2 Advent: Deconstruction and Hope

For 2 Advent we have Isaiah (40:1-11)
stepping forward
to preach a counter-intuitive message to his peers.

Now let’s understand,
that for 39 chapters,
Isaiah has been preaching discomfort.

For 39 chapters,
he has been warning his peers
that their social and economic injustice
will be their undoing.

For 39 chapters he has castigated
the political and religious leaders
for being purveyors of greed and self-interest.

Death and destruction
are coming, he warns, and NOW
is the time to reform.

But then, on a dime,
Isaiah suddenly
begins preaching the comfort of HOPE.
Suddenly, at chapter 40,
a time in which the people have been suffering
and nothing is good,
and nothing will ever be good again,
Isaiah preaches hope.
It probably felt like he was mocking their pain.

What we have to understand
is that the Book of Isaiah
is actually several books,
written and compiled
over one-hundred and fifty years,
and so the historical circumstances
of each section
represent how the world had changed over time.
But that being said,
the preaching and the poetry
associated with the name, Isaiah,
often walks upstream
from the real-time experience of the people
the prophet is preaching among.

Isaiah will point out
the selfishness and corruption
of the people, and preach reform
when things seem good;
and then
he offers the love of God and hope,
in the midst of brokenness and suffering
when things seem bad.

So I think Isaiah — both the reform-minded one
and the hopeful comforter one —
would look at our moment of anxiety
when swelling disbelief in institutional religion
is causing churches to shrink
like a puddle on a hot day…
and point to both
the need of reform
and presence of hope.

I’m going to try to do the same thing.
I know some of you could care less about church,
institutional religion, or any kind of doctrinal spirituality.
If that is you, then think of the following
as a prolonged metaphor for other kinds of community
and organizing.

Our diocese is soon to elect a new bishop.
We have three candidates, three
accomplished women
any of whom
could go around looking
like a bishop
and leading public prayer
and preaching
and laying hands
on new Episcopalians.
It isn’t molecular physics
and even AI could
construct a script
to accomplish all of that.

I don’t know how good
of a manager
each of the three are
and honestly, that is probably
more important to what most people
would call success for the job.
I don’t want to undersell
managerial abilities.

But what I am going to be looking for
is different.
I want to know
if one of these three candidates
can allow for the deconstruction
of the church as we have known it,
and imagine
and envision
something new.

Both are necessary by the way.

Allowing the old structures
to die — even actively killing them off —
is necessary for new life
in the same way
that a chrysalis must be destroyed
for the butterfly to emerge.
But in the process of that,
like Isaiah 40,
we have to be called into
a new form
and a new structure
and a new body.

Which of these women
can do both of these things,
and in a way
that brings as many people along
as possible?
Hopefully at least one of them.

I have been deconstructing church
my whole professional life,
nibbling around at the edges at first
and then more and more.
What I discovered is that
those who dig in their heels
and scream
at the deconstruction
are actually very few,
and some of them, once
the re-construction has begun,
actually like it.
Most of the people in Episcopal churches
I have known, are more than ready
to let go of the old content
and the old forms
and the old structures
but thought they were the only ones
who had been feeling that way.

It is not that they didn’t appreciate
the traditions they grew up in
but they had outgrown that chrysalis
and it didn’t really fit any more.
But they didn’t know there were options
and so they just kept on
being uncomfortable
with what was being offered.

But then the whole environment around churches
began to change dramatically.
Church wasn’t expected any more.
In fact, church became hard to be a part of.
It was inconvenient for one thing —

Sunday morning for crying out loud.
And a lot of their friends
just stopped going
or went looking for something else.
The building and finances
became the focal point
and the music — really loud organ —
took over the worship.

Doing all that traditional stuff
always felt a little odd
but it had charm too,
and it was very literate
and comforting somehow.
But as everything in the culture around church
changed so dramatically
church felt weirder and weirder
until it just felt
like another time and another place
and not like us.

This is probably selfish on my part
but I want to tell you
my vision of church.
For one thing, it may set off some “Ah ha’s” for you
about things we have been doing or not doing
and then you can think about
whether or not
you want to keep doing church
the way we have been doing it
at Trinity Place.

Here is the deconstruction part.

