Preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany – March 6, 2011
Welcome to St. Paul’s on the Green and this glorious celebration of Choral Evensong on this the Last Sunday of Epiphany; a fitting way to move toward the beginning of our annual Lenten journey which will begin this Wednesday. A special welcome to the choirs of St. Matthew’s Church in Wilton, your rector, Mother Mary Grace Williams, and Rodney Ayers your Director of Music.
Mary Grace, I know that you and I feel singularly blessed to have two of the brightest and most talented musicians in the Episcopal Church as a part of our staff. Blessings on the ministry they bring to our two communities. Please join us for a reception in the parish hall following Evensong.
If you will indulge me for a minute, I would like to share something with the St. Paul’s folk who were not here this morning—but please feel free to tune into the message if you are not part of this parish community! St. Paul’s has grown steadily in numbers over the past decade and has become a flourishing, healthy, radically welcoming community. We have a great staff, good programs, inspiring worship, and, of course a wonderful community of people—all of you. Now it is time to go deeper.
This morning we introduced 20+1+1—a way of basic discipleship – the means by which we can come to know and love God better— a way to do Lent differently this year. 20+1+1 are three simple and very ancient practices, commended to all by Holy Scripture and perfected by countless years of human experience: 20+1+1—Pray 20 minutes a day. Worship one hour a week. Serve one hour a week. You will find the road map for 20+1+1 in the service leaflet and I hope that you take some time to read it and consider it as your Lenten rule of life. I realize that this might not be for everybody. Some may choose to do it in different ways—some not at all. We’re not taking attendance. There is no sign-up sheet and there is no 20+1+1 police. This is an invitation to go deeper—not for a lifetime, just for six weeks.
I’d like to focus on the very first line of the text from John’s Gospel that was read earlier: There were some Greeks in town. In this context and time, Greek meant anyone influenced by Greek culture—most of whom lived in large towns and cities. For the Jews in Jerusalem, “Greek,” had taken on a much more expansive meaning. There were only two kinds of people in the world: Jews, a group of people held together by descent, language and culture, and Greeks—the rest of the world.
What will Jesus say about these ξεινοι (which is the Greek for “strangers”), these outsiders? The disciples were Jewish through and through and spoke the same language and shared the same history. Hellenized Jews lived outside Jerusalem, spoke different languages, and held less rigorously to the Torah than Israelite Jews. Now John throws in a monkey wrench with Jesus must deal.
“What about the Greeks?” Now that’s everyone else in the world and bringing Greek “ξεινοι,”—these outsiders — into the group is just a little too risky. A gospel, an invitation to be disciples that includes them? Imagine that! Jews and Greeks would have mixed about as well as oil and water. This really poses a fundamental question: Is there a litmus test in terms of whom Jesus invites into discipleship, into the church, to take a place at God’s Table?
“Sir, we want to see Jesus. Can you help us?” Philip and Andrew take their request to Jesus. And in that moment something connects deeply and passionately within Jesus. The plea of the Greeks elicits a profound reaction in support of breaking open every closed door that the Church owns.
“This is the hour of my glorification. I’m going to be put to death but that’s not the end of the story. The grain of wheat will burst into a harvest of all people—Jews and Greeks—yes, even strangers—whom you will welcome as your sisters and brothers. I’m here to glorify the Father and when I’m lifted up, I will draw all people, I will attract everyone to me and gather them around me.”
The Christian Century reports a startling statistic that only 15% of churches in America have grown by even one person in the last five years. There are plenty of reasons why that is the case but the bottom line is that mainline churches are not very passionate or even intentional about bringing in those on the outside into our community. In addition to a number of other “phobias,” churches have been “zenophobic”—afraid of the stranger.
Our “Greeks” may be “Gen X’ers,” or the very young or the very old, anyone in jeans and body jewelry, the economically challenged, undocumented immigrants, people who have their doubts about things they read in the Bible, any number of minority groups, those who take their communion at Starbucks rather than in the Bread and the Cup, bored Christians and curious pagans, just simply people who are not like those already in the pews.
In his book, Church for the Unchurched, George Hunter describes a set of attitudes in our congregations that have worked against church growth: believe like us, behave like us, become like us—talk like us, dress like us, see the world like us. It was these Greeks—these strangers—who moved Jesus to proclaim the purpose of his entire mission—to draw all people, to attract everyone, no matter who they were, no matter what their lineage, and gather them around him.
“We want to see Jesus, Can you help us?” I believe that people are still asking that question. I believe that there is a hunger in the lives of many people, both in and out of church communities, to be in deeper relationship with God. I believe that there is a void in their lives that people want to fill—even though they may not know exactly how, where, or with what to do that.
Two thousand years after that day when the Greeks—the outsiders—came to check out Jesus, people are still asking for help—for help to get connected with God, with one another, and with a community and the Episcopal Church in Norwalk and in Wilton is here to give them the answer: Come.
Come and see! Come and see what we have found. Come and see a place where all are welcome—where religion is not a matter of fear but of God’s unconditional and radical love. Come and see! Let’s make that our mantra during Lent. Let’s be intentional about inviting others to come and see! Open the doors wide. There are lots of folks looking for what we have discovered—and we are called to share freely and generously!