The Dream of Church

Lessons for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany – The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?” ().

Verna Dozier, The Dream of God, 79

In the early 1970’s, the first bishop of Nevada, Wesley Frensdorff, was a visionary of the same dream that Verna Dozier had. Through something called “Total Ministry,” Bishop Frensdorff and others would create a new movement in Episcopal ministry, a style which empowers laity and clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons) to work in concert, equal and essential partners in the building of the kingdom. At the heart of “Total Ministry” is the understanding that through baptism all Christian people are gifted for mission and ministry within and for the Church. “There is one ministry in Christ,” writes Bishop Frensdorff, “and all baptized people – lay and ordained – participate in it according to the gifts given them.”

At its core, the ideas formulated in the concept of “Total Ministry” can push the limits of how we minister as a church. They challenge us to a new dream (using the language of Verna Dozier) in how we carry out our baptismal promise in the world.

Baptismal promise…that Covenant we make together at every baptism. Those promises that call us to…

  • “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers…”
  • “persevere in resisting evil” and “repent and return to the Lord…”
  • “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ…”
  • “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself…”
  • “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being…”

Just a few years before his tragic death in 1988, in a plane crash on the rim of the Grand Canyon, Bishop Frensdorff wrote a poem called The Dream. The poem begins:

Let us dream of a church in which all members know surely and simply God’s great love, and each is certain that in the divine heart we are all known by name.

In which Jesus is very Word, our window into the Father’s heart; the sign of God’s hope and his design for all humankind.

In which the Spirit is not a party symbol, but wind and fire in everyone; gracing the church with a kaleidoscope of gifts and constant renewal for all.

Martin Luther once asked, “Can a rock that has been in the sunlight all day not fail to give off warmth and heat at night?”

When I was young, every other year or so our family would head north for Christmas to visit relatives in Cleveland. As a young boy from Florida, I was fascinated by the metal contraptions that hung on the walls of Grandparents house. When you touched them, they were warm. I, of course, had no experience with a radiator but my Grandpa Alex brought me to the basement, showing me the boiler and how the steam travelled through the pipes all of the house to those “metal contraptions,” radiating its heat all the way.

Using Martin Luther’s metaphor we must ask ourselves, “Can we, when we have lived in the warmth of God’s love, not fail to give off the same warmth ourselves?”

The answer, of course, is that of course we cannot. But first we have to connect to the boiler. We can’t, in other words, radiate God’s love until we’ve opened our hearts and let it in. We must live in the sunlight of God’s love. We need to bask in the sunlight of God’s compassion. We need to absorb God’s light and let it shine in the darkest corners within. Once we allow God’s love in, we can then begin to give off that love.

Let us dream of a church that radiates God’s love.

Frensdorff dreamed of a church “…unafraid of change, able to recognise God’s hand in the revolutions, affirming the beauty of diversity, abhorring the imprisonment of uniformity…”

We are probably no less afraid of change in our church then Frensdorff’s church was thirty years ago. Perhaps we are more afraid. In a world that is changing so fast, a changeless church is a refuge in uncertainty. We cling in comfort, but maybe we cling too tightly to what was that new growth is restricted.

When my friend’s aunt moved into a new home, she wanted to cut back the vines that grew up the front of the house. The vines on the house grew with abandon, flowering prolifically. She wanted to shape the vines, directing them and controlling their growth. She bought some electric shearers, later describing the purchase as “a big mistake.” She cut that vine…and cut…and cut….and cut until not much remained. She was ready to begin forming the vine but that vine hasn’t flowered since.

It’s not dead. It is sort of alive with a brownish stalk that only sends out a few green bloomless tentacles each year. Later, she learned that this particular vine would only produce flowers from new growth added the previous year. The green shoots coming out now just don’t have enough nutrients to bring forth flowers.

Let us dream of a church vital and alive, growing and flowering with abandon.

Frensdorff dreamed of a church “…so salty and yeasty that it really would be missed if no longer around…”

We should be “serving” and “seeking” and “striving” and “respecting” so that our church would be missed if we were not here. I envision a bold church, existing beyond our eight walls, fearlessly speaking out against unjust structures in society, against violence of any kind, and against exclusion for any reason. I envision a church that doesn’t always choose the safest way but chooses instead to “prepare the way of the Lord…” (Matthew 3:3). I envision a church that remains relevant and responsive to our rapidly changing social context.

The church cannot be satisfied with being fed and feeding pablum, but instead must hear the Word, takes risks, speak out, and act against those things that are not of God.

Let us dream of a salty church.

Frensdorff dreamed of a church “in which each congregation is in mission and each Christian, gifted for ministry; a crew on a freighter, not passengers on a luxury liner.”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry speaks in terms of the Jesus Movement,

“Now is our time to go. To go into the world to share the good news of God and Jesus Christ. To go into the world and help to be agents and instruments of God’s reconciliation. To go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that that love can set us all free.

“This is the Jesus Movement, and we are The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal branch of Jesus’ movement in this world.”

The Church should be about the Jesus Movement, carrying on the mission Jesus with each member, regardless of ordination status, a part of this mission – a member of the crew, working for the same end.

Let us dream of a church where each member goes into the world to share the good news of Jesus Christ and to be agents of God’s reconciliation.

Frensdorff dreamed of a church that recognizes “the absurdities in ourselves and in one another, including the absurdity that is LOVE, serious about the call and the mission but not, very much, about ourselves.”

May we be a playful church who dances, sings, laughs, and cries in the company of our “Clown Redeemer.” And maybe we can be a church that doesn’t take ourselves too seriously. We are a church, after all, that falls short. But we are also a church we are blessed with hearts that forgive, and a sense of humor. We are also a church blessed with a God who forgives, and who, we pray, also has a sense of humor.

Let us dream of a church that is serious about God’s love, and just maybe, not so serious about itself.

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and, by association, the feast of all our baptisms. We celebrate the beginning of Jesus public ministry just as we celebrate baptism as the beginning of our ministry. Let us ask ourselves,

What kind of a church are we to be?

Will it be the kind of church that we dream it to be?

Will it be the kind of church Jesus dreams it to be?

All of us have a part in shaping the answer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s