To Build Up the Community

Sermon for February 3, 2013
Propers for the Feast of St. Stephen on the Occasion of the Parish Annual Meeting
Acts 6:8-7:2, 51-60; Psalm 31:1-5; 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13; Matthew 23:34-39
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

I wonder how many times, collectively, we’ve heard that passage from 1st Corinthians: 13?  I remember being bowled over by the way Tony Blair read it at Princess Di’s funeral 15 years ago—he owned it!  So earlier this week I looked it up on YouTube to watch again, and in addition to Tony Blair’s eloquent version, there are nearly twenty-thousand other videos of people reading this passage!

It’s often called St. Paul’s “Hymn to Love”—and it is far and away the most popular reading at weddings. Century after century for two millennia couples have been attracted to the rich rhythm, rhetoric and rarefied ideal of romantic love that Paul presents.

The only problem is, Paul isn’t talking about romantic love at all. In fact, when Paul wrote his famous epistle to the Corinthians, romantic love was probably the farthest thing from his mind.  The kind of love Paul was so intent on describing, without which he said nothing else mattered, was Christian love, “agape,” love Paul specifically defines as “that which builds up the community.”

You see, Paul was writing not for two people head over heals in love and about to make a lifelong commitment, but for an entire church community that was coming apart at the seams.  The church at Corinth—in those days a church of great social, intellectual, and spiritual diversity–was divided over issues of leadership, spiritual gifts, morality, economic, and intellectual distinctions, new and old ideas.  And Paul is going to great lengths to teach them the absolute primacy of Christian love—love that has nothing to do with a feeling or an emotion, but everything to do with a way of living and acting that commentator Richard Hays says is, “in patient and costly service to others.” It’s a way of living and acting for the sake of building up the community.

Yesterday I gave a presentation at a conference for those considering a call to ordained ministry.  So “discernment” —how options are considered, choices made, and decisions arrived at and evaluated—is very much on my mind.  And for Paul, it’s pretty simple: If it’s in the past, did it build up the community of Christ? If it’s still in motion, is it building up the community of Christ? And if it’s something new being considered, will it build up the community of Christ?  Everything is measured by whether or not it contributes to building up the community of faith, “in patient and costly service to others.”

Speaking in tongues and prophetic powers; wisdom and all faith, self-sacrifice and generous giving—unless done in love, they’re all meaningless.  They’re empty acts, Paul says, unless done for the good of the community.

I wonder in this secular age whether more weight is given in our decision-making to what will build up the community or to what will build up ourselves? So much of our secular culture is an intensely self- centered culture, where we seem far more likely to consider how something will make us feel, or whether or not it will benefit us, than the effect it might have on others.  We’re programmed to think of ourselves as individuals, rather than as members of something bigger than ourselves of which we’re a part, to which we contribute, and in which we find our meaning. It’s like the whole world is in the hands of all these “I’s” with competing interests and no sense of “we.”

Except in here.

Now I’m not about to say we are without our issues here at St. Stephen’s.  We’ll get to those in a minute!  But isn’t the “we” of church an enormous part of what so attracts us to this place?  When we come here we know we’re a part of something much bigger than ourselves.  We feel it:  We’re not only members of a community called St. Stephen’s, we’re a part of the body of Christ, God’s church.

And in its local revelation here at St. Stephen’s, the body of Christ is all about caring and connecting.  That’s what “we” looks like here: caring and connecting to each other and to those outside these walls who need us—through our many different ministries, our prayer and worship services, our fellowship opportunities and community events…

But Paul’s famous “Love Hymn” invites us to consider something more, both as individuals and as a church.  It invites us to consider whether our caring and connecting is being done to build up the church, and whether it’s being done in patient and costly service.

I happen to think it is—I think this place is incredible– but like I said before, we’re not without our issues.  So I want to share with you a few that are on my mind, and invite you to share with me or with our new wardens any that are on yours.

So in no particular order, here a few issues I hope we can work on together in the coming year.

First, I want to engage more of you in the active life of this church.  The kind of Christian love Paul writes about is not a spectator sport–it’s love that is active, not passive. Caring and connectedness and being part of a Christian community takes a certain degree of commitment.  It isn’t something that happens by coming to church once a week and leaving before anyone has a chance to talk to you.  We’re greedy here at St. Stephen’s. We want more.  Because you see, we want to know you.  We want to be in relationship with you.  We want to break bread and share the cup with you, but we also want to talk to you, to listen to you, to laugh and cry with you, to know how many children you have and which one always gets in trouble.  We want to know how you struggle with your faith and what it’s like for you to believe in God in a world that doesn’t. We want to know you fully and we want, as Paul says, to be fully known. We want to be “we.”  We’re not about to force ourselves on you, we are, after all, Episcopalians– and Paul does remind us that love is patient. But whether you’ve been hiding behind one of the pillars or sitting in the back of the church for years– or relatively new to this community– I hope this year you’ll step out and get to know us better.

