Address given at the Annual Meeting of Saint Elisabeth’s Episcopal Church in Glencoe on January 27th, 2013.
“Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.” (Luke 9:1-2)
I want to begin with thank you. In my written report is a far more extensive recognition of all that goes on here at St. Elisabeth’s, but I want to take a moment here for some big ones. Thank you to Daphne who invited me to share the year with you and to the wardens, Tom and Helen, for not convincing her that inviting me was a truly crazy idea. I thank Larry, Chris, Rob and Haley for the extraordinary work they do with and for this community. Their dedication is an inspiration and more often than not they do their jobs so well that their work is invisible to most of us. I thank you, this beloved community of faith, for your courage, your faithfulness, your patience, and your love. I am deeply touched and blessed by sharing this season together. I thank my family, Jim, Wallace and Abbott, who teach me about life and love and without whose support I could not do what I do.
And finally I thank Helen for her extraordinary service to St. Elisabeth’s in her years as warden, for her overwhelming support of me and for her witness to what it means to live fully and lovingly with abiding faithfulness. You are missed, even as you remain in our hearts. At Helen’s request, we are not celebrating her farewell this weekend, but mark your calendars for May 5 as we will celebrate Helen and send her off in style and with our love then, even as the doors are always open for her return.
Last fall I shared a story about a family who had decided not to attend church any more . On a transpacific flight Roland Martinson, dean at Luther Seminary, asked the stranger next to him if he went to church. “Funny you should ask,” the man said, “as our family just had a meeting to decide how to deal with our very busy lives.” Apparently, they agreed to make a list of all their commitments. Anything they knew was helping them to be better people would remain, everything else they would stop. Girl Scouts made the list. Church did not. “So”, the man concluded, “we have reluctantly decided not to go to church anymore.” He and Roland talked much of the trip. At the end, Roland encouraged the man to share his family’s decision, and the reasoning behind it, with the pastor of their church.
Several months later, Roland got an email from the man. “Thank you,” it read, “for encouraging me to speak with our pastor. It has changed our lives.” The pastor not only listened, he asked the man to repeat the conversation in the midst of a Sunday morning service. Then the pastor asked for people to raise their hands if they had similar feelings. Most of the hands in the church went up. Together, the church decided they wanted to change that and so they did. “Now,” the man concluded, “church is at the top of our list, and we are so thankful.”
Now anyone who voluntarily sits through the annual meeting is pretty dedicated, so I suspect that we’re clustered on one end of the curve here, but even so I wonder how many of you have had similar feelings. How many of you want something more from church, even if you’re not sure what that is or what it might look like? What would it take for church to be at the top of the list of what helps you to be the person you yearn to be and helps make the world a better place, more reflective of the kingdom of God?
The tango. Yes, you heard me correctly. Tango can help make church at the top of your list. You did come this morning expecting to learn how to dance, didn’t you? If we want church to have a greater impact on our lives and be so filled that we can make a greater impact in the world, we have to remember that we have a partner in this project. God. Jesus spoke in images so that we could see, hear, taste the kingdom of God, even as he sent us out to proclaim it. Ministry, sharing in the kingdom of God, is like dancing the tango, it is all about leading and following . So what, exactly, does that mean? Glad you asked….
The first thing to learn is the importance of awareness, cultivating a profound attention to your own self and body, in addition to developing an acute awareness of the other, your partner. Even now, as you’re sitting here, become aware of your body, your self, your neighbors. Imagine having your hand on someone’s shoulder, closing your eyes and being led around a crowded room by them. Your focus, your attention, must be on that person in an active and engaged way. You must be vigilant especially of the temptation to anticipate where the leader is headed such that you are not available to respond to where the leader is, in fact, leading. That particular aspect is especially challenging to many of us who are quick to assume we know where someone else is headed!
Second, you must trust your partner and be trustworthy yourself. As if that isn’t hard enough, you learn to establish trust quickly, since when you dance the tango you change partners all through the night. Can you imagine? For many of us building deep trust takes time and is not easy, and yet it is an essential skill that can be nurtured and cultivated.
