After 18 years as Rector of St. Bart’s in New York, and following on an announcement made last year, Bill Tully has retired. His final sermon there was a meditation on Jonah and its very real implications for the maintenance of spiritual community for today.
He concluded, in part:
I believe God wants more Jonahs—honest, reluctant souls who, when kicked often enough, maybe even thrown up occasionally, will answer the call to stand up and say that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
A funny thing, faith. The Jonah story, so masterfully and humorously told, is the perfect illustration of how hard that is to do, and to my mind, a reasonable argument for why the church is necessary. You’ve been with me a long time and knew I’d come around to this point.
It takes a church to teach and nurture and bolster most of us to dare to announce the love, and not the judgment, of God. And it takes the staying power, balance and ballast a church community can find over time to help us love —and love without ending up like Jonah, who actually and honestly resented the love God had given the secular, pagan city.
A church is typically two things. It’s a place, and you know how weary it makes me to hear that the church is merely spiritual, that the material and institutional forms don’t matter. The world is material, and without a few piles of stones like this one, the Ninevites of our time and place might not see the spirit in action. I’m proud that when we boiled down St. Bart’s mission to something that would fit on an envelope, a web logo or a business card, we said it straight: Everybody needs a place.
The other thing about a church: it’s the intangible quality of spirit that lives when you get entangled with the unique spirit of Jesus. As I’ve said so often, once I got into the Jesus story it wouldn’t let me go. That’s the unique spirit of Jesus the early church wrote down: “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”