So I want your ideas on what we can do to invite you into the life of this community more fully– how we might welcome you into our lives, and be welcomed into yours.  I wonder how you’d like to be connected to us and how we can facilitate that?

Second–and this is never going to be a church where all you ever hear about is money– but we’ve got to learn how to talk about money around here without guilt or shame, anger or resentment. We need to break the money taboo once and for all so we can talk about it sanely, from a place of interior freedom, instead of from a place of fear, anxiety, or defensiveness.  Money is an enormous part of our lives, yet we try to hide it away from God as if it’s none of God’s business and God doesn’t know what we do with it.  Maybe it’s not proper in polite secular society to talk about money, but in church it’s not proper not to talk about it.  Jesus talked about it more than he talked about anything else in all of scripture except the Kingdom of God!

And let’s be clear that there’s nothing inherently dirty about money or talking about it.  Scripture doesn’t say it’s the root of all evil, it says inordinate love of money is the root of all evil.  The kind of inordinate love of it that makes us uncomfortable talking about it.

From God’s perspective, money is a gift like everything else, so what we do with it is a moral issue and it’s a spiritual issue. So if we’re not talking about it openly and honestly in this church—and challenging ourselves to be more generous with it–then I am failing you as your priest. Because if we’re not talking about money in this church we’re living in spiritual denial and sin.

We can do great things with money!  Everything we love about this church and this community is made possible by money. What we do with our money matters to God, and we should be proud of it as long as we’re using it for caring and connecting, in patient and costly, service to build up the community of Christ.

So I want your ideas about how we can become more comfortable talking about our money– how we can encourage one another to be more generous with it for the good of the community. What does it look like to use one’s money “in patient and costly service to others”?  Are we doing that as a church?  As individuals?

Third, and most important of all, I want your relationship with God and your spiritual life to be absolutely and unequivocally the most important part of your life.  Because whether you know it or not, it already is.  Whether you choose to do anything about it or not, it already is.  Our relationship with God simply is the most important part of our lives.  God says so.  And if you believe that, and you want to do something about it, this church is an amazing place in which to do it. There are so many different ways of deepening one’s faith and exploring one’s spiritual life here.

This past year has been a really hard one, and it’s an increasingly tough world out there beyond our doors. I honestly don’t know how people without faith are able to function in it.  I was recently reminded of a letter I’ve read here before that was written in the 3rd century by Cyprian shortly after his conversion to Christianity. He writes to his friend Donatus:

“This is a cheerful world indeed as I see it from my fair garden, under the shadow of my vines. But if I could ascend some high mountain, and look out over the wide lands, you know very well what I should see: … armies fighting, cities burning, in the amphitheaters men murdered to please applauding crowds, selfishness and cruelty and misery and despair under all roofs… But I have discovered in the midst of it a company of quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy that is a thousand times better than any of the pleasures of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not… They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians—and I am one of them.”

Even now, it’s a really tough world out there.  This is no time for going it alone.  This is the time for discovering the “great secret” of which Cyprian speaks.  This is the time for discovering the joy of a meaningful relationship with God and the comfort of being part of a “we.”  This is the time for caring and connecting and building up our community.

Yet how much do our calendars reflect the importance of God in our lives?  How much of our Sabbath and re-creation time reflects our desire to be closer to God? I want to hear your ideas about what more we can do as a community of faith to encourage each other on our spiritual journeys. We all need it!

So those are some of my thoughts, and I look forward to hearing yours.  I think it was one of those wonderful “holy coincidences” that the reading from 1st Corinthians 13 was appointed on the same day as our Annual Meeting.  It’s such a powerful reminder that no matter how many wonderful things we have going on here, or how many incredible things we’re doing beyond our walls, without love they are all meaningless.  Christian love builds up. It builds up caring and connectedness, it builds up the “we” of community.  It builds up the body of Christ.

Our patron saint, like our Lord, died for such love; I pray that this year we will commit ourselves—wholeheartedly– to living for it.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus be with us and empower us to make it so. Amen.

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