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Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Promises of Membership: Presence

Pentecost 20C, 2010 10/10/2010

1 Corinthians 12:14-27

On this second Sunday of October, the second Sunday of our Stewardship month, let’s look at the second promise we make when we become members of a United Methodist congregation. You’ll find those promises on page 38 of your Hymnal. Last week we talked about our promise to support the ministry of the congregation with our prayers. How did you do this week? Did you pray for our church? Did you pray for our leaders, our members, and our mission in the world? Did you pray about the Fall Festival – that you’d survive it? Did you pray that lots of people would come, that we’d have good weather, and that it would be a blast? See – prayer really works!

The second promise we make is to support the ministry of our congregation with our presence. That’s ce, not ts. That is we promise to show up. When we’re at home and not away, and when we’re well, we promise to show up. If you’re sick, we don’t want you here. And it’s good to get out of town now and then. But when you’re here and you’re well, we expect you to be here.

But why?

I sat in on a discussion about this with our youth a couple of Sundays ago. One of the issues we have when we talk about “church” is what we mean by that term. “Church” means a whole host of things – the building, Fall Festival, Sunday School, Bible Study, Youth Group, Choir, Vacation Bible School. It also means what we’re doing now. Except that what we’re doing right now is that part of church called “worship.” All worship is church, but not all church is worship.

Not once in the Bible does Jesus invite us to go to church. On the other hand, Jesus calls is to be his church – to be his Body of people in the world. The word “church” comes from the Greek word kyriakon, meaning “of the Lord,” as in kyriakon doma, “the Lord’s house.” It’s not a house of bricks and stone – it is the people who gather to agree in Christ’s name.

But, I heard someone say, can’t I be just as good a Christian by staying at home as by “going to church?” There’s that phrase again – “going to church” rather than “being the church.” You can’t be church by yourself. There is not a single instance in the Bible where a person encounters God and is not called into community. The primary work of the Holy Spirit is to unite God’s people into faithful community. Every depiction of heaven in the Bible is of vast community: of thousands of saints and countless angels gathered to praise God. That’s why the popular Christian song of a few years ago, I Can Only Imagine, bothers me: in the song, there’s no one in heaven except Jesus and the singer. That’s profoundly unbiblical: I expect to see apostles and prophets and saints and lovers of God, but also a whole lot of people I didn’t expect but who are there by the grace of God. I also firmly believe in the saying that all the dogs I’ve ever loved will meet me at the gates. Cats, I’m not so sure . . .

We use the word member, and we get it from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth. Corinth was a church tearing itself apart because of infighting over spiritual gifts in the congregation: prophecy, healing, ecstatic tongues, interpretation of tongues, and other miracles. There were arguments, which persist two thousand years later, about which spiritual gifts are better, and which are required for salvation. Paul’s response to these arguments is to compare the church, God’s gathered people, to a human body. Just as our bodies have different parts with different functions – eyes, ears, mouth, hands, arms, feet, legs – not to mention parts we won’t mention but which Paul calls our “less honorable parts,” so God has given different gifts in the church to make up the whole Body of Christ. Yesterday was a wonderful example of the varied and interdependent parts of the Body of Christ. Not everyone made Brunswick Stew, not everyone baked, not everyone worked as cashiers, not everyone served lunch, not everyone made or sold candles, not everyone took out trash, not everyone directed traffic in the parking lot. Which of those gifts was the most important – aside from me making two rum cakes? What if a hundred of us decided to direct traffic, or all of us decided to collect money, or the whole church tended the fires under two stew pots? On the other hand, suppose Libby and Craig Smith decided to make and keep their candles at home, or Janet Brockwell decided she could better sort children’s clothes by playing golf, or Ralph Ishler decided he could make stew by going to a football game?

Paul uses the word member to mean a body part: a hand, leg, eye, or foot. That’s the original meaning of member: an integral part of a whole body, cooperating with other parts of the body to care for the whole body, not just itself. That is why, Paul says, the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ The foot cannot say, ‘because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the Body.’ We are connected to each other, and we depend on each other. Jesus says that if the vine becomes disconnected from the vine, it dies.

We live in a culture in which membership is not the prevailing understanding of the relationship of individuals to each other. Our culture teaches us that people are not primarily homo sapiens -- wise man, or homo religiosus – religious man, but that we are homo economus – economic man. The world teaches us that all of life can be divided into vendors and consumers. We are no longer members of our communities or our nation – we are consumers, unhappy because we’re paying too much and not getting what we want. We’re not members of our schools – we are consumers who aren’t getting what we want. We don’t belong to our workplaces – and our employers don’t treat us a family – our lives are ruled by laws of supply and demand, especially the vendor’s attempt to supply the cheapest possible goods for the highest possible price, and the consumer’s attempt to achieve exactly the opposite.

This is what people bring with them to church. I only attend worship – I’ll put money in the plate for that, but since I don’t go to Sunday School, I’m not going to help with that big new wing they built. Or, I don’t think worship is very exciting, so I’ll come to Bible Study but not worship. Or, I’ll be there on Sunday morning, but I’m not going to waste a beautiful fall Saturday stirring Brunswick stew or selling Kathleen Shultz’s coconut pies. There’s nothing in it for me.

Exactly. That’s the point. I’m going to ask you to do what I asked the youth to do two weeks ago: turn to the person on one side of you and say, It’s not about you. Now, turn to the person on the other side, and say, it’s not about you, either. This is about God. It’s not about you, or about me. It’s about God. For just one hour a week, could you come and tell God you think he’s wonderful, and listen to what he might want us to do together? Just one hour out of one hundred sixty-eight in a week, could you focus on somebody other than yourself, and something other than what you want? If you do, then maybe you could stretch it to two hours, or four, or ten, or twenty-four, or seventy-two. Do you think it might be a good thing if we learned to get over ourselves? Do you think it might be a good thing if we stopped being consumers, and started being members of something and someone bigger and better and more important than ourselves? That’s what we’re supposed to be doing here, you know: getting over ourselves by putting Jesus first, others second, and ourselves a very distant third. We’re called to be interdependent members of the Body of Christ, not lonely, independent, voracious consumers.

An English priest went to the house of a man who had been separated from the church for a long time. The two of them sat down by the man’s fireplace, and talked about faith. Justifying himself, the man said, “Well, Father, I believe you can be just as good a Christian without going to church.” The priest said nothing, but after a moment, with the tip of his boot, pulled a coal away from the fire. As the red hot coal sat on the hearth, it cooled and turned black. After a few minutes the priest bent down, picked up the coal in his hand, examined it, and then threw it back in the fire. In a few minutes the coal was red hot again. There was a long silence before the wayward parishioner cleared his throat and said, “Father, I’ll see you at worship Sunday morning.”

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