Bishop’s Sermon from DioCon 2016

Bishop Larry R. Benfield Diocesan Convention | 19 February 2016 | Matthew 10:32-42

Where do you go to church? For so long it was such a popular question. We asked it of newcomers who had just moved into town, or of some new employee where we worked, or of other parents when first meeting them at a school event.

The question is fascinating for reasons that go beyond the obvious. The obvious reason for the question when we asked it is that most of us were trying to determine the religious affiliation of the person being asked. Was he or she indeed a churchgoer? And for us Episcopalians, asking, “Where do you go to church?” was as close as we ever came to evangelism. We would never up front ask someone we had just met to join us at church, so we asked this question instead in the hope that the reply would be, ‘I’m an Episcopalian.” That reply gave us permission in our own minds to be first-rate evangelists, as we told them the name of our congregation, and in our most daring, on the edge, evangelistic moment, would say, “I like it there.” And if they weren’t Episcopalians, well, the whole issue of evangelism got a lot stickier…and the room became a lot quieter.

“Where do you go to church?” Our effort at evangelism. But the real reason that question is so fascinating is its underlying assumption that church is a place that people go toward, that the movement is in that particular direction, from home to the church. You go to a church; it is a building. It is a destination. It is an organization to which one belongs, or in a former generation, at least for the Episcopal Church, an organization to which one aspired.

Going to church implies going toward something sacred, something not too contaminated by the messy, secular world around it. If you doubt what I just said in that last sentence, go read the laws of the state of Arkansas and the ordinances of most of our cities. For example, it is hard to get a license to sell alcohol within a certain number of feet of existing church buildings. No contamination for us. It is a legal wall that we can draw on a map, just as real in its own way as bricks in a church wall that separate the outdoors from the indoors. And churches are fairly clear that they do not want places of, let’s say, disreputable entertainment, near their front doors. We know fairly well how to be a place toward which people should at least aspire to go in their best moments.

But changes in culture have meant that we have begun to see fewer aspirations, and now we have been thrown into the messy, stickier issue of welcoming all sorts of people. If we have learned anything, it is that the church will not be kept alive much longer by waiting for more Episcopalians to move into town.

We have called it congregational development, and our own efforts have been focused on hospitality. Are the bathrooms in our churches clean? Have we got good coffee at coffee hour? Are our orders of service legible for people who do not see too well? How good is childcare during church? And beyond those issues, into the more substantive issues, such as: Does the blue-collar worker feel welcome here? The person of a different color or sexual orientation? Or the person who cannot read the English of the Book of Common Prayer?

You might say that we have finally taken to heart the comments of Jesus in this evening’s gospel about welcoming people. Welcome the prophet. Welcome the righteous person. Give a cup of water to a little one. It all sounds like what happens when church doors are really and truly open.

But just as with missing the underlying assumptions behind the question of “Where do you go to church,” we miss what Jesus is focusing on in this gospel. He is not talking about us welcoming people. He is not giving us “Episcopal Church Welcomes You” sign-hangers a pat on the back He is not there to make us inside the church feel good about what we have done, but is in fact challenging us. As is so often the case, he reverses everything, turns it upside down. He is finds the holy community outside the small ring of disciples. In speaking to his followers in this gospel lesson, in speaking to the insiders, he begins his talk on welcoming with, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” The tables are turned. The people out there are welcoming Jesus. They are the ones who gain the reward. In this pericope, Jesus is calling us to see the holiness in the world around us, to get beyond standing inside open doors, to get on the outside of our church walls if we want to experience how Jesus walks this earth even today. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” is how he begins his discourse on hospitality. Jesus is encouraging us to change “Where do you go to church?” to “Where is the church going next?”

If you think the world has not changed, listen to the following incident that recently happened to me. Honestly, it happened. I was talking to someone outside the church about a church location, and he was wary of the church coming into his neighborhood. He thought it would likely lead to a demand by the church that the local restaurants stop serving alcohol. He thought that having a church in the neighborhood would lessen the variety of people who wanted to live and work there, a sort of anti-magnetic effect. It made me wonder if there might be a day coming when bars and restaurants will ask that churches be kept a minimum number of feet from them because it would be bad for the community. The reaction I got from this particular man was a reminder that in so many ways we as the church have put up walls so that people cannot see the Anglican genius and theological contribution to the world that God created all that the eye can see and declares flesh good, so good that God’s incarnate self will assume it.

Our call in the 21st century is to immerse ourselves in the world around us. Be a part of the community. See Jesus just as clearly in the neighborhoods in which we find ourselves as we see Jesus in bread and wine inside our church buildings. Step outside our structures and hear what Jesus sounds like. Break down that wall between church and a broken humanity. John Wesley was on to something when he apparently preached outdoors to mine workers as they came off shift. Our congregations are on to something when more activities of a church take place each week away from our church buildings than take place in them. Our people will be on to something when our members are nurturing the environment for future generations in post-industrial, brown field areas where nature has been neglected. As Jesus reminds us, what takes place in the lives of people out there, in the world, is where the reward is found. When we read his words later in Matthew, the reward of the righteous is eternal life. That certainly sounds like what we have offered in the church for so long, but now we discover that it is out there in the world, waiting for us to discover it.

The good news for us who are on the inside, literally and emotionally and professionally, is that one of these days people will see Jesus in us when we are out in the world. They bring us a new reason for living lives of holiness, for giving away our time and money and energy. People beyond these walls will break down the walls that we have so often built for ourselves.

Having said all that, I affirm that church buildings are important. These spaces that we have set aside for worship are vital. It is in such places where we are fed at our holy tables for strength to do the work that God calls us to do in the world. It is here that we learn how to see the risen Christ in others so that this Christ becomes easier to see once we leave this place. It is here that we ask ourselves, “Where is the church going to go next in order find the risen Christ?”

Remember, though, that windows in church buildings are a way to look out as well as look in. Doors in churches are opened, not only for people to come in through them, but for people to go out of them as well. And in the long run, as the story of God’s ongoing love has unfolded, walls are meant to crumble so that there is no longer a division between insider and outsider. It is when that crumbling takes place that everyone starts getting a clearer glimpse of the kingdom of heaven that is always on the verge of being made manifest. Our part in this amazing, ongoing story is to keep our eyes open and our ears unstopped and our hearts at the ready as we discover who next will welcome us. Amen.