Sunday, January 26, 2014

A People to Become

Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 26, 2014, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York, the Sunday of the Annual Meeting of the parish:  Isaiah 9:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23.

          For thirty years or so “mission statements” have been all the rage, not
only in the church and other non-profits, but also in the business community.  They are sometimes helpful and sometimes not, and usually some of both.

          Turns out the inventor of mission statements may have been God, who on several occasions makes clear his purpose for the people he has called together.  We have the seeds of one this morning, when Isaiah talks about the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light.

          As Israel returns from exile in Babylon, Isaiah uses this image to deliver God’s mission (from Isaiah 49:6):

The Lord says, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

          When Matthew is writing his Gospel and is telling how Jesus chose to make his home base in Capernauum in Galilee, he recalls this mission and suggests that it is Jesus’ mission:  to be a light not only to his own Jewish people, but to all people.  There were plenty of Jews in Galilee, but there were plenty of all kinds of people in Galilee.

          To fulfill his purpose, after his personal preparation at the Jordan and in the wilderness, Jesus first gathers a group of followers.  It may have been his first act of genius, but it could also be seen as his first big mistake.  Whenever people band together for a cause they will start to organize, and when they start to organize they may indeed accomplish many things, but they will also inevitably start to disagree with one another, some will want to be in charge and others will resent anyone who is in charge and we are off to the races.

A friend of mine said to me the other day about her parish, “I mostly pray that once and awhile the light will shine through the dysfunction and we do some good in spite of ourselves.”  Perhaps that is describing a worst-case scenario, but, if so, it has been around from the beginning.  The Apostle Paul was very familiar with it.

The Christian community in Corinth was a mess.  The two letters to them are almost a manual for how not to do Christian community, although, in Paul answering them, and speaking to some of their dysfunctions, it is also a manual for how to do it right.

This morning we heard Paul responding to a dynamic in their community which was sort of like the “sorting hat” scene from Harry Potter.  I belong to Cephas’ people.  I belong to Apollos’ people. I belong to Paul’s people.

Paul says, “Look.  Cephas, Apollos, Paul, we all did important things in your community, but none of us more important than the other.  You do not belong to any one of us.  You belong to one another. You are all part of the body, the body of Christ.”

I talked about belonging a couple weeks ago when we baptized Avery Kane.  I think it is one of the great gifts of this place that it is a place to belong, to be accepted for who you are at any given time.

But there is more, isn’t there?  “Belonging” implies something outside of ourselves of which we are a part, and the God of the Bible is always forming a people.  Along with “a place to belong,” communities like this one are also “a people to become.”

In our tradition when we talk of this “people to become,” we are not only talking about the people in this parish.  We are talking about sisters and brothers in all places and in all times, the reality we mean when we use the word “catholic” to describe the church.  The bigger it gets the messier it gets and any attempt to over control it is doomed to failure, which I think is one of the points Pope Francis is trying to make.

Paul longed for the disagreements to end in Corinth.  He wanted a church “united in the same mind and the same purpose.”  And I think it is vital that we are always working toward that goal.  Unity is clearly part of the purpose of God in bringing people like us together.  And yet the messiness seems part of the plan also.  Uniformity is not healthy for the body.  It can, in fact, stifle the body’s imagination and creativity.  We need difference of opinion, difference of giftedness, difference of intellect and imaginative capacity, difference in just about anything you can imagine to keep up with what God is doing in the world around us.

The problem is not difference itself.  The problem is when our difference becomes an idol, something which must be defended.  The problem is when I no longer believe you have anything to contribute to my well-being.  We all fall into this trap from time to time when someone else annoys us because of their difference.  I do it also. I speak as a fellow sinner.

My friend Verna Dozier was a complex person, which annoyed me for a long time, but I gradually came to understand that her struggle was my struggle, and, in fact, was universal.  She was a woman of strong opinions, someone who, as they say, did not suffer fools gladly.  Yet she steadfastly held out this truth to all with whom she came into contact.  “If I am a person of faith than the only thing I know for sure is that I could be wrong about anything.”

My sense, my friends, is that the reconfiguration of this worship space is only the beginning of significant change this community must undertake if we are to thrive in a third century of ministry on this site.  More than anything—more than ideas, more than money, more than vision, more than will—more than anything we will need the capacity to honor and celebrate our differences so that out of them can come the energy to move forward.  If we don’t keep developing that capacity, our differences will tie us up in knots and we will go nowhere.

The beating heart of this community must be Jesus’ constant invitation for us to belong and the Holy Spirit’s constant taking that belonging and forging an ever new people with it.


May this describe our life:  A Place to Belong and a People to Become.

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