The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 31, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
The task of the preacher on any occasion is to proclaim the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. That is a worthy goal, and it is interesting that at our recent vestry retreat we began to focus even more specifically on what that means. What are we to do as Episcopalians, and how should we do it here at Trinity Church? We spent time trying to figure out how the Holy Spirit works in our midst, and at the same time, we wondered about the bigger question that rumbles around in our head – Why do we affiliate with Trinity Church at all; and what does that mean in terms of our subsequent commitments and religious obligations.
Even more to the point; are there guidelines that can lead us in the right direction; signs that point us to go along the paths of righteousness, so to speak? Once we are underway, how do we know how well we are doing as we seek to follow the commandments of God in such a way that we are nourished both theologically and spiritually? Furthermore, how do we measure ourselves as individual Christians, struggling to make sense of our lives by following the teachings of Jesus as a way of life? These are tough issues that need to be addressed. To that end, I would like to pose three key questions that this church, indeed by implication, every church, everywhere, and every member in them, should ask.
The first question is this: What would be lost, and how would the world be worse off, if Trinity Church ceased to exist? What if it closed?
The answer depends to some degree on the specific circumstances of each parish, the community surrounding it, and the needs of each member: but I would initially respond to the question of ‘closing’ by saying that Trinity is unique because of its 200 year-old history. No other church can make the claim that we have been in existence as an Episcopal presence here in Morgantown situated in such a unique spot; at the front door of the main campus of WVU. Now it’s true, early-on, we shared roughly 70 years worshiping together with our Presbyterian brothers and sisters in a variety of religious buildings; and now we still count our Calvinists neighbors as friends; good Presbyterians just a block-away down Spruce Street.
But let’s face it. This is an area filled with local history; indeed it is also an area set apart by the rugged terrain of hills, valleys, and mountain ranges, an environment that puts its stamp on us – We are Mountaineers - and justifiably so. “Mountaineers” is more than just a trademark-logo on a baseball-cap, or a rifle-toting mascot at sports events. This nomenclature is a rhetorical construct that aptly marks us; conveying a special cultural identity as members of a distinct community of faith. We are Episcopalians: ‘Mountaineer-Episcopalians’ if you will, even though many of us are transplants from someplace else. But more importantly, we are Christians first and foremost; committed Disciples of Christ who appreciate the land, the earth, and the wild-and-wonderful pageantries of nature that permeate and characterize our immediate locale.
Now in the year 2019, at the front door of the main “downtown” campus, Trinity Church finds itself situated next to the Rohr Chabard Jewish Center, sharing a parking lot with the Methodist Church’s Wesley Center, called-to-common mission with the Lutheran Student congregation, and looking forward to fellowship with St. Mary’s, the nearest Catholic Church.
Right behind Trinity Church, on this mini-campus tour of the area are landmarked historic buildings: the Library, University Deans, President’s, and Administrative Offices, as well as WVU’s iconic Main Classrooms, In addition, the Mountain-lair Student Center, the Black Cultural Study Center, as well as numerous bookstores, eateries, fraternities, sororities and student apartments are all clustered within a block or so of Trinity’s structure. ‘Walking’ over/around/under/and through the hilly terrain is a hallmark of how Mountaineers’ transport themselves to get from here to there. For the most part, we’re healthy and hearty people.
So what are we to conclude? Linking a rooted heritage with a contemporary Morgantown known for its mono-rail and booming medical center and research institutes; Trinity Church now finds itself in a changed 21st century world of shifting demographics, fluctuating attitudes, and relative values. On the one hand, Trinity is an icon of faith securely grounded in history. On the other hand, the church resembles a somewhat outdated neo-gothic cathedral striving to be part of a computerized digital world. One thing, however, is very clear. This church is at the heart of a thriving college town, yet at the same time it feels the external threats of urban blight, homelessness, volatile economic forces, and the specter of haphazard planning. To its credit for over 30 years the Morgantown Community Kitchen has prepared 90-100 meals Monday-through-Friday nearly every week of the year, downstairs in Strider Hall, to anyone who shows up – no questions asked. Yet sadly, Trinity also runs the risk of getting lost in the shuffle of neighborhoods changing, burglaries increasing, students rioting, and power vectors shifting. This typically leads to outcomes marked by fading institutional memories and the onset of collective malaise.
