[The second in a 4-part series by The Rev. Dr. Nancy Lee Jose, Rector, exploring the calling and mission of St. Thomas' Parish]
“The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (The Book of Common Prayer, page 855). At St. Thomas’ Parish, the most basic way that we as a congregation pursue that mission is through our prayer and worship. Everything else we are called to do – proclaiming the Gospel and promoting justice, peace, and love – is nurtured and formed and fed in worship.
We know that we cannot worship and then stop there; but it is where we need to begin, and the place from which we will be sent back out to be God’s people in the world. And if the restoration of people to unity with God and one another is the goal of a worshiping community, then we at St. Thomas’ Parish expect worship itself to begin this process of reconciliation.
Like many other churches, our worship has readings and sermons and prayers and songs that teach us about who God is and what God has done, and who we are in God’s eyes and what God still dreams we will become. We learn this especially through the stories that are central to all of our worship, the Gospel stories of Jesus and his ministry of reconciliation and how that gave rise to the church and our calling to be agents of grace and reconciliation in the world.
Mission-oriented worship, however, is never a passive spectator-sport. It invites our engagement, our participation. And it invites us to begin to act in church towards others gathered there with us in worship in the same way that we are challenged to act to others in daily life. If the mission of the church really is reconciliation, then we want to ensure that worship in our congregation actually helps to begin that process through the very way we pray and worship. Like other churches, we have greeters outside to welcome people as they come in. However, we want to be known not just as a place where everyone who shows up is welcome, but as a place that has its doors open to absolutely everyone — no exceptions. I often remind our parishioners that worship actually begins outside our doors with the one who says “Welcome” and then acts as a welcoming host to guests.
The Good News of reconciliation in Christ won’t be very convincing in a sermon inside, if people haven’t already seen that Good News in action before they even got to the door – and the door really needs to be not just open, but inviting, to people just as they are.
One way we talk about that at St. Thomas’ Parish is to say you don’t have to check part of yourself at the door before you come in — especially what you think, or believe, or where you’re from. All of everyone is welcome – celebrated even. And we expect to be changed for the good by your very presence. We talk about it as “radical hospitality” — God’s loving and welcoming us all already, no matter what; and God’s desiring more for us than we have ever imagined.
We have a deep conviction at St. Thomas’ Parish that the way we treat one another, our neighbors, and even our enemies, begins getting shaped and formed in the vitality and creativity of liturgy and music. In the Service of the Word, we hear Holy Scripture and have it interpreted to us in preaching. We confess our sins. We affirm our faith in words used by Christians from the beginnings of the Church. We greet each other warmly. We offer to God our gifts and offerings in thanksgiving for what God have given us.
All that gets us ready for the central act of our worship — the Holy Eucharist. We pray what is called The Great Thanksgiving, expressing our gratitude for all of God’s acts of reconciliation throughout human history and the way they came into focus in an entirely new way in the human being Jesus, who revealed to us both who we are, and what God is like. Holy Communion, as it is also called, retells in word and gesture the story of God’s ultimate act of reconciliation on our behalf, the self-giving act of Jesus “loving us to death,” willing even to die in order to restore us to unity with God.
In Jesus’ ultimate act of compassion we’re shown the model of what we were created to be, people who love God and their neighbors — even their enemies — just like that. Extravagantly. Unreservedly. Then we are sent away, back out into the world wherever we came from. And next week we’ll return to the laboratory once again, to mix who we are and who Christ is, what Christ did and what we are called to do as followers of Christ, and to shake it all up with prayer and music and thanksgiving and song. This is the way the mission of the church gets carried out in this rhythm of gathering and sending out.
So we can’t and don’t even try to separate the demands of discipleship from the practice of worship and prayer. They are two sides of the same coin. Each needs, and reflects, and inspires the other. Our mission to be Christ for others helping to reconcile the world currently is encouraging us to build a new home for our worshiping community near Dupont Circle, not so that we can go inside and escape the world, but so that we can be formed in prayer and worship for the rigors of service where the Church really lives, among those in the world who need us most.
We invite you to come gather with us in prayer and worship. But know this: we’ll send you out again to find your own place in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation — healing the wounds that separate us and others from God, and from one another. That is the mission of the church; and it is our mission as God’s people. Join us.