Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Saint Matthew's Episcopal Church, Sterling, Virginia

Our timing was a bit off, so we're missing out on the fire.

In the announcements during the weekend services we attended at St. Matthew's, Trevor the youth pastor urged people to wear red the next weekend for Pentecost Sunday -- and perhaps bring a fire extinguisher, because he and Father Rob would be doing one of their favorite things: playing with fire in church.

For better or worse, Rob just used words and no Mr. Science for the weekend message while we visited. In the sanctuary ceiling, you can still see the hook used to swing a bowling bowl on a cable. There are no visible signs of the mousetrap gantlet that was set on another Sunday, but I hear rumors about the incident still circulate in Episcopal seminary halls ("What are they doing at St. Matthew's in Virginia?").

Mindy and I attended the Saturday night (contemporary) service and the 8:00 am liturgical service. She also attended the 9:30 contemporary service and the 11:00 am traditional worship, but I was more in and out since I attended a children's Sunday School class and helped with coffee and snack prep (women had the day off). The opening song for the Saturday night service was Cyndi Lauper's True Colors, and I greatly enjoyed singing along. Such songs are not new for this worship team; they've taken weekends to sing pop hits of the Beatles, the eighties, nineties, etc., and Rob tied the songs to his message and prayers. But the rest of the songs in this particular service are ones more typically heard on contemporary Christian radio.  

Rob did manage pretty well, though, with just words for this weekend's message. It was Mother's Day, which might go a long way toward explaining not blowing anything up. (Also, because it was Mother's Day, cards for mothers were available in the men's rest room -- just in case anyone forgot about the holiday.) The Gospel reading was from John 17 (the "High Priestly Prayer"), in which Jesus prays with such hope for his disciples who, from a human perspective, often seemed hopeless. Rob said that a mother's love and hope for a child often echoes God's love and hope for us. He told about his own struggles with athletics as a child, which brought him great discouragement. And yet his mother would tell him stories about a little boy named Ricky that, quite surprisingly, paralleled the life of young Robbie. Hope, in the "Little Ricky" stories, brought hope to young Rob. In the same way, God sees hope for us all.

We wanted to visit St. Matthew's because of Rob. Mindy and I knew Rob and his wife, Linda, back in our seminary days, and we've meaning to get together for a few years now (actually, frighteningly, for a few decades now.  One of the many things we love about this church and bar in every state tour is finally getting to see family and friends we've had good intentions of visiting for a long time.)

One advantage of staying at Rob and Linda's home was the opportunity to ask the questions we ask in a bar. Whenever we visit a bar we ask, "What makes for a good bar?" and "What makes for a good church?" Sometimes people ask us in bars, "Do you ask priests those questions?" Frankly, we usually don't. We certainly don't ask Baptist pastors we've just met those questions. But since I know drinking real wine (not Welch's grape juice) is part of Rob's job description, I asked him.

Sadly, Rob's attempt to answer my "What makes for a good bar" question was pretty much a fail. The problem is that Rob has never gone to bars, so he asked how others answered the question and echoed their answers.

To be fair, Virginia isn't much of a bar state. There aren't real bars here, just bars in restaurants. And Rob, though not a teetotaler, is pretty much a one drink and done guy. He hasn't given a lot of thought to the issue of what makes for a good bar.

On the other hand, he has given thought to what makes for a good church. Rob mentioned that this area, located so close to Washington D.C., was a difficult place to make friends. Many people leave for their jobs at 5:00 am and don't come home until after 8:00 pm, which leaves little time for socializing. But the church provides an opportunity for people to get to know each other.

I asked him what might be attractive to professionals in the life of the church. He said people see others who have the life they'd like; a life with healthy relationships and balance. He said church life offers mentors. He believes the Episcopal Church has an advantage over many Evangelical Churches because it doesn't promote a false sense of adequacy; the church takes Scripture seriously, but with an eye toward wholeness rather than as a rulebook for proper behavior.

Rob stressed that a good church should be welcoming, with an authentic spiritual life. Not everyone has to be on the same page, as long as they're moving in the same direction. People should be learning to live sacrificially, and the church should provide people with a sense of accountability. A good church should have a real impact on the community and the world (not just by writing checks, but through authentic relationships).

