Finding True Joy
6 Easter B 2015
May 10, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This past Monday evening our Vestry heard a presentation about this document I’m holding. It’s called “New Facts on Episcopal Church Growth and Decline.” It is full of interesting information and correlations between various church practices and growth or decline.
For instance, there is a positive correlation between being located in a gentrifying city and church growth. There is a positive correlation between offering numerous social events in the parish and its growth. The same is true for innovative services like Jazz Vespers and Compline, and more numerous services on weekends and church growth.
There is a strong correlation between using lots of percussion instruments like drums, tympani, and tambourines and church growth. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
And on the negative side of things there is a strong correlation between celebrating very traditional services and church decline, between the older age of the rector and church decline, and between the presence of widespread conflict in the parish and church decline.
None of these is very surprising, but all of them are really interesting. We can learn a lot from this report, and I for one am looking forward to thinking about making some changes here—in a good way—to encourage growth in the parish.
I’d love you to take a look through this document. There are a few copies on the front pew that you may borrow. I’d also really love for you to make suggestions to me or to a vestry member about changes you’d love to see here—changes that might just help us to attract more folks each weekend. Thanks for your help in these areas!
Last year, as you may remember, our attendance declined rather alarmingly. We had had an Average Sunday Attendance somewhere in the high 90’s for a good 9 years; then we decreased to 86 on an average Sunday last year. That is surprising and, as I said, it’s also alarming, isn’t it?
It’s not just our parish, of course. Churches all across the board are experiencing declines in attendance right now. One of the factors cited in a recent internet article is increasing secularization in our culture. Another factor is the lack of respect for religious institutions that’s due in part, to recent scandals in the wider Church. Locally we often cite the influence of Sunday morning sports programs and also the phenomenon of two-income families. Parents are exhausted by work and by their children’s schedules. Maybe they need to rest more on the weekends, and maybe worship sometimes becomes a chore.
I’d invite us all to think about these things. Have our personal attendance patterns changed? And why might that be the case for us? It’s such a complex issue, isn’t it?
And of course our parish and all other parishes are working hard to try to stem that trend.
OK, all this being said, let’s turn to consider what we should be about as a parish, anyway. Why bother with worship; why bother with other activities here; why bother giving to this institution?
First, let’s listen to the words of David Lose, who is president of a Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia. He’s writing about changes in the Lutheran church—but this surely applies to the Episcopal Church as well. Dr. Lose writes,
“The question each of us has to answer about the institution we care about is: Does this place exist to maintain and perpetuate the status quo, or am I here to do the work that the radical founder had in mind when we started?
I hear a lot of talk about concern for the Lutheran Church. Will it have a future? Can it survive? What do we do with all the declining churches? Can we afford eight seminaries? And so forth.
I understand where these questions are coming from. We love these institutions. They have served us well. We fear for their future.
But are these questions of institutional survival the right questions?
. . .
I hear a lot of concern about the Christian Church, and particularly its decline in North America. But maybe we should instead be asking whether we are following Jesus? Whether Jesus would recognize us as his disciples?
What, after all, are we trying to protect? Our institutional existence? Or the message of grace, love, and liberty that Jesus . . . first announced?”
[David Lose, “In the Meantime,” for May 5, 2015, internet letter through email.]
So. These words may be upsetting. Dr. Lose is reminding us all to ask ourselves what’s most important: keeping institutions alive or following Jesus? I’d say that it would be an unfortunate dichotomy if we were to force ourselves to choose between the options. But obviously following Jesus is first and foremost. The earnest hope, then, is that by following Jesus the best and most devotedly we can, our churches will regain their health. Our attendance will be up, up, up, if we allow ourselves to feel his love and to go out into our lives and show his love—as hard as that is most of the time.
Now, this is the nugget of the sermon here: By recommitting ourselves at deeper and deeper levels, we will WANT to worship our God and Savior, and we’ll really miss it when we can’t get to worship. We’ll WANT to support our church with our labor and love and money, and we’ll feel great to watch it continue to do well.
Today’s gospel has Jesus showing us the way to recommitting ourselves to spiritual health as individuals and as a parish and Church. It’s actually an excerpt from the farewell address that Jesus gave at the Last Supper, the night before he was to die.
Abide in me, he says. That means go through your days in the conscious knowing that we’re held in Christ, that the air we breathe is infused with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and that all will be well. He says that we abide in him by keeping his commandments. Now, I am not sure that means the 10 Commandments, as important as they are. That means, for Jesus, his commandment, also given at the Last Supper, that we love one another. Even when it’s hard. Even when we’d rather be snarky and snipey and not nice. Even when we’d much rather hold a grudge because we’re convinced that the other person isn’t worthy of our paltry little attempts to forgive.
Love one another. That’s what he wants us to do.
And the result of trying to love others and ourselves will be JOY. What is joy? The first definition that comes to mind—the dictionary definition—is that JOY means happiness. But the theological definition that Jesus is getting at is much deeper than that. Jesus isn’t saying we’ll always be happy if we try to love, or that we should always try to be happy. No. Joy runs much deeper. To be filled with joy is to bathe in that deep security that comes from knowing that we are utterly loved and held up in God’s arms. That knowing allows us to be joyful even when we’re battling a scary diagnosis or mourning a dear one’s death or trying to navigate through some really frightening problem in our lives.
We can be joyful in spite of and through our suffering. Isn’t that an interesting concept? Our joy can carry us through, increase our trust in God’s future for us, and fuel our lives with hope.
So—putting this all together—let’s ask ourselves some questions that are more than theological jargon. Let’s ask ourselves some questions of ultimate meaning:
How might we each answer Jesus’ call to abide in his love—to thrive in his love? How might each of us so deepen our faith and trust that coming to worship on a Sunday is a response to our hearts’ yearning and deep joy, and that our numbers just naturally go up again?
How might we abide with him, find joy, and produce the fruit of a Christian on fire with love?
Spend time with these questions. Let them settle into your core. Ask for God’s help to deepen faith and commitment. And give in to the Spirit pulling you along, and completing your joy.