Proper 27 – 11-10–2019 – St. Paul’s
As a society, we’re enamored with quotations. The inspirational ones get put on posters or shared as memes on social media. Politicians are always going for sound bytes or short quotable quips they hope will go viral. And lest you think people of faith are immune to the allure, just check out the cabinets in any parish kitchen. They’re filled with mugs emblazoned with out-of-context Biblical quotations.
Don’t get me wrong, quotations are great! We get a sense of what someone is thinking or we’re inspired by something both profound and pithy. The danger with quotes is that we sometimes lose the broader context. We pull something out, but often miss deeper meaning and nuance.
Which brings us to a particular quote that I’ve come to see as defining my entire approach to ministry. It’s attributed to theologian, scholar, social justice advocate, and Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple (1881-1944). I don’t know whether or not I’ve taken it out of context, and I actually don’t care, because I find it challenging and full of truth just as it is.
The church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.
It’s jarring, right? Because we think, wait a minute — we are the members of the church. What do you mean it doesn’t exist for us?! But that’s not what Temple says. He says the church doesn’t exist primarily for those of us who are its members. It exists primarily for those beyond our walls.
In practice, a lot of people would disagree quite vehemently with this quotation. It’s not that they wouldn’t want to help the poor and downtrodden and needy. And it’s not that they don’t think it’s important to share the Gospel with those beyond the worship space. But, frankly, it’s countercultural to think beyond ourselves to such a degree. To support an institution like your own parish financially, emotionally, and spiritually and to think all the effort should go elsewhere is tough. We want if not all, at least SOME bang for our ecclesiastical buck!
It’s challenging to think about the church as a missionary society rather than as a club. We crave community and the allure of a comfortable place where we can go and be with like-minded friends week after week. And there’s no denying that this is an important aspect of parish life (hello coffee hour!). It’s also true that Jesus called disciples not in isolation but into a community. It is the community of the baptized that gives us hope and encouragement to live lives of decency, faith, and kindness, and it is this community that offers pastoral care and help during times of crisis.
But think about Jesus’ approach. He didn’t say Follow me to a bunch of unsuspecting fishermen and then build a little stone chapel where they could gather every Sunday before going their separate ways. He invited them to follow him into a new relationship with the divine, into a new way of being, into a place of living hope, into a life of transformation.
For us, the altar must act like a slingshot, propelling us to go out into the world to serve its needs with love and compassion. Otherwise we become little more than a quaint, insular preservation society, preserving our own tastes and preferences rather than responding boldly to the divine call to love one another as Jesus loves us.
We are Christians because we have been grasped by the love of Jesus Christ, and that radical love has changed, is changing, and will continue to change us and this church…not just in our ways of thinking, but in our ways of doing. That’s one of the reasons we gather together as the church: we come together to experience again Jesus’ love in community, which is the hardest and most authentic way of experiencing it. I believe that is part of what was experienced at our meeting last Thursday. We discover Christ as the in-between, connecting us to one another in holy communion.
Now, there must have been some days when Jesus’ first followers looked at one another and said, Don’t you think we have enough disciples? Can’t we stop this endless tour of the countryside? Into the boat, out of the boat, how many times do we have to cross the same body of water? But Jesus kept at it. He never stopped sharing the Good News, he never lost the hunger to change people’s lives. And that’s what he calls us to do as well, by whatever means or technology necessary.
As church buildings crumble, I believe that the communities of faith that will thrive are the ones that take seriously the commitment to those who are not its members. The ones that are intentional about reaching out to draw people in; the ones that are passionate about sharing rather than hoarding this Good News with which we’ve been entrusted.
In a sense this concept of the church as an institution not primarily for the benefit of its members, is nothing new. In the Great Commission (Matthew 28) Jesus tells us to Go make disciples of all nations, thereby imbuing the church with a sense of urgency. As Jesus takes leave of his disciples he doesn’t engage in a group hug; he encourages them to go out and draw others in.
Of course, if this was all Jesus told us to do, we’d have to sell all our church buildings and hit the road. But he doesn’t. This is balanced with the call of Matthew 25 to serve those in need (Just as you did it to the least of these you did it to me) as well as the invitation to care for one another and bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).
I think this form of pastoral care is well-imagined when Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8). He makes a home visit and comforts a member of his community.
In any vibrant community of faith, there will always be tension between looking inward and looking outward — between outreach and pastoral care and invitation.
Churches are most effective when they hold these three not in destructive, but creative tension. Not by saying no to one at the expense of the other but by saying yes to all three. This doesn’t mean burn out the clergy and lay leaders in trying to be all things to all people, but rather identifying those with gifts in each area and encouraging them to do the work they have been called to do. These three areas are not, and have never been, mutually exclusive.
Our name sake, Paul says we are to grow up in every way into Christ…and we all know growing up takes time. It means hanging in there with one another….listening to those who have a different idea and vision of what it means to be a church….It means not giving up on each another, not walking away from one another. We act this way not just for others but also for ourselves: we are learning how to be a community together. We are learning that the only glue that will bind us together is the love of Jesus Christ and that the only way to be humble and gentle and patient with each other is by remembering that God is in control.
But to Temple’s point, that outward thrust towards those who are not our members must be fully present. Not because we want more pledging units or because we want people to help fund a future capital campaign, but because we have a gospel mandate to reach out our hands in love, to offer hope to a hurting and broken world, and to invite those beyond our walls to come and see.
I encourage you to reflect on Temple’s quotation, perhaps with fellow church goers or church leadership. In what ways does it resonate with you or challenge you? How are you, in the name of Jesus, doing things to benefit those who are not members of our church? What are the ways in which this church acts like a club and how does it resemble a missionary society? How are you sharing, rather than stockpiling, the message of hope embedded in the Good News of our Lord’s Gospel?
Our job is to see what God is doing in this place and then equip ourselves, to align ourselves with that divine activity. We don’t have to make it happen; we only have to participate in what is happening.
As Paul says in this mornings Epistle: Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
Holy One, you have promised to be with us,
And long ago sent your Spirit to abide among us
and guide us to a future of goodness and hope.
We come seeking your truth, your justice, your kindness.
O God, you are with us this morning.
Let us feel your presence and
welcome you into our lives.
Come and fill these desires of our hearts.
Standing firm and holding to the tradition we were taught,
let us offer to God offerings and gifts from our grateful hearts
in order for the work of love and justice
to continue in our community and in our world
Remember that God loves you.
God chose you to hear about that love
and to know the stories of Jesus. Do not forget them.
Live by them every day.
And may God who created the whole universe,
Jesus who showed us how much God loves us, & the Holy Spirit who guides us
be with you giving you courage and strength
to be God’s people every day.