The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
I wonder how many different answers we’d get to the question, “What is the church’s purpose? Why are we here? Why are you here?”
Maybe parents dragged you to church as a child – whether you wanted to be there or not. The church’s purpose was to provide basic training for moral warfare – give you guilt for telling dirty jokes, cussin’, and making inappropriate hand gestures. Some people never grow beyond thinking the church exists to make you good and keep you out of trouble. I was told as a child that we go to church, meaning “God’s House,” the place where God lives 24/7. The purpose for the church is to keep God’s house up: prevent leaky roofs, and make sure the place looks clean and nice. In a previous church some folks thought the building was the sole reason for being. My mouth got ahead of my good sense one day, and in frustration I said, “If we loved and worshiped God half as much as we do this building, we’d have a great church here.” Unfortunately, they didn’t take me seriously. Fortunately, they let me stay. The church is people in love with God, not a building. That’s a mistake a lot of people make. Others think churches are sources of God’s love, freely given for everyone, only to find some of God’s people believe they’re called to be the Lord’s pit bulls. If you don’t seem to fit, you’ll learn, directly or implicitly, “You’re not enough; God doesn’t like your kind nor do we.” That church’s mission is to separate wheat from chaff. What is our purpose as God’s people at St. Paul’s?
For Jesus the synagogue was his church. There God’s beloved would meet to hear and study scripture, worship, pray, and learn to live a Godly life. At the temple in Jerusalem, you made offerings to have your sins forgiven. This system worked well for some, but not others.
One day Jesus came home for a visit. Luke says he was brimming with God’s Spirit. His authority, teaching and preaching preceded him. The synagogue was packed that day for Jesus to deliver what is considered the keynote address to announce the arrival of God’s reign. He selects Isaiah’s vision about Messiah, and implies that he is the one, a Messiah bringing bring mercy to the downtrodden, preach good news to the poor, release captives, give sight for the blind, set free the oppressed, forgive sins and offer everyone a new start. No one is beyond God’s love and care, not exactly what the religiously trained and invested wanted to hear in a Messiah.
We, the church, are linked to Jesus. We don’t make up our own mission. We are given a mission. The mission, our purpose for being here, is to continue Jesus’ work, his presence – Christ’s Body, bearers of God’s love on earth.
Sometimes the church has done well and thrives. Other times we don’t do so well. The early church thrived – without having buildings, budgets, clergy, or strategic plans. They met, prayed, ate special meals together, shared what they had, and loved others as if they really mattered. They lived in the glow of the Spirit that empowered Jesus. Today, we have buildings, budgets, paid clergy and strategic plans. What is missing? According to some statistics, 60% of twenty-something’s who grew up going to church, stopped going when they hit twenty. The tempting question to ask is, “What’s wrong with people out there these days?” A better question we need to ask is, “What’s missing in us? When did we lose our purpose?” Our sole purpose is to embody Jesus’ life and love, especially for those on the outside, inviting them into the orb of God’s love, mercy, healing, forgiveness, and new life. When churches decline, become lazy or irrelevant usually that’s a sign we’ve forgotten our mission; set our eyes on lesser things. Outreach, Christian Education, Evangelism, Worship, spiritual disciplines, the sacraments, hospitality – these are means to strengthen and focus us for fulfilling our purpose – God’s mission.
Since 1838 St. Paul’s has been a community of faith. That’s before Milwaukee formally was incorporated as a town. Our founding mothers and fathers had no building, no budget, and no clergy, but they had a mission and dream, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Here we are today, being church, guided by God’s Spirit whether we realize it or not. Our work is to continue to pay attention to the movement of God’s Spirit in and among us – and stay obsessed with God’s mission. At tables of the Annual Meeting you will be invited to participate in one of the ministry areas defined in during our Visioning Meetings in the spring. Those who have already indicated a willingness to serve will be contacted by a Vestry liaison to begin work in three areas: Inviting and Incorporating Others, or Marketing and Evangelism; Worship, Liturgy and Music; and thirdly, Youth and Family Ministries. Outreach is an ongoing focus at St. Paul’s. Each of us has a part in what God is doing through this church. We will continue to listen for God’s Spirit with each other, learn to embody Jesus’ mission more clearly in our time and context. We’ll do more than just talk with each other. We’ll talk with people beyond our walls to learn from them, see them as God’s beloved, too; as possible help them find they are God’s beloved, and discover places where God might be intersecting their lives. Our purpose is to be Christ’s presence: our mission, to restore all people to unity with God and one another.
Do you know why you are here? You are a minister. You are here to deepen your life in God’s, to be formed by Christ, so you can go forth to serve Christ through St. Paul’s Church. No one gets a pass on this. I hope you will express your faithfulness is by participating in a ministry group before long. You may not have a lot of time, or enough money. You may be sick, depressed, or too old. Too bad. Everyone has something they can do – at least pray for our church daily; when you come to worship, move out of your comfort zone and introduce yourself, welcome, and get to know a visitor. Grow in your love for God – express it – and it’s as easy as smiling at someone who looks like they could use one. Attend worship faithfully. Invite others to come with you. Look to love someone, not get even. Embody Christ in each moment.
Today is St. Paul’s 172nd Annual Meeting. For the next 172 years we have our assignment. We will focus on our purpose and God’s mission – seriously and urgently. And after another 172 years, then we take a short break. I may be ready to retire by then.
Jesus’ message for today is urgent. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today, friends and co-ministers, we are here to fulfill this scripture. The time of God’s Spirit is on us. And to borrow from Walter Burghart, theologian and wonderful teacher of preaching – “It is the Holy Spirit speaking when you hear God whisper to you: ‘Child of God, live this day as if it were your first day, as if it were your last day, as if it were your only day.’” God calls us – God’s people who gather at St. Paul’s Church – to live this day, and all the days God gives as our first, last and only day.