, and run off after some charismatic spiritual figure who promised nothing in the way of material gain, would seem like insanity and perhaps cruelty.  It would seem like an irresponsible thing to do. 

And yet in that volatile situation, of Roman occupation, an understandable anxiety among Jewish leadership and citizenry, and economic hardship, people like Andrew, and then Peter, and James and John, and many others, walked away from the security and safety of their jobs, the support of their families and communities, and embarked on a hazardous three-year ride. 

People in such circumstances don’t typically walk away from their everyday responsibilities — not unless they encounter something that blows them away.  Andrew says to Peter: “We have found the Messiah!”  The word is almost meaningless to us but it was a word loaded with meaning in that time.  It would be like someone coming home and telling his family that he had just found the cure for cancer, or the fountain of youth.  The Gospel of John tries to convey something of the excitement, the inspiration, that was generated by the presence of God in Christ.  For the Jewish people, the coming of Messiah meant the fulfillment of their faith; dreams come true; their persistent hope vindicated. 

“Come and see” – what a great invitation.  I was at the City of Port Moody volunteer appreciation night dinner last night and Mayor Trasolini, in his speech, talked about how important it is to bring people face to face at events like that – to have people meet and connect – and I couldn’t agree with him more.  It suggests something to me about the need for personal first-hand experience which people of our generation are seeking, but sometimes missing, because of our virtual approach to everything.  In the realm of religion and spirituality, it is never enough to go on what others say about it.  It is essential to explore for ourselves.  And being the church is not something you can do in isolation.  Christianity is about relationships: with God and with those around us. 

It was interesting.  I was seated at the Mayor’s table and at one point I was talking with Mayor Trasolini’s wife, who is originally from China, and knows virtually nothing about the Anglican Church.  She was asking me some questions about my life as a church leader, and asked if I had yearly goals relating to growth in the number of families. I realized that my roundabout answer basically suggested that Anglicans don’t think that way. Yearly goals?  What kind of concept is that? 

And yet, recently many Anglican churches have participated in a Back to Church Sunday initiative which originated in the UK.  The goal?  Double the membership of your parish by having every existing member invite ONE person to come to church on a designated Sunday.  Last year, in the UK alone, some 80,000 people responded to a simple invitation to come to church.  In the U.S. last year, nearly 1 ½ million invitations were issued from 3700 participating churches.  The basic message is: “Come as you are.” “Come and see.”  Last Wednesday I conducted a funeral – it was not a large crowd but nevertheless there were several people there who used to attend St John’s.  I invited them all to come back to church.  They all indicated they would love to come back, and I think, appreciated the open invitation.

The originator of the Back to Church Sunday program says: “On your next Invitation Sunday or for Back to Church Sunday in September 2011, I would suggest that you set a very high expectation of actually doubling your congregation and retaining every single invited guest. Now I know you might be thinking that is not going to happen but…. 

“The higher goal has more to do with who you have to become, what your church has to become, how many more people you will have to serve and invite. Everything has to change when you are trying to have a higher goal than a lower goal …“Set your goals for God high. If you have a goal for God’s work that is small that may be the result. One of the problems of the church today is that our goals are too low and we meet them. If you want to achieve great things for God, we must have much bigger goals. If your mind says “I am sure we can make this goal,” then it is perhaps not high enough. If our goals are higher we will need to think in a different way. Nothing is impossible for our God, but God allows us to play our part. But remember success is one person inviting one person; the response is God’s!” 

This is the simplest, most basic form of evangelism: tell someone you know.  According to John’s Gospel, Andrew runs home after his encounter with Jesus and is almost overcome with excitement.  He tells his brother Peter, that he just has to come and see for himself, and,  according to John, Peter comes and he meets Jesus.  And in the encounter Peter is instantly renamed Kephas, meaning, a rock. In the Bible, the giving of a new name is always a sign of transformation – of a new purpose emerging. 

Like a grocery store manager urging people to come to the store and telling them, “the shelves are empty but you can mill around for a while,” it is not enough to just get someone in the door. As John’s Gospel suggests, the new life is not just about bringing people to church but with helping them meet the living God in Christ. 

