Transformed in the character of Christ, our theme for 2016
by The Rev. Kenneth L. Chumbley
This is an edited version of my address to the parish on Annual Meeting Sunday, February 14, which was also Valentine’s Day. You can also listen to the address on-line at www.christepiscopalchurch.com.
Today is the First Sunday in Lent. Lent is a 40-day period, inspired by our gospel today, Luke 4.1-13, which recounts Jesus’ 40 days of testing in the wilderness.
Lent is a time of self-examination; a time penitence or sorrow for our sins; a time of repentance, or turning from evil, sin and death to the God; a time of amendment of life and renewed resolve to follow Christ in faithfulness, living our baptismal promises.
Fundamentally, Lent is a time of transformation so Christ’s character, that of love, will be more fully revealed in us, in our church; and through us, in the world.
On this Annual Meeting Sunday, I want look at what I believe is God’s vision for us this year and beyond. God is calling us to transformation
God is calling us to deep, individual transformation.
In the delightful film,“June Bug,” June, the main character, says to her husband who is, well, no Valentine: “Yes, God loves you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.”
With Christ first in our lives, we will be grow, as Ephesians 4.15 says, into the full stature of Christ. His character will be formed and more fully revealed in us.
Our transformation will come about as we pray and study the Holy Scripture daily; as we gather weekly for the Holy Eucharist; as we learn more about Christ through educational programs; as we serve others; and as we give our time, energy and money to support this, Christ’s church.
In Deuteronomy 26.1, God calls upon his people, Israel, to remember his many blessings. And they are to show their thanksgiving by offering God on the altar the “firstfruits,” a tithe or 10 percent of the harvest.
As we give God our firstfruits freely, generously, and unconditionally, God transforms us; our character reflects that of Christ.
In addition, transformation comes about when we sit quietly in God’s presence, listening for his voice. Twice a month, our Contemplative Prayer Group meets. This is an opportunity to listen to God. This year, I will encourage the the Christian Formation Team to plan and offer more opportunities for spiritual growth, such as quiet mornings, perhaps even a retreat. Please let me know if you are interested.
Transformation occurs when we participate in adult classes on Sunday mornings; in Wednesday evening Lent Madness, a survey of the lives of the saints; and in the Restoration Project small groups, which are being formed.
This spring, I will lead two Sunday morning discussions of David Brooks’s best-selling book, “Road to Character,” which maps the way we can become people of good or better character. His book inspired this year’s theme of transformation in the character of Christ.
Spiritual direction or guidance furthers transformation. We clergy regularly provide spiritual direction to people seeking Christ. A trained lay spiritual director is also available to you. Please call on us. And grow.
As we are transformed individually, Christ Church will be transformed by our very presence and participation. This year, I will work for transformation here in many ways, including through improved internal communication.
Communication and community contain within them the word, “unity.”
We will be transformed as we learn how to talk to one another, especially when problems arise among us. And problems will arise because we are human and imperfect.
When we experience differences, disappointments, hurt feelings, we must not succumb to the temptation to withdraw, to change churches, to quit church altogether; to stop giving or to reduce our giving. Instead, we must resolve our problems, together. We must talk to one another, not about one another.
Not to alarm you but to inform you: I have asked Bishop Field for mediation. Some church members were offended by my sermons on justice and by a newspaper column on the same topic. Conversation with these members has not resolved the matter. I hope a trained, outside mediator will bring healing.
Other communication improvements proposed
I have decided to take other action to foster healthy communication and promote unity. I will work with others to review how we are communicating and how we can better communicate internally and interpersonally.
We are making a start today. I have included on the Annual Meeting agenda a time for conversation. We need to deal with problems when they arise, not let them accumulate, harm relationships, and impede the work of the church. Let us talk through any differences, in a spirit of Christian love.
I am exploring the formation of a Clergy/Parish Relations Committee to aid conversation, not to create more triangulation, which is that unproductive approach where people avoid talking with one another and instead talk about one another to others.
Transforming the community
As transformed people, Christ calls us to transform the larger community, inspired and empowered by God the Holy Spirit.
Episcopal Bishop C. Andrew Doyle of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, and author of a new book, “Church: a Generous Community Amplified for the Future,”was recently interviewed by the Alban Institute about the future of the church.
Bishop Doyle said, “A lot of the way we serve our neighbor is through charity models that are outdated 1930s food pantry models. ... The church is going to have to (be) at the forefront of work in poverty and health and education…(It) has to step into that.”
The bishop is not discounting charity; at Christ Church, we do great charitable work, which blesses many lives. But he is saying that charity must be matched by something else, and that is change, the transformation of systems, structures, and institutions that perpetuate poverty, oppression and human misery.
Why should Christians want to engage in change? Because the Holy Scriptures, church teaching, the Prayer Book, and our Baptismal Covenant call us to resist evil, just as Jesus does in the wilderness in the gospel today. And in our Baptismal Covenant Christ also calls us to respect the dignity of every human being and to work for justice, which theologian Dr. Cornell West says is“love gone public.” Love, agape in the language of the Greek New Testament, is the relentless pursuit of the very best for all God's children. Agape is making abundant life in Christ available to all, regardless.
To that end, many Christians today, and I am one of them, are responding to God’s call and working for a living wage so people can support their families on their earnings; for sheltering the homeless, for laws that cap the interest on payday and title loans at 36 percent and creating alternatives to these predatory loans. The average interest rate on such loans in Missouri exceeds 500 percent and, in some instances, reaches 1500 percent.
In Romans, St. Paul says that those who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord will be saved. We, the redeemed, confess Christ in word and in deed. Jesus is Lord, master of everything in this world, including you and me, the church, even politics.
It is appropriate and indeed essential for Christians to be involved in politics. I believe that we must do so, however, in a way that unites people. Whatever our party, we must work for the greater good of all. That means: Registering to vote, Studying the issues, Writing letters to the editor and columns when we feel strongly about issues. Calling, visiting, writing elected officials--all in the pursuit of biblical justice. Justice is loving our neighbors as ourselves.
This year, I hope we will not only do those Gospel-mandated acts of charity, but also those Gospel-mandated acts of advocacy and action for justice and for the transformation of the world.
To help prepare for this work, I will lead an adult class in the coming months on a new book
by retired US Senator and Episcopal priest John Danforth. It is called “The Relevance of Religion.” In his book, Father Danforth condemns today’s American political culture, which emphasizes division over unity, the pursuit of power and domination over service to neighbor and work for the common good. He explores ways that Christians can come together, regardless of political affiliation--our most important affiliation is our faith in Christ--and can work together for change.
And that change, transformation, will come about, I believe, when we reject the extremes of Left and Right and find that Anglican via media, the middle way, for the common good. I hope you will join the discussion. Together, we can and must learn to be a church of charity and change.
People of Christ Church: you are my Valentine. I have loved and served you for more than 20 years. I shall go on loving you, as together we are transformed into the character of Christ, which is love; as this church is transformed into his character; and as we, the church, transform the world for the glory of God. God bless you.