Finally, each person has an active role and must lean slightly toward the other, establishing a real relationship with some substance, resistance even, to the other so that their slightest movement registers immediately. You can’t dance with a ‘limp noodle’ partner, you both have to be strong, centered and inclined to the other. Each role requires creativity—the leader improvises, combining the steps in various ways, and the leader always gives room, space, for the follower to express their own creativity and uniqueness within the dance. Those moments of pause, where the follower’s individuality is most evident, enhances and brings into fulfillment the whole. Practicing both roles deepens your understanding of your own role and how best to fulfill it.
What an amazing image of the kingdom of God! Ministry, our faith, our work together, our relationships, none of them are passive endeavors nor can we afford to go through our lives sleepwalking. We are invited to show up, to be acutely aware and fully present, and to trust deeply the many partners we encounter, divine and human. We must be responsive without getting out ahead, leave space for others and express our own uniqueness when space is provided. What might that mean for us as we become more aware of and responsive to what God is up to, in our lives, in this faith community, in the local community and in the larger world? How might we at St. Elisabeth’s embrace our role as followers of God? Jesus invited all of us to both receive and proclaim the Kingdom of God is at hand. What might that mean in 2013 on the north shore of Chicago? How might we risk engaging more fully in this dance?
I want to share a story, of how one congregation in Kansas City dances, how they both receive and proclaim the kingdom of God. Church of the Resurrection began in 1990 with “the dream of launching a church that would reach thinking people who were not actively involved in a church and help them to see how the Bible and the Christian faith could change their lives, and how they in turn could change the world. ” They share a vision of addressing the root causes of poverty in Kansas City so that their city looks more like the kingdom of God that Jesus so passionately preached . They came together in partnership with six elementary schools to see how they could help, being aware of and responsive to their partners in ministry. What emerged was everything from establishing playgrounds to providing 300 beds for students sleeping on the floor, tens of thousands of books and weekend backpacks packed lovingly full of food. This past Christmas, the congregation was challenged to give the same amount they spend on their own children to addressing this issue of poverty. On that holy night, they raised over $1.2 million dollars. They are engaged, dancing with God in their own unique way with profound joy and meaning contributed to their lives.
I hear here at St. Elisabeth’s a deep desire to be fully engaged in the dance with God in our own unique way. What is our vision, we wonder, for making our world look more like the kingdom of God Jesus so passionately preached? We are on the journey, and we have some clues from Church Assessment Tool insights from last year and from our experience with Family Promise and soup kitchen some of the ways we might move forward. Our mission statement work is intended to be the snow plow of that work, leading us forward and making room for more discerning, greater clarity and the ability to articulate what we’re about and why. Our mapping exercise has revealed that we already are passionate about receiving and living into the kingdom of God. We experimenting with the move from being “a bounded set (the Episcopal Church in this suburb) to a centered set (the people called and sent by their baptism from this house of worship into the world). ”
At the same time, we have some work to do, some discerning about our way. Perhaps we’ll decide to transform our building to make it truly usable for Family Promise and other ministries because investing in our campus is best way for us to move forward faithfully. Or we may decide that our way forward is to pour our energy into the root causes behind how families come to need Family Promise in the first place. Perhaps it is something else we have not quite named. We are not yet clear, but with faithful commitment to the dance, I believe that clarity will emerge and be incredibly powerful for those who share the journey as part of this community of faith and for those who are impacted by our mission and ministry in its various forms.
Remember that St Elisabeth’s Church is not mine nor Daphne’s nor any one person’s. It is you. Be the church well; commit yourself to that work. Engage in it. Make of it all that it can be. I encourage you to dare greatly: ask for more not less, engage more not less, and always trust fully in the extraordinary love of God in and through all things. The one who sends you out will equip you to do the work of proclaiming the kingdom of God here and now.
Shall we dance?