The sobering reality is that if the Trinity tradition and heritage were somehow overlooked or lost, that would be a jarring disaster. The parish would become just another sad statistic contributing to the overall decline of Christendom, and to the diminishing role of religion in American life. By contrast though, on its better days, Trinity Church can still be seen as a congregation rooted in its history, proud of its heritage, possessing a distinct advantage that, at least for now, many other parishes simply cannot claim.
What would be lost if Trinity Church ceased to exist? …Plenty. Virtually everything of lasting cultural value would disappear; and the loss would be incalculable.
The second question is equally important and perhaps just as puzzling: If money were not an issue, (which of course it ALWAYS is) - but if money were NOT an issue, where would you like this church to be five years from now?
This question has to do with that elusive concept called a “Vision” or a “Dream.” The writer of the book of Joel in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures described it this way: “Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” Clearly, visionaries have been in existence for thousands of years.
More recently, Robert Kennedy once famously commented: “Some people see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ Others see things as they could be and ask, ‘Why not?’ In that brief phrase, Kennedy captured a deep longing we all have for a better tomorrow, and a better life. A Vision helps to keep us focused on the reality of hope, and some would even contend that maintaining a Vision contributes to our sanity and health.
At the same time; any true vision must deal honestly with the reality on the ground no matter how brutal or unpleasant it may be; yet a believable vision can also give us renewed hope that tomorrow can be better than today. Think of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and you have a fine example of vision at its best.
In developing therefore a realistic ‘vision’ for Trinity Church, religious leaders here need to inspire and motivate people to sacrifice, to serve, and to give generously of their time and talent – not for themselves - but for the well-being of others. That’s your job, and the end result should be worth the present effort. Virtue is its own reward. In Christ it’s not about survival-of-the-fittest, it’s about becoming revitalized as a community of faith. Above all, people must sense that something good is happening at this church – that there is an over-riding purpose going-on and the hand-of-God is at work shaping the future of the parish in new and different ways … otherwise the whole enterprise is bogus, destined to fail, and the doors, sadly, will eventually close.
But hold on – the story isn’t over, the narrative hasn’t ended yet. Trinity Church already has a Mission Statement in place. It’s right on the front cover of the Bulletin, and on the walls around the building. It reads: “welcoming all to worship and walk with God This Mission Statement in its simplicity emphasizes a liturgical role for parishioners to love and serve the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Adoration and praise is done in order to implement our rationale and purpose for being here as a worshiping congregation and as an Episcopal Church.
…which brings me finally to the third question that speaks to the rationale of who we are, and what those of us who call ourselves Christians are all about. It asks: In what ways can we reasonably and realistically affirm that “Jesus is Lord” without appearing to be ideologically biased, or at worst, pushy, unpleasant, or simply boorish?
This is the fundamental question for the church as it ministers in the midst of a secular, multi-cultural, multi-religious nation where our neighbors are just as likely to be Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics or atheists, as well as Christians. In this highly polarized world of ours, how do we communicate the truth claims of historic Christianity without appearing to be narrow-minded, arrogant, or exclusive? The church needs to learn a new kind of bilingualism: speaking the language of culture while maintaining the language of faith. Trinity Church must craft its own liturgies that keeps Jesus at the center of its life; and at the same time, helps us, and all those worshipping with us, to understand how our liturgical practices correspond to the concerns of daily life. And Guess what? It’s all spelled out right here in this Book of Common Prayer – Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s work of genius.
So there you have it – three questions that every church needs to ask itself. No one has all the answers to these questions. In fact, I have come to the conclusion that there are no “one-size-fits-all” answers … to anything. Every church needs to develop its own style of ministry as it connects with its members and distinct environment. That’s the challenge!
So let me close with a helpful charge to the faithful offered by a prominent Christian ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas, who said:
We are God’s chosen people. We have been given good work to do in a time when many no longer think there is any good work at all. So, Praise God, and with gratitude enjoy the glory of God’s creation.
We ask all this ….
In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi - questions for churches in transition
Stanley Hauerwas - Duke Divinity School, Christian Ethicist
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request