Relinquishing the old, receiving the new

Sometimes things come together in such a way that I have no choice but to pay attention.  For example, on Tuesday of last week I prepared a sermon on Mark 13:1-8. As Jesus and the disciples are leaving the temple, one of his disciples marvels at the impressive size of the temple: “Look teacher, what huge stones and what large buildings!” Jesus responds by telling the disciples that the whole thing will be destroyed. The impressive temple may have looked like it would last forever, but no such luck, says Jesus.  The proposition of the sermon was that God is constantly casting down what we have known in order to give birth to something new. Then on Wednesday evening at our Fall series, Walter Brueggeman talked about the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC as the event around which the Old Testament witness revolves. He identified two different responses to this catastrophe: You can either deny that the old days are no more and hold out for their return (Ps 137); or you can relinquish what you have known and wait for the new thing God wants to give you (Is. 43: 14—21). According to the passage from Isaiah, until you fully relinquish the old (“Don’t remember the former things”), you won’t be able to receive the new.

I think St. Timothy’s and the Episcopal Church (and probably all churches for that matter) are going through a period in which God is dismantling old ways and in the process of giving birth to something new. In most cases the old model of church was heavily focused on Sunday morning, attracting newcomers to worship and programs, raising kids in the faith, and supporting one another.  We tried to attract people to a community that would love them and support them.  The goal was incorporating them into the household of faith. These members then provided the financial and human resources to sustain the ministry. In many respects, this has been the primary model at St. Timothy’s for years.  The broader society supported this model.  A large segment of the population had been raised to value finding and supporting a faith community and they did just that. Many aspects of this model are still central to St. Timothy’s and other churches.

But the old model is dying. Average Sunday attendance is down across the board in all churches. Sunday morning isn’t as central as it used to be. What is the new model? Whereas the old model focused on building up the household of faith, the new model is focused more on building up the neighborhood.  Empowered by the Spirit, we are collaborating with other organizations to make the neighborhood a place where all can flourish. Our collaboration with Mercer Elementary, Whiz Kids, and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Cincinnati to support at risk kids is one example. Churches, temples, mosques, and many other civic organizations working together to pass an initiative to provide quality preschool education for all 3-4 year olds is another example. Our collaboration with the Comboni Mission and the Interfaith Hospitality Network to provide hospitality to temporarily homeless families is another. Making our facility available to numerous groups such as 12 Step, grief, scouting, and other community groups is another glimpse of what is being born.

In the old model, church members primarily connected with one another and supported each other through the trials and tribulations of life, and of course there is nothing wrong with that.  However, in the new model, church members spend as much, if not more, time connecting with people outside the household of faith. Their closest connection may be with a young girl they tutor, who may or may not be a person of faith. They may spend most of their time serving with people from other organizations and faith traditions. Their financial resources may be used to support the cause for which they give their time rather than their faith community. The new model evaluates its ministry by what impact they are having on the life of the neighborhood rather than the size of membership rolls.

As we go through these birth pangs, we need to remember that this dismantling of the old and birth of the new is God’s doing. The challenge for us is to be able to let go of the old and receive the new as it is offered.  This will require us to be less busy and more attentive.  As Augustine once said, “God is always wanting to give us good things, but our hands are always filled with something else.”