“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim my message there also, for that is what I came out to do.”
Jesus sets a tone in today’s gospel reading that distinguishes Christianity from pretty much every other major religious tradition in the world. Eastern religions are available to provide enlightenment for those who seek it. Judaism is a religion for a particular group of people, the Hebrews. Islam seeks converts, but the converts are brought into the traditions and tenets of the faith. Only Jesus goes out into the world to engage people where they live and work.
Let’s think back over the gospel readings from the last few weeks. While we heard them as individual stories, they are, in fact, events unfolding over just a matter of a few hours. Jesus invites four fishermen to leave their jobs and follow him. They go into the nearby town of Capernaum and worship in the synagogue. There, Jesus teaches “with authority” and commands an unclean spirit to leave a person. Today we read they leave the synagogue and go to the home of one of the fishermen. His mother-in-law is sick with a fever, a potentially life-threatening illness in an era before modern medicine. Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand, lifts her up, and the fever leaves her. She is able to resume her customary household role of tending to the needs of visitors and guests. By nightfall everyone in town brings anyone who is ill to the house and Jesus heals all. Before the sun comes up the next morning Jesus slips away to pray.
Perhaps he is praying about what to do next. Capernaum has been pretty good to Jesus. People seem open to his message, it has a nice place to worship, a beautiful view of the Sea of Galilee, and all fish a person could want to eat. It is not unlike the Eastern Shore – wonderfully out of the way with a relaxed vibe and self-sufficient mindset. Jesus can stay here and set up shop. He can preach and teach and heal until his heart is content. Anyone who wants to hear him can come to Capernaum and find him. I mean, if they went out to the Jordon wilderness to be baptized by John, this little village on the lakeside will seem like paradise.
Jesus emerges from prayer and announces a very different vision to his followers. He is going to move on and move about and he is going to proclaim his message through what he says and through the healing deeds he does.
It makes sense for Jesus to do this. As Paul wrote, Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the human form.” In today’s reading the person who set aside all divine prerogatives in order to become incarnate in our world announces he will take another step and then another and then another to become even closer to all people. Jesus engages the world with God’s redeeming love and we are inheritors of this spiritual tradition. Christianity, when it is lived properly, is an outward focused endeavor aimed at bringing God’s love to a lost and hurting world.
Perhaps you have heard this question before. It has been around for a long time. If St. Paul’s closed tomorrow, other than our members, who would miss us? There are some congregations whose honest answer might be absolutely no one. In fact, some churches could be closed for months or even years before anyone notices at all. This cannot be said of St. Paul’s. Our Food Pantry clients would miss us. The people who come here each week for A.A. meetings, Al-Anon meetings, and N.A. meetings would miss us. Quilters and Dog Dancers would have to find some other place to gather. Various groups that use our facilities over the course of the year would miss us. People who enjoy coming to the holiday handbell concert would miss us. People who like pecans, work downtown and park in our lot, or who just enjoy the beauty of our building and a green space on Main Street would miss us. Groups and organizations we support on a regular basis, such as Boys Home, Jackson-Feild Home, Episcopal Relief & Development, Chanco, CAPS, and the diocese, would miss us.
As we saw at the Annual Meeting, our average attendance on a typical Sunday morning last year dipped slightly below 80 people after hovering near 100 just a few years ago. The Vestry and I are committed to on-going reflection about this. Average Sunday attendance is an important measure of a congregation, but it is just one measure. By most other measures St. Paul’s is a dynamic and vital church whose members are faithful and generous.
At our Vestry retreat last weekend we looked at another way to measure a congregation. How many people do we engage over the course of a typical week? How many people come into the building or participate in a ministry or come here for an event or activity or just simply drop by to say hello? While not as easy to track, we have approximately 375 engagements each week (and this number does not take into account the people we reach through our on-line presence). Now, we engage some people more than once over the course of the week. Kitty Quillin, for example, is here Monday night for Food Pantry, Tuesday night for Bell Choir, Thursday night for Choir, perhaps on Saturday for Altar Guild, and Sunday morning for worship. She alone accounts for 5 engagements each week!
Your Vestry and I are pondering some of the things we might do to increase the number of people who engage St. Paul’s over the course of a typical week. We are not planning on closing our doors anytime soon, but if we did we want even more people to miss us. Because we have a fixed physical building, which is a tremendous asset in our work and ministry, we are not able to pick up and move from town to town, as Jesus did. Our calling is not to be an itinerant congregation. We are called to engage the community from and with this space, making St. Paul’s a center of God’s love and healing for all people.
Here is another question for you to ponder. It gets to the heart of how you live out your faith: If you were to move away from our community tomorrow, other than those of us at St. Paul’s, who would miss you? How would the community be poorer without you? In what ways would your witness to the Christian faith and life beyond these walls be missed? Just as the question about our church gets at the heart of our call to reach out beyond ourselves, so too this one asks you to ponder how you are living the faith “from town to town”.
The Catechism states in part “the ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be”. We Episcopalians do not go about thumping on our bibles at public meetings nor do we tend to stand on a soapbox in the town square preaching at every person who passes by. Our faith motivates us to get involved, to make a difference, and to contribute to the common good. We carry God’s presence and healing love with us wherever we go. And we like what St. Francis is reported to have said, “Preach the gospel always, and when necessary use words.” If you were to move away, other than us here at St. Paul’s, who would miss your “preaching”?