The final thing Rob mentioned was that a church should be fun, that people should be having fun together. This weekend, as he made announcements, Trevor told about learning to drive in a Honda Civic with manual transmission. He constantly stalled, making the car shake and rattle (but not roll). This led his father to earnest instruction. It led his mother to laugh uncontrollably. Later, Rob spoke with approval about this story and the importance of learning to laugh at ourselves as individuals and as a church.  

I spoke to a number of people during the weekend who affirmed that St. Matt's was living up to many of Rob's ideals for a good church. On Saturday morning I hung out with Trevor and youth group members outside a local Safeway as part of a food drive. Meredith, a high school freshman, said that over the last couple of years her family has gone through rough times, but there was always someone there for her at the church when she needed them. Another young woman, Hannah, said she came to the church with her family. Her folks had moved on to a Baptist Church because they felt more comfortable there, but Hannah loved St. Matt's, particularly the community focus, so she stayed.

When I talked with a man named Fred during the coffee hour, he affirmed Rob's hope for a place where people are kind even when they don't agree on everything. He said there are people at the church who view Scripture in a much more conservative fashion than he does, and there are even a couple of atheists in attendance, yet everyone treats each other with love and respect.

I talked with a group of ladies enjoying each other's company at a table in the fellowship hall. I asked what drew them to the church, and they said, "This." It was after noon, and several had been at church since the 8:00 am worship, but they were happy to be together.

We were quite happy, after years of anticipation, to join a weekend at St. Matt's. Even without the pyrotechnic teaching props.

Saturday evening
5:00 pm (contemporary Eucharist)
Service Length: 59 minutes
Sermon Length: 16 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Rob introduced us at the end of the service and several people stopped to chat with us. The offering envelopes also have a place for visitor information (but we didn't turn one in until Sunday morning). During the "Peace" portion of each of the worship services, people seemed to try to greet people throughout the sanctuary, not just the one or two people around them.
Our Rough Count: 50
Probable Ushers' Count: 60
Snacks: none
Musicians: vocals (man, 2 women), electric guitar (man), electric bass (man), acoustic guitar (man), piano (woman) drums (man)
Songs: True Colors
The River
My Lighthouse
If I Stand

Sunday morning
8:00 am (Rite I Eucharist)
Service Length: 55 minutes
Sermon Length: 15 minutes
Our Rough Count: 22
Probable Ushers' Count: 25
Snacks: donuts, muffins, cookies, fruit, lemonade, water, coffee, hot water for decaf or tea
Musicians: none
Songs: none

9:30 am (contemporary Eucharist)
Service Length: 1 hour 8 minutes
Sermon Length: 18 minutes
Our Rough Count: 135
Probable Ushers' Count: 150
Snacks: muffins, fruit, cookies, fruit hedgehogs and hummingbirds, chocolate dipped strawberries, coffee, hot water for decaf or tea, lemonade, water
Musicians: electric guitar (man), vocals (2 women, 1 man), piano (woman), acoustic guitar (man), electric bass (man), drums (man)
Songs: True Colors, The River, My Lighthouse, Holy, If I Stand, With Every Act of Love, Impossible

11:00 am (Rite II Eucharist)
Service Length: 1 hour 5 minutes
Sermon Length: 15 minutes
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none (unless you count constant loving care by Linda and Rob as we stayed at their house. We count that) We also got a personal email from the church's amazing office manager, Miriam, about a week later. 
Our Rough Count: 67
Probable Ushers' Count: 75
Snacks: same as above, with the addition of pita chips and hummus
Musicians: piano, choir (about 15 people)
Songs: Forever Praise (choir alone)
Thy Strong Word did Cleave the Darkness
Glory to God
Ticket to the Promised Land (choir alone)
Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow
Open the Eyes of my Heart (choir alone)
Abide with me
Stand up, Stand up for Jesus
Miles to church: 4 miles
Miles from start: 13,338
Total 2016 Miles: 13,081
Church website: http://www.stmtts.org/

Bonus Kids Say the Darnedest  Things
I was glad to sit in on the 4th-5th grade Sunday School class, taught by a man named Pete who obviously cares for the baker's dozen of students that were in attendance. I noted some wonderful things the students said, comments on the story of Paul and Silas in jail from Acts 16. About the slave girl with a spirit of divination, a young girl said, "I like to think I have a super power." In answer to the question of what Paul and Silas might have done when they were freed from their chains at midnight, "Did they become nocturnal?" And another kid misread the jailer's plea, "How can I be saved?" as "How can I be a slave?"

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