Epiphany Sermon Series: CHURCH II – Shape

Diana Butler-Bass
Phyllis Tickle



3rd Epiphany, Jan 25, 2015

St. Augustine’s Anglican Church

Rev. Jonathan Crane


This is the second of three sermons on the Church

As we continue to meditate on who and what we are

This is the longest one yet.

We heard this morning:

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord….And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, [repented].” (Jonah 3:1-5)


Nineveh was a recalcitrant city

Frozen in their way

And Jonah a reluctant prophet


But the Word was brought

And Nineveh believed God and was saved

The future about to set upon them was shifted and changed

They all did it together the great and the small


The church

is, if not recalcitrant, at least struggling to move in a new way

And the prophets are gathering

the writing is on the wall


One potential prophetess

Diana Butlar bass

Describes herself as a weather lady

She studies the climactic changes of Christian community

not on the local level

as in, to use the analogy, checking the window see if we need a winter coat right now

or as if checking specifically this parish status or that

But she is studying the great trajectories and shifts of church weather

the big picture, the numbers, the long view


Statistics from across North America

The conglomeration of thousands of local units

Show that, overall, the picture is clear


5 decades of decreasing numbers in North America of people who call themselves Christian

Not a single year of increase since the peak in church attendance in 1965

Excluding immigration, all denominations are affected

5 decades of decrease


Some congregations continue to thrive and grow of course, but this is the big picture


Some will bemoan this big picture as the degradation of society and moral alignment.

Others celebrate that church and Empire are finally being disengaged.


At St. Augustine’s, I get the sense that we are a mixed bunch, and generally aware of these shifts

I hear people among us who are keen to explore what lies ahead.


5 decades of decrease



Phyllis Tickle,

Perhaps another prophetess of these things,

Takes a church basement image to give perspective

She looks back to the early days of Jesus

And every 500 years since she observes,

Every 500 years give or take a few,

The church has had a giant rummage sale

>that is, a moment when the church has had to do some significant sorting and cleaning house.

Her dates cover

-The fall of Rome around 500 (– or Constantine others suggest)

-then around 1000: the great schism of the Eastern and Western church

-and then the reformation in the 1500s

>Each of these moments when the church has been faced with drastic change

And here we are Mrs. Tickle calculates

-And here we are in 2000 wondering what is going on what drastic changes are coming our way


Are we on the verge of another significant moment?

Are we at a moment that will indelibly mark the passage of the church’s history?


Tickle’s argument is that we are entering into, what she calls, “the great emergence.”

We have questions to answer that were not being asked before

We have realities and a global world that were unthinkable to generations even earlier in this century.

The rate of change in culture and technology continues to increase exponentially

And in the midst of this world

The church is being challenged to carry the name Jesus anew in this time

We are being called to move into a new way of being in the world while remaining connected, and drawing on the deep gifts of our history


Overall, in the big picture, our modern prophets assert

it is undeniable that there is change in the air

And of the church

At lease the church tested by demographics

The question is not, “WILL it change?”

But “what changes are needed for this new era breaking in upon us?”


Someone said about the Anglican church that if the “1950’s ever came back, we’d be ready.”

It’s true that as a whole, we’ve been slow to change

But part of our sorting

Part of our rummaging and changing

Is to rethink entirely what we need for the journey

And it is not a small task.

No explorer of a new land

would do well to rush out the door without having duly considered the journey

-We would not call that wisdom, but foolishness

Instead there is a special kind of energy expended in this planning

An imagining

A kind of problem solving

A kind of putting yourself in the new place and feeling with your mind and heart the experience

It takes a kind of energy that supplants the usual daily routine

The church will need to expend much energy in this time imagining and testing

We will get tired.

