Why God Needs Small Churches

I’m going to say something that I know is going to shock you.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church is not the center of Christendom.

We are not Rome or Constantinople or Canterbury.

We’re not even Indianapolis

We’re not even Plainfield.

What are we?  We are a collection of faithful souls trying to find our way to doing God’s will.

We are the people who show up week after week believing that God has important work for us to do and offering ourselves to do it.

It’s easy for me, especially this time of year, to get a little bit down in the dumps about the future.

Today is the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.  It’s one of the four major feasts of the year set aside for doing baptisms in church, along with Easter Vigil, the Feast of Pentecost, and All Saints’ Day.

And, well, we don’t have any baptisms to do this year on Baptism of Our Lord.

And maybe we haven’t for a few years.

After a week battling a wind chill hitting 25 below zero, I feel a bit worn down and the old fear that we’re not measuring up as a church because I’m not measuring up as a priest starts to creep in.

Should we be worried that we don’t have any baptisms today?

Why should we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord if we’re not actually able to participate in it with any baptisms of our own?

Well, there is good news for us all over our scriptures today.

We begin with group of disciples in Ephesus in the book of Acts.  We learn that “while Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples.”

He found some disciples.

He wasn’t looking for them, he just stumbled upon them.

They weren’t looking for him, either.

They were in their little church, doing their best to live according to the tradition as they had been taught.  They weren’t a big important church like Corinth or Jerusalem or Rome.

And it turns out they were a bit mixed up and had not received the full message of salvation.

They had heard John the Baptist’s message and been baptized into his call to repentance, but had not learned the second half of the story, baptism and life in Jesus Christ.

But God had not forgotten them.

God saw their faithfulness to what they knew and sent Paul to bring them the rest of the way into the truth.

They were out in a small and forgotten church, and grace came out to meet them.

So we can emulate the church in Ephesus.

Although we are a bit off the beaten path, God is paying attention to us and our efforts to be faithful.

It’s worth thinking about whether we have the full truth or whether God has more to teach us.

And it’s worth believing that God will send grace and truth out to us, that we might enter whole new areas of ministry, just like the Ephesians.

We have more good news in our gospel story.

Think of John the Baptist, where he was and where he came from.

He was in the wilderness.

He was as far from the center of action as it was possible to get.

And yet his ministry drew people out from the city and the whole surrounding countryside to him.

He was so devoted and so passionate about Jesus Christ that people came from miles around to hear what he had to say.

We could do the same thing.

We could be so passionate and so articulate about pointing to Jesus and the transformative power of his love that it doesn’t matter where our church is or how small it is, we will be the tools and vessels God will use to feed people’s hungry souls with the news of salvation.

And John, poor and alone in the wilderness, draws not only the people to himself.

He draws Jesus himself out there.

John the Baptist is the catalyst for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

John the Baptist gives himself up to do the will of God and God is able to create so many important new beginnings in that place far away from the center of things.

Jesus begins his ministry and all those crowds of people get baptized.

We don’t have crowds of people getting baptized here today, but John the Baptist didn’t have those crowds of people getting baptized by him in his first five minutes in the wilderness, either.

He earned that moment of new life and abundant ministry by many years of slow, patient, faithful prayer and service to God.

That opportunity is so available to us too.

Our little corner of the wilderness could be the next bank of the Jordan River, if we but stay faithful like John.

But perhaps the text that gives me the most hope and energy in this season of darkness and cold is our text from Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”

This is the essence of the season of Epiphany, light out of the darkness.

But this time around, I paid more attention to what conditions the light came out of.

The earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep.

God brings light and creation out of the most unexpected place.

God brings light and creation out of the emptiness and darkness, something out of nothing.

A small church who is not performing any baptisms on the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord—according to Genesis, that is exactly the place God will do something entirely new and unexpected and amazing.

God cannot build new life out of success and power and wealth.

God creates new life out of the darkness over the deep, from an unwed peasant girl in Nazareth, from a prophet wandering the wilderness, from a group of disciples no one has heard of in a second-rate town on the way to Jerusalem.

And so I feel very blessed on this Sunday morning, celebrating the Baptism of Our Lord.

And I’m glad we’re celebrating it, whether we have any baptisms of our own today or not.

Because this is the time, the time when we think we have nothing to offer, when we think we’ve been forgotten, when we think we don’t matter and all our hard work is going nowhere, that the Spirit comes to hover over the face of the deep and troubled waters of our souls.

The darkness may seem long and lonely, but we’re in it together.

And remember—darkness is where the light appears.

Our job is to be faithful, to be patient, to keep loving each other and the world, to listen and watch for the wind of God sweeping across the face of the waters.

And the words will come: “Let there be light.”

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