An invitation to church could be an invitation to life, depending on how you view what it is we are doing every Sunday. Every week we have people coming here looking for something, yearning to be fed at a soul level, seeking for some connection with God, looking for healing and redemption, and needing to find meaning and hope and purpose for their lives.  Every week there are people are struggling with grief and loss looking for reassurance and hope, and lonely people looking for love and understanding and community.  From what I hear, many of you are finding that. 

Anglicans are very rarely guilty of being pushy about their religion, and I’m beginning to think that’s too bad, because we have a lot to offer and YOU are the best way of getting that message out into the community. 

Think for a moment about what really motivates you. What gives you energy and a sense of hope and purpose?  Think about motivates you to rise to a new opportunity or challenge, and then ask if the church or your faith is a significant part of that. 

Bishop Philip Poole, writing about the Back to church program in the Diocese of Toronto:“People are quick to share what they love passionately. One friend of mine loves bridge. He knows I enjoy the occasional hand and often shares the latest insights from the bridge column in the newspaper. A golf enthusiast I know is forever inviting me out for a frustrating walk on the course with clubs! Someone else talks about movies and invites me to an evening at the theatre. And of course, I get many invitations to sporting events . . . People enjoy sharing their passions and inviting others to participate in them. That’s the idea behind Back to Church Sunday. Church is important to many of us. It provides a place to worship God, to learn more deeply about our Lord Jesus, to build community and to make a difference in the name of the Lord. It is a place to learn, sing, pray, laugh and cry. It helps us live our lives fully and freely. It reminds us that God loves us and seeks a relationship with us. Back to Church Sunday gives us the opportunity to share something we are passionate about with our friends and family.” 

Something I realize about myself that others sometimes find difficult to comprehend is my passion for the Church.  But I don’t think our Sunday gatherings are haphazard or something to be taken lightly or some routine we sleepwalk through.  I don’t think the people around us and beside us in church are incidental to our well-being, even our salvation.  This matters!  YOU matter!  I believe that our coming together and being together has much more significance than any of us can realize.  And I think the “Come and see “approach is something even we shy Anglicans can manage.  The biblical precedent lets us know it works.    

“Back to church” implies that most people you ask will have some experience of church.  Many won’t.   But even if they say No –  Most people don’t have church cross their minds in a typical day – or week – or year.  It’s not on their mental landscape. Just the fact of being invited can start changing someone’s perception of things.  It can open a door in a variety of ways.  By asking, at least you’ve put the subject on their mental radar.  And you have taken a step in faith that could lead somewhere too.  Even if they decline the invitation, or do come and don’t get it, or don’t like it, you can still learn something from that that may be of value to us as we go forward.  And if you’ve planned it well, you can always enjoy a nice lunch with your friends after the service. 

Many churches around us are dying – withering away.  Churches don’t die because of enthusiasm – they die because of apathy, indifference, loss of faith.  There’s no point in having Back to Church Sunday if there isn’t anything here we are motivated about enough to act on, even with someone we already know and care about.  

Bishop Philip Poole, commenting on the program in the Diocese of Toronto:  “Never doubt that your parish community has value and a quality that others will find attractive . . . Never doubt that your church, the Anglican Church, is making a difference. Look at FaithWorks, our foodbanks and Out of the Cold programs, Bible studies, prayer groups, parenting groups, our housing advocacy, spiritual development, the ACW, social justice, worship, music, youth and PWRDF.” 

“Back to church” is an invitation to you to exercise your faith.  Let me begin a process by inviting you to start thinking of the church, and your role in the church, differently.  Let’s follow Jesus by taking the COME AND SEE approach.  And let’s get it out there into the wider community – wherever we are – and let it be known that St John’s is a place where we can laugh, cry, find support, get a much-needed hug; share good food; serve at a food bank; sing uplifting music; make new friends; deepen our spiritual life; and be enthusiastic in our journey of faith and life. 

I hope that this coming September, we will undertake this project of sharing the good life of St. John’s with people we care about, withthe goal of a renewed approach to faithful attendance and church growth.

rhgr+ 

RCL-appointed readings:  Isaiah 49:1-7   1 Corinthians 1:1-9  John 1:29-42