In the Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches
the leadership wants all your family
and all your close friends
to be in the fold,
and they make it difficult to not-belong.
Non-believers (or non-’right believers’)
are dangerous and corrosive to the church.
They ask questions that aren’t allowed
and they sow doubts.
These churches are structures
built within the walls of doctrine
and they want the social life
and civic life of their adherents
to be lived within the church.
Their own schools
or home school
are highly encouraged
to keep the bad influence
of the non-believers to a minimum.

TEC on the other hand,
began as an ethnic church — as in WASP.
But then it opened up little
yet remained class-bound — as in
the well-educated classes.
For one thing, you had to be able to read
and be comfortable with Elizabethan English
as well as European classical music and hymnody.

It was hard to be part of The Episcopal Church
if you didn’t know what that third fork was for.
I’m kidding but only a little bit.
Did you ever think about that saying,
“I am a cradle Episcopalian?”
You don’t hear that much in other denominations.
Rather, “I’m Roman Catholic” or
“I grew up Roman Catholic.”
Or ”I was baptized Lutheran.”

”Cradle Episcopalian” is full of classism —
as in birthright.

Now that is not how people mean it
when they say it today,
but that is the cultural freight it carries.

Our past, and much of our present
in The Episcopal Church,
is based on the model of a club
more than of community.
But now, that is being dismantled for us
because so few people
want to be part of our club any more.
And yet those ghostly expectations
still we need to dismantle.

Here is the reconstruction or re-visioning part.

So church as a community, not a club,
is where we are participants
rather than members.
We visit church more than join it.

By which I mean, we come together
for specific purposes and activities
that nourish our spirits
and enhance our spiritual practice —
our religion or spirituality
elsewhere, out in the world where we live.

We are not all friends,
we do not all think the same things,
we do not all believe the same things,
we may not even like or
be comfortable with everybody,
but we are committed
to being a community
that strengthens
and nurtures
and heals us
to go practice our baptismal covenant

So we are a community not building.
We gather in this space
but IT is not church — WE are church
and we are church in the most powerful ways
when we are not together,
rather, when we have gone from here
to practice our spirituality.

We are a community
that nourishes our will to service and advocacy —
our baptismal ministry to use the church-word —
that we practice
in our lives
beyond the walls
by how we construct our lifestyles
and by the economic and political choices we make.
In that sense,
we are a spiritual community without walls.

We are a community of sojourners
not of people who already know.
We create a safe space to come to think
and imagine and wonder
and it transforms us into different people
than we were when we started.
And it keeps changing us — right up
until we die.

It is the opposite of church as a club
of the like-minded
who spend all their time together
being comfortable with one another
and so pleased to seen in the circle
of each other’s company.

So the way I imagine church,
the one that will grow into the future,
is of a spiritual community
committed to sharing gospel wisdom
by trying to live it out
in the places we live and work and play.

And to do that,
we create safe spaces
in which we share gospel wisdom,
nurture and nourish one another,
and arm each other with hope
as we say goodbye
to go practice
our baptismal ministries.

We may do stuff
like collect food and supplies
for those in need,
but that is gravy on top of what we do
when we fan out
and practice our spirituality
in the places we live and work and play.

We may eat together
to strengthen our bonds,
and we may worship together
to open ourselves the the presence of the holy,
but those are the things we do
to build spiritual muscle
to practice
our baptismal covenant
in our lives
not in the walls of a sacred space.

When I look at The Episcopal Church of the future
I imagine a loosely knit network of communities
that is bottom-up or congregationally-focused,
and where any pooled resources
are used to strengthen those communities
as they nurture and nourish
the spiritual practice of the participants.
The bishop and diocesan body
is there to serve the local communities
not the other way around.

The “big church”
is there to spawn little local communities
that grow
and subdivide
and grow some more
like cells do
when creating new life.
Each of those new communities
will have their own charism —
or spiritual gifts.
Small communities will be cherished
and highly functional
because they won’t need a lot of capital
to do what they do.

Some may have a modest building
if it makes sense for them
but others won’t.
Some may be like Trinity Place
and rent a space
but others may meet in a bar
or in public spaces.

It will be a light cavalry
to use a military metaphor —
an ever-changing landscape
of movement
with spiritual communities
being born
and giving birth
and dying
over and over and over again.

So there is my Isaiah 40 vision
of the church that makes it into the future.
I find it hopeful.

Let us be at peace.