Monday, January 29, 2007

Notes from an Un-Sermon

Yesterday I preached on the gospel account from Luke about Jesus' less than happy experience in his hometown synagogue, and tied in Jeremiah's being called as a prophet "to the nations" in order to make the point that God's blessing takes the path of least resistance and goes first where it is most welcome.

But in our Adult Forum, we had the beginnings of a lively discussion (only the march of the clock prevent it from being fully a lively discussion) on the first line from the appointed Epistle reading from I Corinthians 14 (vss.12ff): "Strive to excel in building up the church."

What a loaded piece of advice! Building up the church is not something Christians are particularly good at. When we are, it's seen as remarkable, a welcome exception to the norm--the norm being malicious gossip, passive aggression, turf battles, power plays, oneupmanship, and other assorted games. This takes place within local congregations and between local congregations, and at regional, national, and global levels. None of us actually endorse this sort of behavior, and we lament it regularly. Of course, it is much more visible to us in others, especially those who are on the other side of divisive issues, than it is in ourselves and in people who think like we do. So it goes on unchecked.

What would it look like if we actually did strive to excel in building up the church? Here are a few from-the-hip shots at an answer to that question:

We would all, leaders and parishioners alike, develop a self-image as "providers" rather than "consumers" of whatever it is the church "produces." An image I have found compelling is that of a cruise ship: If the church were a cruise ship, would we think of ourselves as passengers or crew members? The preferred answer should be obvious. The fact is, there are no real passengers on the ship we call the Holy Catholic Church. There are only crew members and stowaways. The job of the crew is to persuade the stowaways that they have a job to do, and to get at it. This invariably involves serving them. Problems arise when both the servants and the served get such a payoff from the relationship that nobody is motivated to promote the movement from stowaway to crew member.

An example of this attitude: At the ubiquitous post-liturgical coffee hour, do we think of ourselves as on our own time, "off the clock," or are we proactively on the lookout for visitors and newcomers and anyone else who is standing alone?

A consequence of this would be a reduction in the restlessness that is sometimes referred to as church shopping. Sure, when a family moves to a community, they need to find a new church home, and this appropriately involves visiting whatever alternatives that exist within the range of their prior commitments. But then, absent something really compelling, they should settle down. "I'm not being fed" and "my feelings got hurt" rank pretty low on the list of excuses for itchy ecclesial feet. (I often wonder whether Episcopalians in the U.S. should have adopted a more formal system of parish boundaries, such as our C of E cousins have.)

We would also have to develop the habit, and then constantly practice it, of giving the benefit of the doubt. We would learn to assume the best, and not the worst, about other people's motives and intentions. This is hard, particularly when our feelings are hurt. It's also risky, because sometimes people do have harmful intentions! So we leave ourselves vulnerable to getting hurt even further. But it is an essential habit to cultivate if we not only want to build up the church, but excel in doing so.

Building up the church sounds like such a worthy project--who would not want to embrace it? Yet, it demands exceptional spiritual and emotional maturity and mental discipline. It is a call to walk the way of the cross, and through that journey be part of the fully built-up church that is presented without spot or wrinkle, as a bride to her bridegroom.

This is the sermon I did not preach. But it still needed to be said.

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