I've said it before and I'll say it again, I have a really weird job. Not weird bad, weird great, but weird complicated. My role is many things, but one of the things I am tasked with is to minister to college students and young adults that are perhaps not being reached by the Church. In some cases that looks like stalwart lifelong Episcopalians that just need a living room shaped church instead of a church shaped church, but in many cases that looks like young adults who have been hurt by the Church, who have come to us bruised from other traditions, or who have never been part of the Church at all. It would be nice if that work was as straightforward as this morning's Gospel reading made it out to be -- spending my days, simply light a lamp, and sweeping around the corners and under the pews of the church,, it would be great if once they were found I could just lay them across my shoulders and take them on back to our House or to Bible Study, but as it stands, finding people is more complicated than finding a coin or finding sheep. And as people go, finding college students and young adults has confounded the Church more than anyone else as of late. So if you were in my shoes--where would you start?
Well gosh Ethan, I don't know -- where would YOU start? Oh my gosh, what a great question, thank you so much for asking it. The truth is that I don't know the answer to that question -- that's literally what I'm here to figure out. When I started, I had not a clue how to do my job, and some days I still come up short. Some days I think that there are a lot of place I could start -- I could take a little soapbox out to the middle of Market Square or the fountain at Mary Wash and start preaching to the birds and see whose attention I get,, I could post up in Agora or Hyperion with a little sign that says "Hello, I am a gay priest do u want to come to my church",, I could canvass you all for the contact information for your adult children and grandchildren -- "Do they wanna come to Church? lemme talk to em." I could go door-to-door, I could put up flyers, I could do a lot of things.
I've been in this job for just about a year now and I remember the Club Carnival on the Mary Wash campus last fall, my first big event as Missioner -- it's that thing where all, like, 150 student groups get set up with tables in the middle of Ball Circle basically canvassing for new members. And I had our brand new vinyl banner that read "Episcopal-Lutheran Campus Ministry" and I had our little basket full of Starbursts and our sign up sheet printed off of Microsoft Excel and some people came up and said, like, "Oh my gosh, Episcopalian!" "Hi hi, I didn't know we had ELCA Lutheran here" " Ohhhhhhh I went to Shrinemont camp going up". But many of them came up with a curious look on their faces and asked: "So what's this then?" "What do y'all do?" And I found myself caught up a little short -- well gosh, what is all this then? What do we do we at Church and why do we do it?? How do you explain to some one who has never been to Church what we do here? How do you explain to somebody who has been hurt by places like this how what we do here is different than those other places? How do you do it in 30 seconds, or 15 seconds, how do you do it with Paramore blasting over the loud speakers and when there are any number of other places and spaces and communities that young adults could be giving their time and attention to?
I take from this Gospel passage this morning that it matters just as much and maybe even more than we enjoy being this Flock here, that we go out and bring more people into it. It matters that we figure out how to locate the Lost and to bring them home, or to give them the option of a home that they might never have had before. It matters that we reframe "Lost" from being sometimes pejorative or patronizing and name that the Lost might also be the "left behind" "the forgotten" or "the condemned" -- sometimes by us. It matters that we bring people into this Church, that we work hard to incorporate them into this body, and that we work hard to live up to the promises we make about what kind of community this is.
So I'm gonna ask you to go big with me for a moment and to take for granted that our work (not just mine, but ours), is to reach people who have not been reached by the Church -- to minister to them and to welcome them into the community. You are all missioners, too.
So, where do we start?
What does it mean to be part of a church these days?
What are we doing here in this place?
Why does what we are doing here matter?
Why would someone want to be part of it?
When they have all the options in the world, why would a college student or a young adult want to be part of a church, a campus ministry, our campus ministry, our church?
How could our flock -- this flock -- more closely resemble a place where the Lost could be Found?
Well, in my last year of chipping away at these questions, here are some of my answers:
It's really hard and awkward to make friends, especially as an adult, especially as a young adult, especially in a new town, especially during a pandemic, so what if Church was a place to make friends? Where you could be welcomed in easily, and quickly, and feel part of a community right away? Where you knew you wouldn't be judged or iced out or reduced to your work or your identity or your quirks? What if church was a place to make friends?
It's really hard to have a job, to be a student, to work all the time, to figure out balance in your life, especially when our Collective LetsWorkAllTheTime Ethic is so unbalanced, especially when you can go broke just from rent or health insurance,, it's really easy to work all the damn time,,, what if Church was the one place where it wasn't work to be? Where you weren't reduced to your productivity, or where you weren't expected to be productive at all, what if there were ways to get involved here that didn't require taking on a job or joining a commission, what if Church was just a place to be, a people to be with? What if church was a place to rest?
It can be really hard and awkward and a little debilitating to watch the economy and the climate and the government and also education and also healthcare slowly collapse all around us and what if Church was a place where we came together and imagined another way of being, together. What if church was a place that made it possible to believe that another way of being was possible, what if church was the place where we started trying to practice in small ways that other way of being and then kept trying to draw the circle bigger and bigger until it seemed doable, or true?
Jesus asks us in this morning's passage, what would it be like if you put The People Who Are Not Here yet at the center of your life? Well Trinity Church? What would it be like? How would it change how we live? How would it change how we see ourselves if we decided that the most important people in this room are the people who are new in it, if the most important people to this church are the ones who are not here yet, if the people to be the most curious about are the ones who have never heard of us or this, who think it's boring or weird or don't get it, but might get it if they're given the chance. Trinity Church, what would that be like?
If we take Jesus at his word, then we've got to believe that it's worth finding out. And from my short experience doing it over this last year, it's very interesting, a frankly, a lot of fun. Amen.