HOMILY FROM SERVICE ON SUNDAY, JANUARY 28, 2024 – FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Because they know she is interested in weird things that sometimes turn up in their nets, and they were looking at something that none of them had ever seen before.
She raced to see it, and later described it as, “five feet long, a pale mauvy blue with faint flecks of whitish spots; [and] an iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange puppy dog tail.” There was no record of anything like it in any of her books…eventually some other experts identified it as a coelacanth, a species of fish everyone knew had been extinct for … 65 million years. But…here was one, right in front of them…and since then many others have turned up along the east coast of Africa and Indonesia. Coelacanth’s are often called “living fossil,” which is (I guess) intentionally ironic (like jumbo shrimp) but I think it’s really unfair. Because these creatures are clearly not some ossified ancient artifact magically brought back to life, they are living entities which have been, “tough enough to survive 65 million years’ worth of changing conditions,” [Quinn Caldwell, All I Really Want, p. 106].
Ok, why am I telling you a story about the discovery of the coelacanth? Because we live in a society where an awful lot of people view all forms of religion, and maybe especially Christianity, as a kind of coelacanth…a living fossil…with emphasis on the fossil…Religion, in the eyes of many, is a set of atavistic beliefs and practices that continue to hang on despite all the perfectly logical reasons why they should have disappeared.
We also live in a country where stories about church decline…and the rise of the “nones”….are so ubiquitous…that they rarely even make headlines any more…One recent study found that over the past 25 years around 40 million adults—people who grew up, or were used to going to church, have “effectively stopped going to church.” And this is happening across all denominations, all age groups, all education levels, and all income brackets. [The Great Dechurching].
At the same time we also live in a culture that has developed what the US Surgeon General last year described as “an Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation“…which doesn’t just mean that more people are sad and lonely…it does…but it also means that all those lonely people are at increased risks for all kinds of health problems…heart disease, stroke, dementia…and according to a Gallup poll last year, the highest levels of loneliness were reported in to be New England.
So here we are…in an increasingly polarized world…filled with institutions (which fewer and fewer people trust), and which continue to be organized around—and maintained by—historically dominant (and domineering) power structures which (at best) are ill-suited to respond to the complex and rapidly developing challenges which we face, and (at worst) are actively pouring gas on a fire that is already raging out of control.
As I stand here in the midst of this eco-system…and in the midst of this community…with our relative security…our significant privilege…our abundant gifts…and our own very real and pressing challenges (we need additional leaders for our family ministry…we are looking at some significant—not insurmountable, but significant—capital needs…etc.) … Standing in the midst of all this…I’m wondering…and trying hard to listen for…what it is…that God is really calling us to do…to create…to build. And what I’m very sure of…is that we are definitely NOT called to be a fossil (living or otherwise)…Because Christ calls us to living…to life…to life abundant…We are called to be the church IN this present time and to build and become the church FOR God’s future.
The people in Capernaum were astonished by Jesus not because his teaching was fresh and new, but because it was deeply grounded in the reality of who and what God is. People recognized Jesus’ authority not because he “moved fast and broke things” but because he recalled them to a primordial truth that is always there. The prophets which God raises up always recall us to this basic truth that God—the great I AM—is with us…always…and wants us—NEEDS us—to be a blessing for all of creations…to proclaim good news to the poor, to lift up the lowly, to bind-up the broken-hearted…
The church—the people of God—has always existed within a variety of eco-systems not entirely of our own making…True, we haven’t been around as long as the coelacanth…but, you know…time is relative and a few thousand years is still a long time…and throughout all of time we have been around—we have been constantly changing and adapting to our environment…and how we carry out God’s mission of being a blessing, and proclaiming good news, has also varied—greatly—over time and across every location.
How are we called to be the version of the church that is needed at this time, and in this place? That’s the core question. And let me rephrase it slightly: How can our Christian faith, and our Anglican traditions, help us live lives of meaning and purpose in this time and place? And given our faith and our history, who are we called to be in this time of multiple crises? (These questions are variations of ones asked by Rabbi Sharon Brous in her book The Amen Effect).
These are the questions we will need to continue to reflect on and answer together as we live into all that God needs us to do into in the coming weeks and months…Over lunch at these tables, you’ll have an opportunity to reflect on this. The questions we have prepared for the table discussions are a lot less “meta” and a lot more concrete: Where do you go when you’re not here? What kind of lives are we send you into? How does what we do here equip you to live those lives and do that work…or what would you need to be better equipped? But the goal the same…the goal is to help all of us understand how we can resist becoming ossified…fossilized…and remain living, evolving, thriving agents of God’s grace in a world that desperately needs it. Amen.