And, like preparing for any trip

You find in the process a new kind of creativity

You rummage around in the storeroom and realize that “this old thing my father left me” on the shelf may be just what is needed

You brush the dust off, and it becomes the key element

In fact you never really understood what that old thing was for

Whereas some of the tools you love to use in your homeland, will be no longer pertinent

The needs of the land and the roughness of the journey will determine what is truly needed or not

Our experience in the church over the next 50 or 100 or 200 years

Will no doubt be marked by reclaiming old things in a new way

And learning new skills and forms as we go along

We should not think it will have come together even in one generation

This work will take more than one lifetime and more than several lifetimes to explore


The church has a lot of imagining and rummaging to do

And in this new time

And we ought to take our preparation deliberately

And diligently

We need spaces to test our sense of this new journey

To test what is old and what is new

And to plan rightly our best guess of what is needed

A best guess, because any explorer worth his or her salt

Will go prepared mostly for the Unknown

We are to expect to be surprised

And like an explorer, to expect perhaps to not to make it

At least, to not make it in the shape we began in

Instead, it is the process, the deliberating, the knowledge of the land that if done well, leaves the explorer packed as best as possible

Ready for anything


It is why it was so critical last week

To begin our conversation of the church

With the Trinity – with GOD as our focus

And with the basic things of the church

The ways that we share in the life of God

Fresh in our minds

Eating together, prayer, teaching, work in community

We should not forget these things

And we should not forget the resurrection

And how in baptism we are made a new person

These things shape the trajectory

And remind us of what is truly important

The church is about the empty tomb

The church is about GOD

The church is about how we and all of creation come to share in the life of God through Jesus Christ

It is critical to begin here, and lead with our best theology, even as our theology is being re-shaped and re-articulated.



So what does this rummage sale look like

What are we to expect?


I have been thinking of this whole season of the church as if it is one huge explorative conversation

Thousands of people from a million different parishes

Clergy and lay, Christian and even some non-christian

All weighing in on their best guess

We are studying the world around us

Listening, like missionaries do

-For the ‘redemptive stories’ of our land

-Listening for the new stories popping up

-Listening to which old stories are being re-told

-We are hearing the changing of the world

and listening for the beat of angel’s wings in the tumult

And when we hear that flutter, when our heart is caught by the Word of God speaking in the quietest of ways, we speak up

And tell others

Many books have already been written by authors of all different disciplines

Trying to track the changes and give their voice to where God is at work

Blogs are up

Websites presented

Retreats organized

All to give space to this grand Conversation, this grand Listening and Sharing

We do not know what the church will encounter in this era

We do not know what the church will look like tomorrow let alone in 10 years or 50

There is so much we do not know

But we know from Acts 2, that those first Christians gathered and broke bread, and prayed

And that is what we continue to do now

And we know that the Lord’s prayer remains a good word in our midst

And we know that we are the Body of Christ now on earth

The hands, feet, ears and, God willing at times, the Voice


This is a grand conversation

But we forget how much energy it takes

It has changed the roles in the church

And clergy and lay, the structures of the church and all our various organizations

Are scrambling and sorting out what needs doing

We need to give one another grace on all accounts


I have settled myself that this is a piece of my vocation

A part of being a priest at this time

That I am a two footed priest

I have one foot joyfully in the traditional church, and one foot joyfully in the church to come

Thank goodness God is the author of dance

And the promise continues to give us what we need at just the right time

We will be okay

And God remains God


The world needs to hear the news of Jesus

We all need this Word of grace

And we all need the wisdom Jesus taught

And so the church must continue to be this voice in the needful way


And you

Must ask what your vocation is in this transition era.

How will you be a prayer and a prophet in this season?

One thing I am absolutely confident in

Is that we each may have a voice in shaping what the church will be

This cannot mean that we try to recreate the past

It simply cannot be

But it does mean that we need, NEED, need, need, need to speak

Newly of the past

to recount the Strengths of days gone by in terms that people can hear today

It is the same Jesus, but we may need to use different words and patterns of conversation so that his voice can be heard

And likewise, we need all people to dream and imagine and plan and try and become familiar with failure

As we fail and learn and plot on ahead as the people of Jesus gathered


What voice to you bring?

Do you speak of the gifts of the past?

Or the call of the future?

What do you have to teach your young priest about what will carry him well into the future?

What dream of Christ do you carry that will make the footsteps of your church firm.


We need to hear it.

The church needs to hear it.

The wider conversation needs to hear it.


You reluctant prophets.

All of us at times reluctant learners


God is here

May we walk all of us,

Together in peace and in unity

Into these new things

Where Christ already is.