Almost 30 years ago I started on the path of discernment that led me to ordained ministry. One of the early requirements in the process was to work with a parish committee, to reflect on my call and the experience of ministry. Our aspirants today do something very similar. One of the most impactful questions, one that has stayed with me all these years, was “What does success mean to you?” I don’t remember how I answered in 1993, but I have pondered the question from time to time ever since.
This week I’ve been thinking again about success and failure, winning and losing. Obviously the events in our national life have contributed to my reflections: we had an election, which one candidate won, while the other candidate had a hard time accepting the loss. But now the winning candidate is faced with what might be an impossible challenge: is it still winning when what you win is a catastrophe?
Today we will elect four faithful people to our Chapter: how will we care for the two who are not elected? How can we ensure that they don’t feel rejected? And for those who are elected, what will they have won? The opportunity to be part of the decision-making body of our parish in a challenging time when the church’s future is far from clear. Let me hasten to add that service on Chapter is not an ordeal: it is a small-group ministry of discernment, administration, and vision: it is holy ground. I should know: I have served continuously on Chapters or Vestries for nearly 24 years now.
Today is Cathedral Day, our day to celebrate who we are and whose we are. We observe Cathedral Day every year on a Sunday close to the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul which happens to fall tomorrow. The story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is an interesting study of success. Saul was extremely successful as a Pharisee, a Jewish prosecutor whose job was to catch Christians and punish them for subverting the Jewish faith. He was famous, feared, and beyond reproach in his community. His encounter with the risen Christ could hardly be more dramatic, literally stopping him in his tracks and blinding him so that he was rendered helpless, vulnerable to the very people he had been persecuting. Remarkably, he was cared for and baptized by the Damascus Christians, and in the end, as he pursued his new calling to evangelize non-Jews, he found a way to work alongside Peter and James and the rest of the Jewish Christians.
Paul’s witness to his own conversion, his admission of shame and readiness to be held accountable, make him a giant in our faith. His ministry spread Christianity far further than Jesus had, and his writings continue to shape the Church across the world. This is success by any measure. But in the final twist of the roller coaster that was Paul’s life, he was executed by imperial Rome, which surely his enemies saw as their victory. And I wonder, as he sat in a prison cell in Rome and looked back over his life, if he was astonished by how differently his call to serve God had turned out, compared to his early career.
What does success look like for the church during a pandemic? If you’ve watched or read my interview with Maya Little-Saña, you know that her ministry with our children, youth, and families over the past year has been a success: she has built up a consistent group of families and found creative ways to keep them engaged and guide them in their formation as Christians. Another success is the general level of engagement in our online worship services, classes, and fellowship events. We have maintained our community and even incorporated new members who have never been inside the church building. We have continued to move forward with the big construction project and with plans to adapt our spaces for community use, once it is safe to open our doors again. Numbers and levels of activity are obvious markers of success.
But let’s not forget that our faith is centered on a historical figure who lived a humble life, who suffered the most ignominious and shameful death possible, but who, in the process of surrendering himself, lit a spark that Paul and the apostles fanned into a worldwide blaze of light and life. Our call as a cathedral needn’t be the dramatic screenplay that our patron enacted. Our call can be to offer humble gifts of service, generosity, and beauty in a world that needs all of those. We can follow Paul’s example by opening our doors and our hearts to people who have felt marginalized and rejected by conventional religion; we can follow Jesus’ example by putting God at the center of our lives and measuring everything we do by the yardstick of love.
What does success look like? It looks like a life of faithfulness, a willingness to take one step at a time as God beckons, without being overly invested in a predetermined destination. It’s the same for an individual as it is for a cathedral. You listen closely for God’s voice, you consider the charisms and resources available to you, and you take a step. And if you find yourself going in the wrong direction you do what Saul did: you stop, repent, and follow God’s call to a new place.
We are living in a time of multiple simultaneous changes: the pandemic has only accelerated change that have been underway throughout the church for years, even decades. It makes long term planning extremely difficult, as we are navigating unknown territory. It’s a challenging time, but we know that new creation is often preceded by a wilderness time, a time of unknowing, a thin time when we can be particularly sensitive to God’s voice. And we can do this. Just as President Biden said in his inaugural address, we are a people who can come through hard times and emerge stronger than ever. The key is to focus on the enduring truths that are our reason for existing, and to let go of the rest. We are called to focus on the essentials: Who are we? Whom do we serve? What is God calling us to?
With the resurrection of Jesus, God blew open the whole salvation story to the entire world. Paul was called to go outside of the walls his tradition had constructed and risk sharing the good news with strangers and people ignorant of or hostile to his faith tradition. By God´s grace, Paul turned from a belief that God was the exclusive property of a small, clearly defined group, to a conviction that God is God of the whole world, of all people. That’s a difficult leap, and continues to be difficult for people of every faith.
In our own time we are called to turn around again, to push back boundaries and expand our beliefs about who is acceptable to God, to defeat the notion that God is the God only of those of whom we approve. Following Paul´s example, we will need to let go of our assumptions about who belongs in the church, and share God´s Spirit, reaching out to all people, especially those who are unchurched or dechurched because of the bad reputation Christianity now holds in public discourse.
We get to take the message of salvation even further than Paul, ever pushing farther out the boundaries of God´s love. And the words of our Psalm will send us forth: “May God give us his blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.”